We recently had the pleasure to interview Terry Bemis, Global Account Executive for Conference Direct, a full-service global meetings solution company. The past year has been a bit interesting for Terry as the onset of the pandemic caused many events to cancel, postpone, and/or move online or to a hybrid model. Terry has worked within the outdoor industry for many years, representing organizations such as the Outdoor Industry Association, Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, the Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals (SORP), The Mann Group, River Management Society, and many more.
We asked Terry if he could share some insight into how the trade show and meeting industry has had to evolve and pivot this year to help their partners, many of whom had locations booked and events planned only to have them canceled at the last minute. Below, Terry shares insights gleaned from the past year and forecasts from his recent annual meeting with Conference Direct.
DC: We all hope that 2021 will slowly get us back to a more normal existence, with some in-person meetings scattered amongst virtual ones. What are you seeing from the associations and corporations you work with and how they are planning in 2021?
TB: You are going to see associations and societies bounce back quicker than corporations, mostly because they need to have a conference to hit financial goals and retain memberships. These folks are doers; they’re used to problem solving and juggling a lot at once. For them, it’s hard not to be in planning mode, because that’s what they do – so I believe we’ll see them starting to plan more events in 2021 – whether in-person or a hybrid version.
Corporations, on the other hand, have the luxury to stop doing events and can either furlough or lay off their workforce until things pick back up. Another piece of this is that corporations are sitting in a pretty good spot at this time; the stock market hasn’t taken a major hit, they’re closing offices and asking more employees to work from home, and they’re saving money with less business travel and events in general. Corporate travel will pick up in 2021, but corporations will remain prudent – if there is a risk of their employees contracting COVID-19 at an event or during business travel, then their legal department is going to encourage them to stay virtual.
DC: I’m pretty sure everyone has Zoom fatigue at this point, but we also know that the show must go on – businesses still need to be having sales meetings, exhibiting new products to clients, and more. What methods are you seeing that are successful and/or what suggestions do you have for those hoping to take a different approach to the virtual meeting?
TB: There are quite a few virtual software platforms that are doing a great job at delivering online trade show appointments for service-based and technology products, but for things like outdoor gear and clothing it is so much harder – with those brands and buyers, it is definitely much more of a “touch and feel” experience. If vendors have a good reputation and can embrace new technology, then they can do a virtual showing and add something special to stand out, like send micro-samples in a fun care package to buyers in the days leading up to the show or send cocktail mix and snacks to enjoy during the presentation to build a sense of community.
Trade shows like Grassroots Connect are set up really well to do a successful virtual trade show in 2021 since they have always been appointment-based and they limit the number of vendors and buyers that can attend. Meanwhile, your traditional trade show is having to retrain their marketplace mindset and then provide the cost-benefit analysis for the buy-in. It’s basically extra work that requires a mini-campaign to get vendors and attendees to attend before they even get to the planning of the main event. We might see 10,000 person conventions and trade shows ending up breaking into 2-4 regionalized events so that it’s easier for attendees to travel.
All in all, I think that 2021 will be a difficult year for new brands or products to get the momentum and quality exposure they would get from an actual trade show. Mostly, 2021 will continue to be block and tackle, comfort food retail until the fundamentals return – people tend to stay with what they know in uncertain environments. If you’re already connected to retailers and have a solid base, you’ve got a better chance at surviving through the next year until we can be in-person again.
DC: Can you expand a bit on what we may see as these shows evolve into new platforms – either breaking up into smaller shows, going hybrid, or trying some other new technique?
TB: Large trade shows and conventions were originally built for the convenience and profitability of the host organization. In 2021, we may see a shift in the other direction: more of a roadshow approach, like 360 Adventure Collective and Western Winter Sports Representatives Association, that is attendee friendly for travel and time and is smaller overall. Hybrid meetings (a combination of face-to-face and virtual registrations), as great as they sound, are labor-intensive to plan and host. They require extra staffing or out-sourcing; the AV budget can triple because attendees will want a “TV Talk Show” experience with a master of ceremonies who is entertaining, quality lighting, quality sound, two ferns, a couch, and multiple camera angles that look good on a 5” x 2” inch screen too instead of the standard Zoom or Google Meets platform. Do you go to a studio and pre-record the keynotes? Do your speakers need TV coaching? Most production companies are in labor unions so there are small print minimums that drive the costs up.
