Conferences Meet Instant Gratification

I talk to strangers.

Maybe it has something to do with having gone to high school in Times Square during the pre-Giuliani era, where strangers would get in your face and start yakking at you whether you liked it or not. It turned me into an “accidental extrovert” and gave me the skills to survive daily unwanted encounters with various hustlers and nut-jobs.

These skills have also served me well in times when work has called upon me to staff exhibit booths at conferences. I’ll chat anyone up, unless they’re clearly psychotic. That happens. There have been certain conferences where my colleagues and I had to develop coded physical gestures so we could rescue one another from such conversations. A scratch of the chin and a colleague would magically appear to pull me away for an “urgent and important meeting”.

That said, the kinds of surreptitious conversations which can happen at live conferences become even more meaningful and valuable as time goes by. The world of commerce is rapidly devolving to the point where the “chat bot” has become the lowest-common-denominator form of communication. Friendly customer support rep “Kenny” or “Whitney” magically appears in a chat window in the lower right corner of nearly every site you visit, asking how they can help. It’s the modern day equivalent of “Clippy” — that persistent cartoony nuisance who constantly showed up, uninvited, in Microsoft Word to disrupt our work. What kind of “help” would Clippy offer us today, if it were resurface in the era of shelter-in-place work-from-home?

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In our world of diminishing human interaction, which can be especially difficult for us extroverts, let us consider how virtual events and conferences can be shaped in order to meet the wants of people like myself who thrive in face-to-face interactions. Here is a hypothetical case study involving an extroverted persona named “Claudia”.


Claudia is a payroll administrator at a baby food company. She has reached a breaking point at her job because the company’s payroll platform has become broken beyond reproach. Employees aren’t getting paid on time so they are becoming angrier by the minute. As a result, productivity has slowed to the point that strained mushy peas and carrots have completely disappeared from store shelves. The babies are pissed — their union, the “Diaper League Local 802 AFL-CIO” has declared a general strike. Claudia is in desperate need of a new payroll platform and must find a solution. Fast.

Luckily for her, the “National Association of Human Resources Humans” is having its annual conference. Because of COVID-19 its gone virtual so she’ll get a chance to learn about the latest and greatest in payroll admin platforms from the comfort of her “home office” (unfinished basement).

As an extrovert, one of the things Claudia really likes about the live conference experience is the energy of the people who staff the various booths in the exhibit hall — she feeds off of that. Even so, she finds the exhibit hall itself an unwieldy animal to wrassle with. Since exhibits are often grouped together in no particularly logical fashion, she often finds herself wandering about in a search for companies that offer the type of solution she is looking for. It’s a total time-suck, wears out her legs, fries her brain, and as a result she sometimes loses consciousness at the evening networking dinners. Nodding off into a bowl of lobster bisque is not exactly the best look for a human resources professional.

A key advantage of the virtual conference is we can do away with all that. In an online format, if done the right way, we can have a virtually infinite means of search, sorting, and discovery of virtual exhibitors in a virtually unlimited variety of virtual categorizations.

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When crafting the search functionality of a virtual exhibit hall, the key principle to keep in mind is to

MAKE IT QUICK AND EASY FOR ATTENDEES TO SEARCH FOR AND FIND THE PRODUCTS AND SERVICES THEY ARE LOOKING FOR.

If Claudia is searching for “payroll administration platforms” and has to spend time weeding out exhibitors offering “performance review management platforms”, she’s going to turn in her own “performance review” at the end of the conference: “Exhibit hall sucks!”

OK, now Claudia has done her search and narrowed the exhibitors down to those that offer payroll administration platforms. There are 27 of them. She decides to have a brief read-through of the summary paragraph of each one. The first is a company is called PAY-ME-NOW TECHNOLOGIES and their summary paragraph reads:

“The mission of PAY-ME-NOW is to disrupt the thought leadership funnel by leveraging seamless distributed and scalable omnichannel dashboards which engage targeted awareness of optimized mission critical insights into big data learnings.”

Next!!!

PLEASE SPARE US THE MISSION STATEMENT.

