How to Host a Successful Virtual Trade Show

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How to Host a Successful Virtual Trade Show

By Beth Buehler

What happens when an annual association trade show that links planners and suppliers from throughout Colorado can’t happen due to COVID-19? If you are Destination Colorado and have dedicated industry partners and a committee of meetings and events professionals from around the state, you come up with a solution and get to work!

One of the big bonuses of transforming the in-person Front Range Trade Show into a festive virtual Colorado Meetings Showcase held on Dec. 9, 2020 was having the ability to include planners from across the United States and beyond. After promoting to a large list of planner contacts and utilizing media partners to extend out-of-state reach, nearly 400 qualified planners registered to attend and 38 destinations, venues, hotels and other suppliers exhibited.

“We typically do this as an in-state only trade show that features lots of networking. Our committee rebranded it as a Colorado Meetings Showcase. Going virtual changed the outlook of the event and made it attractive to out-of-state planners interested in Colorado destinations,” says Kelly Layton, incoming executive director of Destination Colorado.

Here’s a look at the format and technology used and a list of tips regarding how to host a successful virtual trade show. Denver-based Imprint Group provided all entertainment mentioned below.

The Schedule

Pre-Event Entertainment (12:45-1pm)

An adorable DJ spinning Christmas tunes

General Session (1-1:30pm)

Kickoff by Emcee Chris Starkey, Partner at Imprint Group

Welcome by Ellen Collins, President of Destination Colorado

Speakers: Colorado Governor Jared Polis and Cathy Ritter, Director of the Colorado Tourism Office

Exhibit Hall (1:30-3pm)

Open networking and one on one appointments between planners and exhibitors

Closing Session (3-3:30pm)

Emcee Chris Starkey welcomes attendees back

Destination Colorado awards presented for Company and Individual of the Year

Mixology Experience – How to make a Colorado Cold-Fashioned cocktail by Kenny Moten

Prize drawing for overnight stay packages; planners who attended all their scheduled appointments were eligible

Kathy Reak, past-president of Destination Colorado, recognizes Destination Colorado Executive Director Janie McCullough, who is retiring at the end of 2020

Emcee makes a final toast to all attendees

Throughout The Event:

Care for Colorado Networking Lounge, stock full of videos from the Colorado Tourism Office

Colorado Tourism Office Director Cather Ritter and Governor Jared Polis were featured speakers.
Nicole Marsh, partner at Imprint Group, and Kenny Moten during a mixology experience at the Colorado Meetings Showcase.
Emcee Chris Starkey concludes the Colorado Meetings Showcase with a toast.

Technology & Format

When strategizing about how to host a successful virtual trade show, Destination Colorado teamed up with Denver-based Image Audiovisuals and utilized the company’s virtual event platform. “The platform drove our format. It was a nice mix of entertainment, information, networking and coming back together at the end for awards, prizes and a toast,” Layton explains. “They have done several successful events on their platform so that was attractive.

The virtual trade show was divided into four main spaces: a lobby, exhibit hall, main stage, and the Colorado Tourism Office’s Care for Colorado networking lounge.

Typically Destination Colorado holds an annual meeting immediately before the Front Range Trade show. The decision was made to not incorporate the annual meeting this year, except for announcing two awards presented each December. Aspen Chamber Resort Association was named Company of the Year, and Justin Clark was recognized as Individual of the Year. Aspen hosted Destination Colorado’s 2020 Customer Appreciation Event in October, and Clark is a Destination Colorado board member, chair of the Colorado Meetings Showcase committee, and director of sales for Visit Aurora.

Justin Clark was presented the 2020 Destination Colorado Individual of the Year award.
Sarah Reynolds Lasser accepted the 2020 Destination Colorado Company of the Year award on behalf of Aspen Chamber Resort Association.

Trade Show Event Observations & Highlights

“The cool part about the Colorado Meetings Showcase was there were so many one-on-one appointments, kind of like speed dating. Exhibitors had meetings every 5 minutes and planners every 15 minutes, so they could network by visiting booths and the Care for Colorado Lounge,” says Destination Colorado Manager Stacy Daeffler, noting about half the planners in attendance set up appointments. “The big thing we learned—and the primary feedback—is that people wanted more time to meet. The 1½ hours for the exhibit hall was not enough time.”

It also would have been helpful to have more exhibitors, Layton says, as there was an abundance of planners who attended. The normal number for the Front Range Trade Show is around 70 exhibitors. “However, it’s not a bad problem to have! Several of our exhibitors have been in touch and said they’ve never had so many RFPs from a trade show. We weren’t expecting so many RFPs with the current COVID climate. However, the invitation list was carefully developed, so all planners were qualified.”

A post-survey to collect feedback was sent to participating planners and suppliers. “The support from Briana [Image AV] was so helpful and the consistent communications from Stacy [Destination Colorado] made the experience of trying something new very positive. I had quality appointments, lots of great follow up and felt it was one of the most successful trade shows I’ve attended,” shared Meredith Maaske, director of sales for The Gant in Aspen.

“I love this event every year and appreciated the opportunity to participate this year, even if it was virtually. It was well organized and easy to navigate with great exhibitors!” added Sheila Tuitele, director of regional sales – Utah and Colorado for Prestige, a global meeting source headquartered in Minnesota.

Tips for Success

Based on their experiences with the Colorado Meetings Showcase, Layton and Daeffler offered several tips about how to host a successful virtual trade show.

Utilize an audiovisual company, making sure to select the right partner.

Timing is a big consideration, such as when exhibitors have access to the platform and when planners are allowed in. Consider well in advance how the whole “puzzle” fits together. We found out people wanted appointments to be longer.

Offer a series of training sessions for exhibitors with the A/V company so everyone can ask questions and be walked through the process. Some exhibitors needed more guidance than others with the technology and building their booths.

Consider reasons why exhibitors and planner might want to participate and promote accordingly. For example, exhibitors were looking for something affordable, so Destination Colorado priced it well (less than for the usual in-person show).

Listen to exhibitors’ comments about other virtual trade shows, including the positives and negatives.

Also tune into planners’ willingness to attend. “There was big interest, people are ready for meetings to come back,” Daeffler says. “We had to tell one of our partners to not do some of their last e-blasts. That’s never happened before, having too many planners interested.”

As Governor Polis mentioned, Colorado is a state that offers an abundance of wide-open spaces, beautiful venues, and year-round activities making it a “premiere meeting destination.” The state is working hard to restore one of Colorado’s signature industries, which is being “one of the best places to visit and meet” in person, he noted.

Amen to that! Don’t miss watching the video of the Colorado Meetings Showcase to see how to host a successful virtual trade show that aims to help make just that happen, meeting in person.

Beth Buehler has been editor of Colorado Meetings + Events magazine for 16 years and helped launch Mountain Meetings magazine in 2013. She has planned numerous meetings and events and enjoys exploring Colorado.