Last week we exhibited at and attended our first virtual trade show. Given the impossibility of a face-to-face event, we felt that it was worthwhile. Spoiler alert: We would recommend them to both clients and vendors. Especially as attendees become comfortable with the format, they should be an acceptable stand-in until we can all be together again.
This year’s Healthcare Marketing & Physician Strategies Virtual Summit by the Forum for Healthcare Strategists, was originally scheduled for April in Las Vegas. Obviously, everyone would have much preferred to have met in-person at a fantastic hotel casino. But given the challenges, it seems like a virtual trade show is better than no trade show.
First off, remember that with a virtual conference, the format alone provides significant cost and time savings. No airfare, shuttles, car rentals, hotels, meals, drinks, etc. No new dress clothes, comfy shoes, or dry cleaning. The time commitment is significantly less. For example, I was able to both do my day job and be available to help organize our garage sale. My wife greatly appreciated that. 😉 For exhibitors, we also saved on printing and booth shipping and handling costs. All told, we spent less than a third of our expected budget.
Virtual Trade Show Platform
The organizers were at a serious disadvantage, being the first of the major healthcare marketing shows for the year. They made the call to move to conference online and chose a vendor platform to host it. To their credit, they understood a primary barrier for participation would be user experience. They selected a platform that pretty much replicates a physical show space and familiar terminology. Primary navigation included links to a lobby, sessions, keynote, exhibit halls with booths, lounges, etc. Everyone I “chatted” with found the metaphor to be very intuitive.
Also, the technology also seemed pretty solid. I saw no major bugs or service disruptions throughout the event. Of course, when things work, they are not noticed. Still, this is easier said than done. For example, Zoom had a major outage this week. No one is 100% immune to problems.
Importantly, the educational content was still great. They chose to record the content to avoid potential technical issues. I think this was the right decision, especially for the first show out of the gate. The added benefit is they will be available for 90 days into the future for attendees.
To some degree, I think it meant the content was even more polished than usual. Also, some sessions had live chats throughout the playback, hosted by the presenters. Most had live Q&A after the recordings. Attendees did get to interact with the presenters, sometimes more than they would have been able to do normally.
I think this is the toughest part to replicate from a live show. It is just not the same as in-person. While we were technically able to “chat” with anyone at any time, the etiquette of that felt inappropriate. So, while the metaphor held up– for example seeing someone from across the room and going over to speak with them, it didn’t feel right. For the most part did not instigate chats with anyone that did not “enter” our virtual booth. The organic ability to interact wasn’t there. There was no overhearing a conversation at the buffet and contributing. There was no standing in line, seeing a badge, and string up a conversation.
In the end, we probably had somewhere between a third and half of the total conversations we typically have. And the conversations were not very deep. That is the biggest problem. The typing simply precludes casualness.
Maybe the virtual equivalent of this will feel comfortable in the future, but that was not the case last week. And that was tough. We value these shows to help us understand our clients– their thoughts and feelings. Their challenges. We meet their other vendors and brainstorm how we can work together to benefit common clients. All of this is MUCH tougher online.
We will definitely continue to participate in virtual trade shows. We look forward to progress in the format, capabilities, and familiarity with the format. By the way, if you are looking for quality recorded (and live) content, be sure to check out our guest webinars. We showcase thought leaders addressing common healthcare marketing pain points on a monthly basis.