The next search result is a company called “Personable Person Purse” (PPP) which has the following summary paragraph:

“Please your personnel with our powerful payroll platform that promptly puts pay in the pockets of your people.”

MAKE IT EASY FOR THE CUSTOMER TO UNDERSTAND WHAT IT IS YOU HAVE TO OFFER.

“Possibly the perfect platform” she thinks, and clicks through to their virtual exhibit.

Now that Claudia has found a potential vendor, and is willing to invest her time to visit their virtual booth, she comes with certain expectations based on her past experiences vising exhibits at live, physical conferences. In the live scenario she would want to:

  1. Get a high-level sense of whether the product/service is a good fit for her needs. This would normally be in the format of a stage presentation that includes a description of the value position, a demo of key features, and customer success stories. She’d be willing to invest 15–20 minutes of her time to watch the presentation, and if she’s not hooked on PPP within that timeframe she’d move on to the next exhibit. Assuming she’s taken the bait, her next step would be to:
  2. Dive deeper on the product. She would walk over to a demo pod staffed by a product expert who has in-depth knowledge of the product as well as its practical application. She could ask questions, get informed answers, and have a dialogue about her specific wants and needs based on her particular use-case scenario. If she determined the platform could be a good fit her company, her next step would be to:
  3. Talk to a sales rep to discuss pricing and deployment. Would the cost of the PPP platform fit within her budget constraints? Could she get it up and running quickly? Remember . . . the babies! They’re still out on strike! If all looked promising the sales rep would:
  4. Schedule a follow up for after the conference. Close the sale and deploy the product, fulfilling Claudia’s wants and needs. The promise of the live conference would be manifested!

With those expectations in mind, let’s think about how an exhibitor can meet Claudia’s needs in a virtual medium. An overarching reality to always keep in the front of your mind is:

IN A VIRTUAL CONFERENCE, SOMETHING “BETTER” IS JUST A CLICK OR SWIPE AWAY. HOOK AN ATTENDEE’S ATTENTION WITHIN THE FIRST 2 MINUTES OR YOU’RE SCREWED.

It’s the first day of the conference, Claudia just watched the keynote, and now she’s visiting the virtual exhibit floor. She’s done a search for payroll administration platform providers and discovered PPP — she decides to pay them a visit.

  1. Upon landing in the virtual booth, a 30-second commercial rolls. Unless it holds her attention, while communicating what the company has to offer, she bounces and moves on to the next exhibitor. Forget the 15–20 minutes of the live conference, the window of opportunity in the virtual world is waaaaaay narrower. After all it’s takes just a click or a swipe, as opposed to a 200 yard haul through a physical exhibit hall, to move on to the next “better” thing. But for now, let’s assume the best — that PPP invested in producing a kick-ass commercial. Claudia is hooked. Now she wants to:
  2. Deep-dive into the product. Remember, as an extrovert she wants to do this face-to-face with another human being — have an actual conversation, not wind up in a chat window. That will turn her off right away, her attention will be lost. Clicking on a “visit our demo pod” button, she is brought into a live video conference where a product specialist is in the midst of a demo. There’s a queue to allow attendees to, on a first-come-first-served basis, have a chance to interact with the product specialist without being interrupted by other attendees. I want to point out that this is a significant improvement in comparison to the live conference demo pod experience, where there are often several people vying for the attention of the product specialist at once. Claudia gets her turn, has an informed face-to-face conversation, and decides to take the next step. The product specialist passes her off into a virtual breakout room with:
  3. A sales rep. Via video conference they have a face-to-face 1:1 discussion about pricing and deployment. Since, in any sales scenario, body language is an important factor in building trust, they develop a rapport, agree on next steps, and ride off together into the sunset.

IN ORDER TO BUILD TRUST WITH AN EXTROVERT, A VIRTUAL CONFERENCE EXHIBITOR NEEDS TO OFFER FACE-TO-FACE INTERACTION.

So what about the wants and needs of the introvert — the flip side of the coin? That’s the topic of next week’s article. In the meantime I’m going to drag my extroverted ass down to Dolores park and have a meaningful face-mask to face-mask conversation with a total stranger and thus become that nut-job in Times Square, I guess.

