Virtual Events – an Essential Trade Show Organizer Tactic in a COVID-19 World

Virtual Events – an Essential Trade Show Organizer Tactic in a COVID-19 World

In the latest CEIR blog, CEIR VP of Research, Nancy Drapeau, PRC shares why virtual events are an essential trade show tactic in today’s world. Stay tuned for an important CEIR webinar discussing key findings from the latest research study!

By: Nancy Drapeau, PRC, VP of Research, CEIR

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

COVID-19 has propelled innovations in many industries, the B2B exhibition industry is no exception. Globally, we have witnessed an explosion of virtual events happening in our space, as documented in the 2021 CEIR Global Virtual Event Study Part One. The trigger has been COVID-19. While COVID-19 remains a factor, and it is likely to be one in 2021, it is essential for B2B exhibitions to jump in and engage with their communities via these types of events.

CEIR’s January 2021 COVID-19 Impact and Recovery Survey with US B2B Exhibition Organizer Survey documents that the pivot to virtual events among those forced to cancel is almost universal, with 88% of organizers that were forced to cancel 2021 events offering one or more virtual events in their stead. And among those that have postponed their events to another time in 2021 or later, 71% are hedging their bets by using a hybrid model, either giving attendees the choice to participate in-person or virtually or building a virtual event back-up plan. These actions are wise given today’s dynamic, fast-changing business environment.

What’s in a Virtual Event? What Makes Sense As Is and What Needs to Evolve?

CEIR Global Virtual Event Study Part One details the most popular elements of virtual events offered by organizations that traditionally run or manage in-person trade shows. Interested readers are encouraged to download the report to see current results on the full array of offerings of events and how they are performing to-date.

What I want to consider in this blog: Which offerings typically included in a virtual event today makes sense for the two-dimensional medium of the Internet and which do not? Which are apt to really resonate, and endure long-term and which aspects might whither off the vine because they are force-fitting engagement opportunities best done in-person? Remember that today’s virtual events might evolve to something quite different over time as organizers adjust content to what resonates and works best. There is no better time to start and experiment than now, as most in-person events remain paused. Let me offer my opinions below based on CEIR’s research findings. This discussion is not exhaustive. I will focus on a few key points.

Education, Education, Education!

Many organizers believe this is the primary driver of attendance to a virtual event. It makes sense to provide communities with the education they need to help advance their careers and provide competitive advantage for their organizations. Moreover, education sessions are great sponsorship opportunities for brand marketers looking to maximize brand awareness and thought leadership. This is a major sweet spot for virtual events. And perhaps might last long after in-person events restart.


Unstructured: The chat function is a powerful vehicle. Let participants (yes, attendees, exhibitors, speakers, whatever!) engage with each other as they see fit. It is the most popular option for facilitating engagement in today’s virtual events.

Structured: Replicating some types of networking that might otherwise happen at an in-person event may be harder to do.  Be realistic. People have only so much time or patience to engage online. Zoom fatigue is real. Make the structured networking opportunities compelling, valuable – perhaps peer-to-peer engagement, a facilitated discussion on a topic or issue of importance to professionals. Limit group size and have a video component so participants are talking amongst each other. Make sure peers are comfortable talking with each other in a video setting.  Use games to facilitate interactivity.

Brand Marketer/Exhibitor Opportunity Considerations

Though many virtual events include‘virtual exhibit booths’ for the two-dimensional space, does this really make sense? A marketplace, an Amazon-store-like experience makes more sense, though only 25% are using a marketplace landing page at this time, according to the CEIR study. Make sure that exhibitor product directories are searchable so interested participants can quickly drilldown to identify products or services that align with their needs. Tie-in brand marketer opportunities to enhance their product listings to maximize click-throughs. Offer pre-event marketing/advertising opportunities that support the end goals for participating in an event.  

During an education session at #ExpoExpo2020, presenter Dana Freker Doody, @expodana, cautioned organizers that virtual event participants are not necessarily willing to engage in a video conference with people they do not know. Texting is the method of communication where more interactivity might happen. CEIR’s study again points to popularity of the chat function for maximum engagement. So, is it wise to have ‘exhibitors’ waiting expectantly for video meet-ups with people they do not know given this observation by Dana? Exhibitors need to work it, do pre-event marketing, coordinate those meetups with sales team efforts happening prior to an event to enjoy higher outcomes. This is true for in-person shows too. Though in the virtual space, it may be a more urgent consideration.

Which takes me to my last point, setting exhibitor or brand marketer expectations to what a virtual event can deliver. Sales lead generation is definitely possible, though the nature of the engagement will be different. It is apt to accommodate sales lead capture of new prospects, capturing their contact info, though engagement with them is likely something to happen post-event. It also offers the chance to nurture leads of those with whom an exhibiting company has had prior contact. Perhaps such leads might be more willing to engage face-to-face in a video conference than someone who is completely new.  

Let Data Guide the Evolution of a Virtual Event

The power of virtual events is that every action can be quantified, tracked. It should be used dynamically by organizers and brand marketers to understand and refine approaches moving forward. Organizers can enhance content that is working and abandon content that is not. Exhibitors can assess which engagement approaches are working and which are not – e.g., chat vs. video meet-ups, what content triggers action, etc.

Time to Experiment is Now – Challenge/Opportunity

CEIR Global Virtual Event Study Part One documents gross revenues for the largest share of events falls below $250,000 USD; though it also documents that many achieve net profit, when calculating out-of-pocket costs to these gross revenues. It signals that these events offer a long-term opportunity to generate ancillary revenues for organizations that run or manage B2B exhibitions. The challenge will be to assure that what is offered is aligned with the revenue opportunity it presents.

There is no one right formula for these types of events. Experimentation will continue. The most agile and fearless perhaps will do best. Once in-person events happen again, and they will, the companion virtual events will inevitably require adjustments again. In today’s omnichannel marketing world, don’t expect virtual events to disappear. Expect synergies between the two mediums to grow.

CEIR will continue to monitor shifts in virtual event activity this year, so keep a watch.

In the meantime, I hope you join me and Matthew Donegan Ryan, US General Manager, Swapcard at Evolve 2.0 on February 25, where we will continue to discuss key findings and implications from this latest research.  Matthew will share his observations based on what has worked for their virtual event clients to-date. You want to hear what he has to say to help apply fast-changing best practices in this arena.

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