Maybe planners should consider allowing extra coffee break time for catching up and networking – we are human BEings, not human DOings, after all
DC: Not to mention, in our experience with virtual events – you’ve got to have a backup for attendees who are having WIFI issues so they can still access content if they can’t connect with you Live, or worse, your Internet goes out or buffers while you’re presenting. We actually hired a professional videographer to film our recent media event so that attendees could watch the presentation if there were any Internet issues or they just couldn’t fit the event into their schedule. It seemed to be well-received by those who attended. We also have noticed a lot of conferences are going this route so attendees have access to the content for 6 months or more after an event – it’s a brilliant idea!
TB: You get one chance for a hybrid grand opening, so my suggestion is if you’re going to do it, overspend and then get more efficient thereafter so that people will return for the next one. Hybrid could bring new people and organizations under your tent for a test-drive – if you host an impressive hybrid event, it could also lead to new loyal attendees and stakeholders in the future. Maybe what is needed is a shift in mindset; is this a marketing cost or an operating cost…or a blend?
It’s going to be pretty amazing when we all can gather for the first time again. Maybe planners should consider allowing extra coffee break time for catching up and networking – we are human BEings, not human DOings, after all. Honestly, there are two leadership strategies working in tandem as we look forward; what do we do for the next show? AND what is our long-term future? I don’t necessarily think they have to merge right now into one grand idea at least until 2022 – in the meantime, associations and corporations need to be nimble, flexible, and patient.
DC: Share with us how Conference Direct and someone like yourself helps businesses navigate this space. Why would a corporation or association work with you over having someone in-house do the heavy lifting?
TB: It is important to have someone like me or a meetings solution agent with a lot of hotel, Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Chamber of Commerce connections on your team to spearhead the sourcing and site selection. Experience and reputation matter more now than ever when you need flexible contract terms around attrition, force majeure, cancellation, resell, and lowest rate guarantee. I hate to say it, but we aren’t totally in the clear on this pandemic and we can expect to have a few more bumps in the road ahead. With my experience and resources, I’m able to do broader searches and send RFPs to four or five destinations instead of two to three, which ensures corporations or associations are getting the best rate (it’s going to be a buyer’s market for the next six-eight months, at least). We are there to assist those that are overworked or have such an active schedule that they don’t have time to do the research, develop RFPs, and seek out multiple estimates. This past year, we’ve been key in helping our existing clients be able to get out of their contracts and renegotiate them for later dates or postpone them indefinitely.
DC: What are your thoughts on events like Big Gear Show that are going to an open-air model? Obviously, there are a few that have done this in the past, like Sea Otter Classic and Outerbike, but even they had to cancel their events this year.
TB: One thing I love about the outdoor industry in particular versus other trade events in other fields like medical, banking, legal, etc…. is y’all have the gear, the clothes, and the adventurous spirit to pull it off. It is in your DNA. Weather obviously can also affect these events, so I would be concerned about that and would definitely recommend a detailed contingency plan. But would these events have the same capabilities as an indoor show when it comes to having a hybrid option? Does a tent lend itself to quality filming? Another factor to consider – just because the event is outside doesn’t mean people feel safe traveling to the event. What is the option for those attendees? In 2021, being outside is probably perceived as being more socially distanced and healthy for all attendees, but in practice, it is still the same enclosed environment whether you are in a tent or an exhibit hall.
DC: Terry, thank you so much for taking time to chat with us today and share your thoughts and insights. Could you share with our readers how they can reach out to you if they’re interested in learning more or getting your assistance in planning an event in the near future?
TB: The best place to contact me is at Conference Direct HERE.