Convention Exhibits: The Bizarre Bazaar

If I blindfolded and kicked you into the middle of an exhibit hall in any convention center in the world, there’s no way you’d be able to tell me what city, state, or country you were in. No matter where you are, the odoriferous off-gassing of low-grade carpeting combined with migraine-inducing lighting and a sound that can only be described as a hundred FM radios all tuned to a different station all add up to “exhibit hall”.

Just like the uniformity of the sensory experience itself, there is uniformity to the motivation of exhibitors. That motivation is money. Companies exhibit at conferences to acquire sales leads, build awareness of their brand, and (in some cases) to engage in good-old-fashioned “buy something now or I’m gonna punch you in your face”.

“Put. That. Coffee. DOWN! Coffee is for closers ONLY.” (Image credit: New Line Cinema)

Being called upon by your employer to staff a conference exhibit booth is like being entered into a reality show called “Enterprise Gone Retail”. No matter where you sit on the corporate totem pole, you’re going to be an “Apple Store Employee” for the day. If you’re lucky you’ll get to be one of the “Geniuses” behind a demo pod, otherwise you may wind up becoming one of the floor-walkers who has to answer the question “so, what does your company do?” five hundred times a days. For some of us it’s being “face-to-face with customers,” and for others it’s “having customers in your face”.

A great deal of effort, human power, money, and ability to go-with-the-flow are required to pull off a successful conference exhibit. I’ve had more than my fair share of experience working exhibits at conferences all over the world as a demo-jockey, stage presenter, and one of those stand around and answer “what do you guys do” people.

We’ve also done it ourselves at Wrecking Ball, and got to experience the entire end-to-end of what it takes to pull it off first-hand.

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Our exhibit booth at the eMerge Americas conference in the Miami Beach Convention Center

Let’s take look at the “customer journey” of the live conference exhibitor. Transforming the live exhibit into a virtual experience is one of the greatest challenges we face right now, and we need to figure it out soon because a lot of money flows in this part of the industry —not just to and from exhibitors — it’s a major funding & profit center for the conferences themselves.

Here’s a fictitious, but highly realistic hypothetical use-case of a live conference exhibitor from the days before the world went all wacky.


TV star Danny Partridge has a business selling autographed pictures of himself as well as his own line of branded merchandise. For those of you who don’t know who Danny Partridge is, he was a character in the hit TV show “The Partridge Family” about a family of kids and their mom who had a band that toured the country in a school bus. They mainly performed in cocktail lounges.

