From The Team at RCare

With the initial wave of last year’s pandemic shut-downs, the nation’s trade shows came to a screeching halt. Not only were there constraints on travel, occupancy, and social distancing, but those of us working in the senior living and aging services industries had the responsibility to be extra diligent to avoid exposure that could create risks for our clients and residents.

Our industry rose to the challenge, pivoting with lightning speed to virtual versions of trade shows. With no real blueprints to follow, organizations hosting trade shows, vendors, speakers, and attendees figured it out on the fly. They maintained surprisingly high-quality standards and found virtual ways to provide value. The results were an interesting combination of success, disappointments, creative thinking, and some surprises.

What did we love? What did we hate? Here are our top 5 takeaways from a year of virtual-only trade shows.

1. Been There, Done That. We Are Ready for the Real Deal.

People love the opportunity to get out of the office, see what’s new in the industry, reconnect with friends and colleagues, and meet new people. They love the educational sessions and exploring the exhibit halls. Not to mention, the socializing, happy hours, and other “networking” events at the end of the day.

Ashley Flann is the Director of Marketing for RCare, a manufacturer of nurse call systems and a Senior Living Foresight partner. She shared that her company is looking forward to returning to in-person shows. “We thrive on being in front of the customer, hearing their stories, and being able to have genuine conversations about their needs. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun to go to physical shows. Some of our guys probably already have their bags packed.”

Pilar Carvajal, Founder and CEO of Innovation Senior Living, agrees. “We have our planes booked and our vaccinations complete. Everyone here, myself included, is very excited about getting back to in-person conferences.”

2. Virtual Isn’t All Bad . . . A Bonus for Budgets, Enhanced Flexibility, and Targeted Interactions

There were some clear advantages to virtual shows. With no travel and lodging costs, they were much friendlier to the budget. Firms could send more people. Vendors could have a presence at more shows than usual. And shows that may have been financially or geographically out of reach became possible for attendees and vendors alike. That was an important takeaway for Steve Moran, Founder and Publisher of Senior Living Foresight. “Some smaller conferences, the kind for professional development in niche areas, may be better suited to a virtual conference going forward. Companies may not be willing or have the budget, to send people off for in-person conferences, or have their staff out of the building for a few days. So those kinds of events may grow next year.”

Virtual technology offered attendees methods to get more from the shows. You could attend more sessions, even those scheduled at the same time when recorded versions were available. Time conflicts just weren’t an issue. In live sessions, attendees could connect with one another even while the speaker was presenting. “The chatbox was crazy active,” said Moran, “with people interacting on whatever the topic was, sharing ideas and stories. You can’t do that at an in-person conference. When the speaker is talking, you have to shut up.”

3. With Virtual, An Audience Isn’t Always “Captive”

On the other hand, there were a number of challenges that made virtual shows less successful for participants. Because those attending virtually were on their devices, many tended to be multi-tasking during sessions. “Your attention is divided,” Carvajal observed, “So, you don’t do either of the things very well.” She also pointed out that many sessions, including one she delivered, were pre-recorded, to avoid the problem of connection issues during live presentations. “There was a loss of connectivity, of human-to-human connection.” 

Despite the lower costs, attendance at virtual shows tended to be lower than their in-person counterparts. With fewer visitors to the exhibit halls, frustrated vendors had to learn new ways to connect with attendees. “Overall, we didn’t get the same traffic or interactions with customers as we would at an in-person event,” said Flann. “But over time we began to understand the types of shows where we’d see a stronger performance.” With experience, she said they learned that the types of virtual booths can make a difference and that certain show formats worked better for RCare. “Several shows scheduled meetings for us, and that was a great way to make sure we were talking to customers, getting to know them, and understanding what they needed.

4. Coming Next: Virtual In-Person Shows, the “New Normal”

Tim Patchett is a Senior Account Executive with Apogee Exhibits, a tradeshow booth provider. In the past year, their company had to shift focus to virtual, whether a virtual trade show booth, 2D or 3D modeling, or some other type of virtual presence. “What we’ve learned is that even when we go back to live events, and we do see a light at the end of the tunnel, there’s going to continue to be virtual components. Our clients are using a virtual booth as a pre-show marketing tool, to promote their presence at a conference, and it won’t go away entirely, now that it exists and they’ve learned what it can do for them.“

Patchett also warns those planning to return to in-person shows that their preparations need to start earlier this year than in the past. “There were plenty of times we used to be able to pull things off last minute, but this year won’t be one of them. Shipping is a bit of a mess now in our country, and vendors that we contract with have to ramp back up, so those things will increase lead times.” He predicts a rush of events, especially in August, September, and October, and recommends that his clients start their planning a good month or two earlier than usual.

5. Survival of the Fittest: Experimenting and Adapting Are Key!

One of the biggest take-aways from the year is that this industry can rise to the occasion. It took ingenuity and fearlessness to create something new and workable. Rather than abandoning trade shows for the year, new tools have been utilized to transform the experience leading to far greater success than imagined.

“We had to treat everything as an experiment,” said Moran. “But the advantage of that approach is that you’re delighted when things go right. But you also assume not everything will go right, and that you will have to abandon some things, modify others. You have to have courage.”

“In the beginning, if you had to break into rooms, it was clunky,” said Carvajal. “People didn’t know how to unmute themselves, or couldn’t get their camera to work. But then very quickly people learned how to do that, and it became effective.”

And in the end, virtual shows did what they needed to do. “Our goal is to engage with our customers, understand the complexities of their jobs, and what things are like for the residents they care for,” said Flann. “We want to learn how we can make their jobs better. What are their pain points? How can our product assist them, and what can we do to continue to serve them better in the future? In some ways, this year helped us to become even more in tune with our clients and more effective than ever.”

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