Plan Logistics, But Focus on the Human Experience

For National Wood Flooring Association President & CEO, Michael Martin, live events are the best way to meet the needs of his diverse membership.

Our fourth “Planner of Productivity” is Michael Martin, president & CEO of the National Wood Flooring Association, a trade association headquartered in St. Louis. NWFA members are part of an interconnected global supply chain that produces, sells, and installs wood flooring for commercial and residential properties. Throughout the pandemic, the NWFA meetings team experimented with virtual meetings for members and even started daily podcasts. Still, Martin knew there was no substitute for the real (live) thing for the 3-4,000 attendees of NWFA’s annual tradeshow —and to pull off a pandemic-era live event, there was no substitute for Orlando.

VO: The past year has forced planners to be more creative to capture and keep attendees’ attention. What did you do differently to reach your members this year, and what did you learn in the process?

MM: When in-person events were no longer an option, we launched a whole series of different digital events. Our first digital trade show replaced our live event on the same dates that were scheduled: A feat we pulled off in just three weeks, with more attendees than our last live event.

Based on that success, we added weekly digital offerings: Tech Tuesdays, focused on new installation technologies; Webinar Wednesdays, focused on operations; and Product Theater Thursdays, which help manufacturers roll out new products. We also launched two podcasts. We plan to keep these products because they’ve given us new ways to engage with our members.

VO: What key pivots did you make with this year’s Expo and how did those changes help you reach your diverse membership?

MM: We planned this particular Expo three times, in three different cities, before we could finally host it as a live event. We were supposed to be in Milwaukee in 2020 and Baltimore in 2021, but both cities were shut down—in fact, the Baltimore convention center was being used as an overflow hospital for COVID during our show dates. When we considered our options, we decided to partner with another flooring show—Coverings, the trade show for tile and stone already rescheduled for Orlando in July. We were able to co-locate and have both shows simultaneously, utilizing some of the same hotels and some of the same meeting space. Attendees from both Coverings and our Expo could participate in two trade shows for the price of one trip.

We turned our conference schedule completely upside down, streamlining general sessions and creating new all-industry events with Coverings. We moved from separate education and trade show hours to a combined format with education on the trade show floor. This kept more people on the floor at one time, and it allowed us to capture the traffic from Coverings and have their attendees come to our show.

We didn’t have a single complaint. This experience left us much more willing to try new things to provide attendees with an experience they will remember for years to come. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to partner with Orlando and with the other trade show to do a unique event that would never have happened in the past.

VO: How did hosting your event in Orlando help you meet your meeting/business goals?

MM: I don’t know that we could have pulled this meeting off in a different city. Orlando is such a hospitality driven city, it’s the city’s primary industry. We went from working 18 months in advance to working three. Keep in mind, when we booked Orlando for July 2021, the hotels and center were still shut down, and our planning team ended up being the only people staying in the hotel besides the National Guard (who was conducting Covid testing there) when we did our site inspection in March.

I don’t think there’s another city that could have gotten a hospitality team back together in time to produce a 13,000-person new co-located event with just three months of planning. What’s great about the Orlando team is that they can turn a meeting around on a very short timeline because they’re such a proficient meeting city.

VO: How specifically did the Visit Orlando team support you throughout the planning process, from your first site visit to post-event debriefs/activities?

MM: The NWFA team has had a great relationship with Visit Orlando for many years. The NWFA Wood Flooring Expo has been held in Orlando a number of times, and we are always looking for ways to bring our show back to Orlando when there’s an opportunity. This is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to colocate, and Visit Orlando worked well with us to very shift gears quickly to coordinate hosting both events.

This is also the first time our show has utilized the convention center, and the service was impeccable. From being welcomed by the leadership team in person to our on-site support team, without exception, the team’s approach and support were flawless. They outperformed all expectations, especially given the limitations of COVID and the unfortunate pressures it has put on service and support teams as meetings come back live.

VO: In your experience, what do you find special about Orlando as a meeting destination that you cannot find elsewhere?

It is such a pleasure to be in a city where meetings mean business; a city that recognizes the value that organizations bring to the city. Over the years, we’ve participated in a number of unique destination events in Orlando, from private buyouts of entertainment venues such as Universal Studios to outdoor events with custom-built parties. Personally, Seaworld is my favorite as it fits our group’s size perfectly. And Café Tu Tu Tango is my absolute favorite restaurant anywhere to take people who don’t know each other, because there’s nothing else like it to start conversation. From the sidewalk entertainment to the live artists, to the shared plates, it is one of the most memorable group events possible. And it goes without saying that the city is one-of-a-kind venue with opportunities at Disney and Universal to secure unique event spaces.

VO: As a veteran planner, is there anything you learned this year that has changed how you plan future events?

Coming out of COVID, we have tremendous freedom to try things we’ve never tried before, to change traditions that we wouldn’t have touched in the past. For 20 years, on the front end of meetings, I was stressed out and worried about every detail. This year, I found tremendous freedom in not knowing how things would turn out—and we learned that the reality is, we never really do. The key to a successful meeting is being able to plan and then set that plan aside, and just live through each day dealing with what happens outside the plan. Be flexible and do the best you can, and the results will never disappoint.

For a lot of years, people in the meetings industry have been questioning whether digital events would take away from live meetings or if we would be converting our content into digital formats and no one would come to meetings anymore. Now we certainly recognize how important that face-to-face interaction is. The pandemic has really cemented the value of in-person meetings for years to come.

That’s a big shift, and I think it gives us a powerful place to work from as live-event producers. People recognize that value now of being together and feel like, “I can’t just get it on the Internet. I can’t just read it in a magazine or attend a Zoom. I need to be face to face with my people.” I think what we learned through the pandemic is that people absolutely need to get together face-to-face, have live events and come together to build the things that they have in common as well as work through their differences to find new approaches.

This article has been provided by Visit Orlando.

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(National Wood Flooring Association)