The Post-COVID Event Model: Rethinking Ways to Promote Virtual and In-Person Events

December 1, 2020

Andrew Witkin

Andrew Witkin is the founder and CEO of StickerYou, a global e-commerce leader in custom-printed, die-cut products that empower consumers and businesses to create high-quality materials for personal expression, marketing and packaging.

Unless you’ve spent the last eight or nine months under a rock, you probably know that the trade show industry has had its worst year on record. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything in recent history, including 9/11 and the 2008 economic meltdown, that has had such a devastating effect on corporate events. Just about every conference that was scheduled for April 2020 or later has either been canceled, postponed or moved to online-only. In the midst of such misfortune and devastation, how is it possible to be even remotely optimistic? 

The answer is simple: we have no other choice. Billions of dollars are spent on conferences and their associated expenses every year. It is a major driver of the economy and a critical component of the long-term economic success of cities like Las Vegas. We can’t just throw in the towel on this entire sector of the economy. What we do need to do is look at new angles and opportunities to keep trade shows relevant and top-of-mind for people who attend these events and the companies that exhibit there. And one of the key ways to do this is by providing physical reminders of the value of corporate events.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend an online conference that was scheduled in place of an in-person event that was cancelled. I sat in front of my laptop and stared at a screen that was filled with dozens of tiny faces. I felt absolutely no connection to the event or to the other participants, and after 20 minutes, all I wanted to do was throw my computer out the window. Of course, we’ve all been living virtually since last spring and have done hundreds (if not thousands) of Zoom calls. We’ve come to accept and tolerate that, but trade shows are different – they are about human connection, and that can’t be done effectively in a purely digital world.

That’s why savvy trade show organizers need to think creatively about creating physical components for their digital events. Not many people are willing to get on an airplane or enter a convention center right now, but there are still opportunities to create real human connections. This is where sending branded items to attendees — even if they are sitting at home — can provide that critical element of connection that we are all missing right now. I’m not talking about an expensive bottle of whiskey or a new iPad. While those kinds of corporate gifts have their place, it’s not an especially cost-effective way to build bridges to thousands of people at a time. Instead, think about how you use swag at physical events and adapt that approach to our current online reality. 

One of the best parts about going to a trade show is picking up the freebies at the various booths. Just because we are not all in one big ballroom right now doesn’t mean that these giveaways are any less valuable. In fact, they could be more important than ever because so many of us are missing out on the kinds of interpersonal interactions that we have come to take for granted. Now is the time to double down on memorable giveaways.

For example, trade show organizers could contact all of the exhibitors at their virtual conferences and ask them to send a box of branded items, ranging from magnets to mousepads to coffee mugs to stickers, or even masks and branded bottles of hand sanitizer. Once all of these are assembled, the organizers could create personalized “care packages” that are personally mailed to all attendees. They could also include branded items from the event itself, including t-shirts, bags and other common giveaways. Shortly before the event starts, everyone would receive a package in the mail containing all of these items.

The real engagement begins with this care package. From there, these items serve as catalysts for conversations throughout the event. Imagine a music festival with multiple acts. Organizers would send festival attendees personalized items with their favorite band, like temporary tattoos, water bottles and t-shirts. An attendee could choose to put a tattoo on his or her hand or wear the t-shirt during the virtual festival. Other attendees could see that person and start a side conversation because they’re interested in the same band. The value in physical components for virtual events is creating and extending connections and conversations in an organic, meaningful way. 

Why is this important? It all comes down to one word: connection. Humans are social creatures, and we were never built to work this way. Receiving a box of unique branded items can create that sense of belonging and community that so many of us are missing right now. It also gives event organizers a way to let exhibitors and attendees know that they are committed to hosting the best possible event, even if it’s online. More importantly, it’s a way to let the world know that they are open for business and are already planning for an amazing event in 2021 — in person this time!


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Partner Voices

As event professionals and destinations adjust, adapt and evolve in these uncharted waters, it is imperative that substantial resources be put in place for all of the people responsible for planning and executing trade shows, expositions and conventions. An example is Mohegan Sun, which built an industry-leading, COVID-19 Resource Center with a combination of pictures from recently held successful events (the property reopened on May 1, 2020) along with several widely available and informative documents, such as an evolving operational framework: