When the pandemic struck, online events presented a convenient short-term solution to public health concerns. The mainstream integration of sophisticated digital features and engaging simulations, however, indicates a virtual medium is here to stay.
Industry experts cite a number of features and benefits influencing the paradigm shift, including instant connectivity with a diverse, international audience. Pre-recorded content and 24/7 virtual showrooms also provide attendees more flexibility when building schedules. For organizers, online events not only open the door to new sponsors and revenue streams, but also reduce or eliminate exorbitant convention center costs and travel expenses.
“Many companies are investing in the proper tools and technology required to deliver a successful hybrid-event approach going forward,” as evidenced by this year’s NTP-STAG Expo, said Melissa Holland, events manager at NTP-STAG and Keystone Automotive Operations, Inc.
In an exclusive one-on-one interview, Harneet Kaur, Senior Director of Marketing and Retail eCommerce at NTP-STAG and Keystone Automotive Operations, Inc., explores the rise and expansion of virtual events, discusses best practices, and offers valuable insight about the year ahead.
Q: You’re coming off a highly successful in-person Expo. How do you make sure that excitement translates online?
A: It was a successful show, but COVID-19 restrictions meant a deliberately scaled-back event. NTP-STAG upgraded its digital tools and technology in order to simulate valuable components of live events and recreate the show magic in virtual format.
Q: Talk to me about the level of planning involved in a virtual show. People think virtual and assume it’s a far easier endeavor.
A: Truly, the only thing that’s easier is you’re not getting on a plane and physically going to another location.
Everything is scaled differently for virtual presentation when compared to an in-person event. I don’t think that means less work. It actually might take more work to present yourself in a different format. There is a lot of planning, prep, and pressure to ensure all virtual event deliverables are received, loaded, and tested well before a show begins.
Consider a live event, where people are onsite a few days beforehand to transform a convention center into a proper show. But if you’re working alongside third parties tasked with getting a virtual platform off the ground, then that timeline for all finalized materials could be 10 – 21 days prior in order to leave enough room (in the schedule) to do a dry run and test all the functionality. A lot of moving pieces need to come together.
Q: In previous virtual event coverage, Melissa Holland, events manager, mentioned there has been a lot of cross-industry collaboration as it relates to strategizing, planning, and executing successful online shows. Was any outside advice helpful in making adjustments or additions to this year’s show?
A: We had our first taste of a full-blown virtual event at last year’s Big Show. At that point, we did something more “homegrown” by repurposing certain parts of ekeystone.com—the company’s B2B online ordering system—to be able to give customers a chance to browse products and brands and then go about placing orders. The downside being that structure wasn’t the smoothest of interfaces (for what a virtual show is trying to accomplish).
So, we knew if we were going to do it again, we wanted an out-of-the-box solution that could simulate the experience of a physical Expo/Big Show. Throughout the year, we kept in touch with different organizations within the industry to understand what best practices were developing, as well as the response to each of them. SEMA was one organization that shared its takeaways. We also tapped into a few events within the RV industry – the tools they were using, how that translated into success, and lessons learned.
We used that intel to create a better experience at our own events like a way for suppliers, reps, and our team to have easy access to interact with customers through various forms of communication; an interactive virtual booth for suppliers to customize; and a flexible event schedule that allowed all participants to manage their time between their daily responsibilities at work and home, while still taking part in everything our virtual show had to offer. We encouraged suppliers to upload diverse materials, from video content, installation instructions, and technical specs to sales sheets and imagery for customers to access and reference.
Q: There’s no comparison to an in-person show, but do you believe virtual shows have certain benefits that a live event can’t present and if so, what and why?
A: The physical medium provides such stimulus. There are so many subtle ways we absorb and process information through our environment and senses. I don’t know how a virtual medium could ever fully compensate for that, but there are some advantages.
Traveling can be stressful for some and expensive. That stress and cost is reduced through a virtual setting. Additionally, we can produce even more collateral and content because we’re not restricted by the limitations of a physical medium or the expense of it. Plus, we can make that information available for longer periods of time, giving our customers the flexibility to review it as their schedule allows.
For example, our customers and suppliers are dealing with a number of professional (and personal) obligations every day—across multiple time zones nonetheless. We didn’t want our presenters to feel the pressure of a live audience, which we knew could vary in attendance given timing and the virtual setting. Plus, at any given point, we wanted to have a lot of different things going on throughout the day that way attendees could pick and choose what was best for them. So, it just made sense to pre-tape all of the seminars in advance.
Q: How do you define success for a virtual event? Compare that to a live event.
A: Really simple, actually—attendance, interaction (with different components of the show, like the booths, downloading, chatting, or hitting up various sections of the show—all of which is measurable), and actual sales because, at the end of the day, we’re a buying and selling show.
Both in-person and virtual Expos exceeded company expectations. I’m amazed and pleased with our team for putting these shows together back-to-back, and doing it so well.
What’s been very rewarding is the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received from suppliers and customers that the virtual platform and everything that went into it (keynote, promotional offers, booth, new products) was intuitive, easy to navigate, and integrated well with our ordering platform.
I’m very humbled that suppliers and customers have shown great faith, support, and encouragement in our ability to host a proper show experience.
Q: What’s your opinion about the year ahead? How do you believe the RV industry is positioned for 2021?
A: In terms of trade analysis and industry pundit forecasting, there is a lot of enthusiasm and a real sense of optimism for the industry, but there is a lot of work to do in order to prepare for the future.
Instead of just being happy and high on what trade analysis and industry pundits are forecasting, we must think about what we need to do to keep these new entrants in the market, so it isn’t a short affair – that’s the challenge and the opportunity.
The technological and digital investments NTP-STAG is making today are the cornerstone of tomorrow, according to the company. Review the full event coverage and additional show details by clicking below.