As Covid-19 infections continue to mushroom, causing unprecedented border and business closings as well as event cancelations globally, virtual events are getting a more serious look than ever before.

Currently, the coronavirus is reshaping the way we do business -- if we are able to do business at all: Mandatory telecommuting is forcing virtual meetings to stay connected; canceled events are, in some cases, morphing into virtual gatherings as a way to keep a team connected; and classes and educational programs are moving online.

ATTA hosts successful virtual conference

On the heels of learning ITB, the world's largest gathering of travel trade professionals in Berlin, was canceled just days before it was to open, the Adventure Travel Trade Association moved quickly to change its planned AdventureConnect gathering there to a virtual one.

"We are saddened by the news that ITB Berlin has been canceled due to concerns around the coronavirus; however, nothing can stop the adventure community from gathering so please join us for our first-ever digital AdventureConnect," ATTA stated in an email to registered attendees.

Casey Hansiko, president of ATTA, said that the March 5 video conference had 335 participants (certainly a smaller number than the 615 registered to originally attend) but that it was great because "we were able to use the polling function so we could ask questions of all the attendees. That gave us and everyone else an immediate pulse on the opinions of the industry about the topics the panelists discussed."

Hansiko noted that because this was a virtual event, attendees could participate in the conversation in ways that might not be so easy when having a physical event.

"It was great to use the Q&A chat function so we could see the questions that the audience had in mind," said Hansiko. "I liked how the attendees used the chat feature to ask questions, provide their own feedback and expertise as well."

ATTA is no stranger to online meetings or events, though, and is well down the path to offering online educational programming to its members. It has also offered a Digital Access Pass to its event programs for the last several years. Being so familiar with operating in a virtual environment is one reason ATTA could pivot so quickly from a physical meet up to a virtual one in ways other companies might find initially challenging.

"We are a virtual organization so using online tools for virtual meetings and gatherings is also already part of our everyday," said Hansiko. "I believe this is what made it so easy for us to quickly create a virtual option.”

Grassroots planning for virtual Connect Show

That level of preparation and planning for a virtual event is also what is driving Rich Hill, executive director of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance. As he and his team are getting ready to hold the June 12-15 Connect buying show in Knoxville, Tenn., Hill is planning for both contingencies – a physical show with a virtual component, or a virtual-only event.

"We’ve set the first week of May to make any formal announcements regarding a potentially disrupted show, but we’re well-prepared," said Hill. "We’re planning for both a physical event and a virtual show centered around online meetings and line presentations with the support of digital workbooks."

Hill noted that Grassroots Outdoor Alliance is well-positioned to succeed in a virtual environment because "we’ve been on a warpath to kill the paper workbook and nearly 80 percent of our buyers are now using digital workbooks already." Adding a strong virtual component to Grassroots’ Connect event, assuming it gets held as planned, just makes good business sense, too.

Vendors have wanted to go virtual for ages and a few brands have already created virtual line presentations for buyers who miss the physical one, Hill told us. Additionally, Grassroots has been training its store owners to use Zoom, a video conferencing and webinar tool, and plans to use that for what Hill terms "live-path line showings and scheduled business meetings from a brand showroom."

Shows may become a hybrid of virtual and physical

Will we ever see a day when B2B or B2C shows enter a virtual-only world?

On the heels of having to cancel Canoecopia, Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga and co-founder of the upcoming Big Gear Show (BGS) in Salt Lake City, told me, "You simply cannot do a virtual B2C trade show. You can offer consumers drive-through options to get gear, which is what we are doing now, and you can certainly put educational components online. But it has to be such a very high quality or people will simply not be interested in watching. And achieving that level of quality is expensive and requires more than a company intern to pull it off."

As for the BGS, Bush said his team is certainly keeping an eye on things, since July is so far off. However, at this point going entirely virtual is not in the plan, he added. The outdoor show director for BGS, Kenji Haroutunian, has more than a little bit of experience with trade shows. In 2010, Haroutunian, then the show director for Outdoor Retailer, produced the Virtual Design Center, an interactive conference for designers, developers and suppliers, complete with interactive webinars and virtual tradeshow booths.

"What worked in the online platform was discovery, in the same way that webinars and whitepapers deliver online works now to facilitate education and information exchange," said Haroutunian. "Attending online ed tracks on a particular topic and taking a deep dive into aspects of the industry that are either lost or emerging at trade shows is a solid value for virtual event attendees and sponsors."

Haroutunian added that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to truly network in a virtual world. "Discovering other people to reconnect, collaborate or partner with is awkward in an online environment. Also finding competitors, potential allies, future employees, and media mavens who are relevant to your particular business angle is also difficult in a 2D or even 3D virtual environment," he said.

Hill said he agrees. "I think that there will still be the need to gather. But I’m excited to learn to do this digitally because it may just reinvent and elevate what we do when we’re having face time. It’s costly, both environmentally and economically, to produce a physical show so when we are together, let's really make it matter."

Could this pandemic crisis inspire entrepreneurial companies to develop online show tools that combine the best of LinkedIn and Zoom in an interactive and online sphere that mimics physical networking? Perhaps. More likely is that as show and event managers learn to effectively conduct business virtually in order to survive, future trade shows will morph into the best of a trade gathering with robust virtual components. 

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