  1. Looking for ways to grow his autographed picture and branded merchandise business, Danny decides that San Diego Comic Con would be a great conference for him to have an exhibit at. Since his target audience will be there, and the attendance averages 130,000 people or so, he could make some serious bank.
  2. He gets in touch with one of the sales reps at Comic Con and she recommends a 20×30 foot exhibit space at a cost of $10,000. Seems like a pretty good chunk of real estate, so he goes for it.
  3. Once he signs the contract, the sales rep tells him he’s going to need an eye-catching exhibit booth because all the exhibitors will be competing for attention. She recommends an exhibit design company who can custom build something specific to his brand.
  4. The exhibit design company creates a Partridge Family themed exhibit complete with TV monitors that will play episodes from the show, a stage that has original props for people to look at, and a sound system to play songs from their records. The design and buildout of the booth is $25,000. Danny is now committed for a total spend $35,000 but he knows it’s going to be worth it — he’ll earn that back, and then some.
  5. The booth needs to be broken down, loaded into road cases, and shipped from the design company in Los Angeles to the convention center in San Diego. Once it gets there, it’ll have to be loaded in and re-constructed by a crew of union specialists. Labor and transport fees cost $5,000. (There may also be some bribes involved, that’s a whole other story that I’m not getting into because I don’t wanna get punched in the face.) Danny’s total spend is now $40,000. He raids his kids’ college fund — after all community college is free in LA, no?
  6. He arrives at the convention center the day before the conference opens. The exhibit hall is massive! It takes him nearly an hour to find his booth because it’s tucked waaaay in the back in what’s bound to be a low-to-no traffic area. He calls up the conference sales rep to ask her WTF but she tells him that “premium locations” are reserved for “platinum sponsors” and she’d love nothing more than to discuss how he can purchase such a sponsorship for next year’s convention. There’s nothing she can do for now, sorry.
  7. Because of the crappy location of his exhibit, he’s going to have to work harder to grab peoples’ attention. What can he possibly do at this late stage of the game? How about making use of that bandstand! He knows of a Partridge Family tribute band, they wear the costumes and all and look & sound like the real deal. He calls their manager, turns out they’re available, and they’re willing to work the duration of the 3-day show for $3,000. He decides to go for it, but before signing the contract he finds out that his cast-mates from the original TV show still perform as The Partridge Family. They charge way less than the tribute band. He hires them at a total cost of $200.
  8. Oh, but what about the SWAG! The other exhibitors are giving away some really cool stuff to draw people in. Since The Partridge Family’s music is considered “bubblegum” he calls up a corporate promo company and rush-orders 5,000 gumballs with his face printed on ’em. Cost including rush fees is another $1,200. Total spend at this point is now $41,400.
  9. He’s hired 3 people to staff the booth to handle sales, collect leads, and do traffic control. They, and he, will need hotel rooms and meals. Hotels always jack prices during big conferences so a room at the nearby Motel 6 will cost $666/night and he’s going to need to get 4 of them. For the 3 day duration of the conference, staff salaries will cost $3,000, hotel rooms $8,000, and add in around $1,200 for meals. His total cost is now $53,400.
  10. The head of the crew setting up his both walks over to tell him there’s nowhere to plug in the lighting, video screens and the amps for the band. Danny forgot to order electricity — yes, the convention center makes you pay extra for that, and you also need to pay for one of their staff electricians to come over and plug everything in for you. An electricity drop that can handle his power needs plus the electrician’s time to basically do nothing more than plug power cords into outlets amounts to another $1,500. Danny takes out a 2nd mortgage on his house as the total cost is now $54,900.
  11. One of his staff walks over to ask how they’re going to collect leads for follow-up after the conference. All the attendees have bar codes on their badges for exhibitors to scan for lead capture and they don’t have a scanner. Oh, you need to rent that too — lead capture scanner for 3 days = $1,000 = total of $55,900
  12. Wow there’s a lot of expensive gear in this booth and stuff tends to “walk away” from conference exhibits after hours. Danny hires a graveyard-shift security guard to watch over the stuff at a cost of $750. He’s now in for $56,650.
  13. Finally the show opens! There’s a mad rush of attendees and the booth is a huge success! Danny is surrounded by so many adoring fans he’s completely overwhelmed. They are thrilled to have face time with him, and he forms lasting connections that will result in loyal “customers” for life! This couldn’t happen any other way and is the key component of what makes the live conference exhibit unique. The merchandise flies off the shelf. He develops carpal tunnel from signing so many autographed pictures. Lead collection is through the roof. Even though the drummer in the band has a heroin addiction and keeps nodding out in the middle of songs, the music and the video and everything else is such a magnet that people are now lining up in the aisle to get in.
  14. It’s the second day of the show. Things are slowing down. People are mainly coming by for the giveaway gumballs — a man of gargantuan proportions grabs about 50 of them to stuff in his pockets and crams another 8 or so into his mouth.
  15. It’s last day of the show and it’s completely dead — traffic has dwindled to nearly zero. He and his staff just want to pack up and go home already, but overall it’s been a smashing success. He’s raked in $100,000 for a total profit of $43,350! Not only that, he’s got over 5,000 leads for follow up and many of those people will wind up buying even more stuff off his website. Nice!
  16. The conference is finally over. As the last stragglers of attendees exit the exhibit hall, an executive from ABC wanders by and takes note of the Partridge Family branding, videos, and music. His network owns the rights to all that so he calls up some of his goons who come over and sledgehammer the entire exhibit to the ground. Well, at least Danny won’t have to pay to have the booth shipped back up to LA and stored until the next conference, because there won’t be a next conference!
  17. Danny settles the copyright infringement lawsuit for $200,000 resulting in a net loss of $156,650. He eats candy bar lunches for the next 7 years.

