What Exhibitors and Sponsors Want From Virtual Events in 2021

Organizers had a lot to learn in 2020 as they quickly transitioned their in-person events to the virtual space. And while sponsors supported those efforts, it could be a tougher sell this year. Here's a look at how to improve the virtual conference experience for exhibitors and sponsors.

Back in December, a group of legal vendors came together for the Virtual Value Workshop, which organizers described as “a creative mix of strategy retreat, problem-solving workshop, and innovation hackathon for legal vendors searching for ROI from the virtual events, tradeshows, and conferences they sponsor.”

As part of that workshop, participants began drafting their “manifesto,” which they shared in its final form earlier this week.

Although this was developed for the legal technology industry, it includes several ideas for how to better collaborate with sponsors and increase vendor engagement and satisfaction that also apply to associations. Here are four that I found particularly notable:

Get vendors involved during the planning stage. “Invite us to offer suggestions, give feedback, and share the lessons we’re learning (and the solutions we’re seeing) before you go your own way,” states the manifesto. One idea offered up by participants for making that happen: Pitch your most innovate ideas for 2021 and beyond to a panel of your partners and sponsors. Not only will they give you honest feedback, but they could also decide to sponsor one of your ideas on the spot.

Rethink the virtual expo hall. In an online environment, it may not make sense to have exhibitors and vendors organized in traditional tradeshow hall rows. Instead, the manifesto suggests that the hall be organized around the problems that attendees are looking to solve, or even around conference tracks. One plus side to arranging this way: Vendors might choose to be in more than one area, depending on the variety of solutions and services they offer.

Build small curated exhibit spaces. “Make attendees leave their virtual sessions through a curated, mini vendor hall where they might be exposed to solutions connected with the session they just attended,” the manifesto suggests.

Offer discounts in exchange for engagement and data. Exhibitor and sponsor satisfaction is sure to increase if they have more attendees meeting with them or if they have access to attendee data that can help them easily reach out to people who may be interested in their products and services. To accomplish both, the manifesto suggests offering discounts to attendees who visit with vendors or who are willing to provide additional data about themselves. If registration discounts aren’t something your association would consider, you could offer other benefits like prizes or access to additional content.

Ultimately, I think successful virtual events in 2021 will be those created by meeting teams that focused on this quote from the manifesto: “Instead of asking, ‘How can we do online what we’ve always done in person?’ you should ask, ‘How can we do online what we’ve never been able to do in person?’ And then answer it well.”

What new opportunities are you offering sponsors, vendors, and exhibitors at your upcoming 2021 virtual and hybrid events? Please share in the comments.

(vgajic/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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