Let’s Rethink the Virtual Exhibit Hall

Virtual meetings don’t feel the same as their in-person equivalents, especially in the exhibit hall. But that may reflect an opportunity to reshape the event experience for vendors and exhibitors entirely.

With the conversion of in-person events into virtual ones over the past year, one big challenge that event planners face is translating the expo hall experience to a virtual environment.

Matthew Homann, founder and CEO of Filament LLC, considered these issues last December with a group of vendors in a hackathon-style event, the Vendor Value Workshop, which led to a manifesto that alerted event planners and exhibitors to vendors’ concerns. In short: Attempting to replicate in-person exhibit halls leads to disengaged attendees and vendors with little ROI.

One problem? The lack of serendipity. “What we weren’t able to replicate is the reason why so many people spend time in exhibit halls—the serendipitous connections,” he says.

A way to think about this is in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological framework that can be applied to the attendee experience, as a 2016 report highlighted. In a traditional event environment, attendees are often guided directly or indirectly through a convention center as they look for basic things, such as snacks, and more nuanced offerings, such as human connection.

Along the way, attendees might run into a vendor that draws their eye and get pulled in, creating the type of engagement that leads to growth for all parties. But virtual exhibit halls can’t replicate this growth-centric serendipity easily.

“None of those things happen particularly well virtually, and yet we’ve tried to build these halls to mimic what is fundamentally the worst part of the exhibit hall for everyone—hearing about products and getting picked on about something you might not want,” Homann says.

Shifting the Value Equation

So how do we solve this? Homann suggests that the value equation needs to be recalibrated for the virtual experience: “What if instead, you start to think about what can we do virtually that we can’t possibly imagine doing in person?”

A few ways this could come to life, based on findings from the Vendor Value Workshop:

Do more with data. In real-world experiences, vendors get an opportunity for face time with likely buyers but not a lot of access to data beyond an attendee’s email address. In virtual environments, there should be more of a focus on data-sharing.

Improve discoverability. In a physical meetings environment, it’s expected that a vendor can exist in only one place. In a virtual environment, that’s not a limitation, so vendors can show up in multiple places and categories based on attendee needs. “Instead of having to wander through and sift through hundreds of vendors that may or may not solve my problem, they’re all concentrated in one quote-unquote virtual community area,” Homann says.

Bake vendors into educational events. The real secret to making virtual exhibit halls work might be to remove the distinction between educational and expo-hall events entirely. “This bifurcation of vendor hall and conference sessions—that line can be blurred dramatically in a way that is hard to do in person,” he says. Homann recommends shortening the presentations but building in “commercials” between them—something that’s happening at many virtual events already. This also creates opportunities for interactive elements such as brainstorms, fostering some of the serendipity that might have been lost in other settings.

Stage a virtual “gift shop.” Homann says one of the most innovative ideas that came up during the session was the equivalent of an “exit through the gift shop,” an element at museums or theme parks where a commercial opportunity is presented as a part of the journey. “You don’t have to wander through this entire exhibit hall, but you might find a way that it makes sense to wander through a small part of it because these are all the vendors who purport to solve the problem that you have,” he says.

Thinking Beyond Virtual Once Again

Homann suggests that when we move back toward in-person events, there may be a push to revert to traditional formats—but that in many ways, the rise of virtual events has brought the cat out of the bag, which might make selling the value of in-person events harder than it has been in the past.

“What I hope happens is that we use this opportunity, really for the first time in 50 years, to reimagine and rethink what conferences should be,” he says.

That might require a more in-depth rethinking of events—and not just in the expo hall.

“Where I think there’s a real opportunity, especially as we have this permission to reimagine what these events might look like, is to really be creative in not only how we’re delivering information, but how we’re building engagement, exploring format, trying new things,” he says.


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Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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