Despite the fictitious nature of our “case study subject”, anyone who’s ever been involved in this side of the business knows that everything up to and including item 15 above is real. There are an infinite number of potential curveballs in the conference exhibits game.

We have, however, demonstrated through this case study that (if done the right way) live conference exhibits have the potential to drive substantial amounts of revenue, heighten consumer mindshare, build brand awareness, and grow customer loyalty. It’s a shame that the conference exhibit in its physical form is a gone, gone, goner — at least for a very long while. But, as that door closes, another opens — there is now huge, untapped potential to shift the paradigm of what a “conference exhibit” means. We have a present opportunity to evolve the model and make even more revenue flow for exhibitors and conferences alike.

How we re-imagine and re-shape this into a virtual form may be the biggest challenge the industry currently faces, and it’s IMPERATIVE to figure out if the industry is to survive. It’s an economic lifeblood, and we just can’t let it bleed out. It’s time to begin that discussion — I look forward to diving in.

The Conference is Dead! Long Live the Conference!

In olden times (4 months ago, was it?) live conferences offered great opportunities for learning, connection, discovery, and incomprehensible demoralization. Over the years I experienced all that and then some.

In 1998 I got a job that had me demonstrating video & film post-production software at trade show exhibits. The first one was an absolute whopper. The NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) conference is a week-long endurance test that takes place every April in the former home of Elvis Presley (and current home of Andrew “Dice” Clay), Las Vegas, Nevada. It draws 120,000 people from all over the globe and offers everything you can possibly imagine in a large-scale live conference experience. The expo floors are massive, the variety of session topics are vast, and the stench of bad breath gives you night sweats for days.

As a rookie demo-monkey I made every possible mistake in the book. By far the worst was getting swept up in a raging river of alcohol that flowed right over the Hoover Dam and back onto the exhibit floor the next day. Soon thereafter I had completely lost my voice (not a good look for a demo guy) and by the end of the week I’d become a shriveled raisin. This was not a conference — for me it was a fraternity hazing.

Having curtailed the after-hours hi-jinks, I spent a few more years shilling at conferences for software companies in the film & video post-production industry before becoming a “subject matter expert”. I started giving talks of my own at events all over the place — Sundance Film Festival, HOW Design Conference, Adobe MAX, and NAB to name a few — and got to share my thoughts and perspectives with my peers without having to sell anyone on anything. Best of all I got to wear one of those red “Speaker” ribbons taped to the bottom of my conference badge and strut around the place like a big shot while stuffing my face with unlimited free Doritos from the Speakers’ Lounge.

Today I’m a civilian. Even though I still give the occasional talk, I’m usually an attendee and pay for my badge just like everybody else. I invest my time and money in it because there are valuable things for me to gain at certain conferences — things I can’t get any other way.

Well, now there needs to be another way — it’s all been shot to hell for the time being. The death bell for the live conference industry as we know it has been tolled. We are in the midst of a rebirth, and in order to grow a healthy new child we need to start with a thorough examination of the past.

What story does the past have to tell, what was life really like for a live conference attendee, the Cro-Magnon if you will, in the olden days of 4 months ago? Which pieces should we pick off the bones to keep, and which should remain discarded in the La Brea Tar Pits?

Here is the typical live conference end-user experience from the perspective of Cro-Magnon:

  1. Congratulations — you’ve just made the decision to attend a live conference! Or perhaps your boss just made that decision for you. Before you hit “send” on that rant of an e-mail you’ve got going, buckle up — you’re about to get a whole lot angrier as you:
  2. Investigate your travel and hotel options. Better do it now or you could be SOL. Back in 2000 I waited too long to book for the IBC conference and wound up with a $350/night “hotel room” behind the kitchen of a rat-dump in the red-light district of Amsterdam. I never realized how the sound of bottles being smashed could be so calming.
  3. Peruse the conference agenda and sign up for sessions — do this the instant you’ve finished booking your travel. There are only so many seats in each room and the good sessions fill up fast. Make haste lest you suffer the dregs. I’ve sat in on more than a few bottom-of-the-barrel breakouts over the years that were nothing more than thinly-veiled sales pitches chock full of bogus claims.
  4. Head to the airport and the roulette-wheel that is our air travel system. Pray to whatever God it is you pray to. If you’re an atheist may you find God now. If you can’t find God then may you find 4 mg of Xanax and a bottle of tequila because you can’t pray away a seatmate on a red-eye who’s got chronic flatulence and night terrors.
  5. Hopefully you got Step 2 right. Otherwise, when you leave the airport terminal tell the cab driver to take you right past the Wynn Resort to the Circus-Circus hotel where “everyone’s an ass-clown”.
  6. “Hello and welcome to our hotel! Are you here for the conference? Well, step right this way to the check-in line where you’ll find 150 of your fellow attendees to keep you company!”
  7. Bail on the check-in line, leave your luggage at the bell stand, and head on over to the convention center to pick up your badge.
  8. Follow the “Conference Registration This Way” sign to the South Hall. Once you’ve arrived the sign says “Exhibitor Registration Only”. A friendly “conference ambassador” says walk to the North Hall for “General Registration”. You get there and see another sign reading “Press & Media Registration Only”. Another friendly “conference ambassador” directs you to the Central Hall. Get there to find that registration has closed for the day. Buy a seventeen dollar hot dog and find a place to sit on the floor. Begin to question all your life decisions.
  9. After a bad night’s sleep, wake up bright and early for the Day 1 Keynote. Executives! Celebrities! Sneak peeks at new technologies! It’s excitement and energy at it’s finest, but make sure to arrive plenty early to get a good seat. Thirty minutes should be enough, right? Well, everyone else started lining up 3 hours ago so you wind up sitting in the back and watching it on TV.
  10. Time for lunch! The conference may be providing this as part of your registration fee, in which case all you need to do is line up with 20,000 of your new best friends at the buffet line. The guy in front of you is shaving because he left his hotel room 12 hours earlier to line up for the keynote.
  11. Attend your first breakout session. The reason they’re called “breakouts” is the presenter might suck so bad you’ll want to “break out” of there as quickly as possible.
  12. Hit up the coffee and snack station and drink your fifth cup of coffee of the day.
  13. The coffee isn’t working anymore. Visit the restroom. Fall asleep on the toilet.
  14. Visit the exhibit floor. So much cool new stuff to see! Demos to watch! New toys to play with! WHY ARE MY EARS RINGING SO LOUD???? WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE TURN THE FAN OFF????
  15. Attend the opening night cocktail and networking event. It’s a great chance to make new connections! With a craft beer and jalapeño poppers in hand, introduce yourself to someone new and try to mutter your name through a mouthful of cheese and breadcrumbs. Lean down and stare awkwardly while reading the name off their badge. “Presssur tu mt yu Mrssh Umfloofoo.”
  16. Wow, it’s been a looong day. Your feet are killing you, right? But at any conference there is always after-hours fun to be had, right? Who knows where the night will lead! Just remember to keep a few dollars on hand for tipping the bailiff when the time comes. A little kindness goes a long way when he’s attaching the GPS tracking bracelet to your ankle — if it’s on too tight it’ll cut off the circulation to your foot and you’ll have a nasty limp when you go back to the courthouse for the arraignment.
  17. Repeat steps 9 thru 16 for as many days as the conference lasts, then head back to the airport. You’re finished, done, kaput. All you want at this point is to put the whole thing behind you for a while. You settle in for your red-eye flight home and the guy seated next to you was at the same conference and wants nothing more than to jabber in your ear about it the whole way back.
  18. You’ve finally made it home. Say hi to the kids, give ’em a hug, it’s a miracle they can recognize you at all. Nonetheless you try and trick them into believing the SWAG you picked up for free on the exhibit floor are actually presents you bought for them.

And there you have it, the “customer experience journey” of the live conference attendee. Whaddayathink, maybe there’s room for improvement there? Things we can learn from? Maybe take those learnings into account as we begin to mold the virtual conferences of the future?

Next up I’ll take a look at the experience from the exhibitor’s perspective, including top tips on how to find the right guy to bribe at the Javitz center so you can get your shipping cases back at the end of the show.