ECEF 2020: Attention Is the New Currency

Sue Pelletier, Senior Editor
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Shelly Palmer, CEO, The Palmer Group (left), talking with Sam Lippman of Lippman Connects during the opening keynote of ECEF 2020

What do trade show organizers need to know to transform their core businesses from in-person marketing events to online marketplaces and digital communities? According to Shelly Palmer, CEO, The Palmer Group, “Attention is the currency of the realm. Be good at that.”

Sam Lippman, President of Lippman Connects, the producer of Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum (ECEF), appeared to have taken Palmer’s advice to heart long before Palmer was tapped to provide the opening keynote session for ECEF 2020. The event was held Nov. 18 and was fully virtual for the first time in its 19-year history, powered by Gold Sponsor Freeman’s OnlineEventPro platform.

The three general sessions grabbed the attention of the 200-plus trade show executives in attendance from around the U.S. and the world and kept it, while also anchoring the event in both real-life pragmatism and new ways of thinking to kickstart creative new strategies for what trade show participants need now.

Related. Digital ECEF to Debut in November

For example, Palmer provided practical and thought-provoking ideas on how trade show executives can leverage the data they collect now and their most intangible asset, “the trust your communities have placed in your organizations.” When shows such as the Mobile World Congress and South By Southwest had to cancel their in-person events last Spring, Palmer’s organization reached out to the most influential members of its community to explore new ways to interact with The Palmer Group and each other. “The response was instant, and it was purely positive,” he said. So they created and launched an invitation-only online community of subject matter experts focused on business, tech, culture, and innovation. The network, now more than 3,000 strong, creates content, exchanges ideas, and does business with each other every day, he said. His group also started a series of 20-minute online networking salons, followed by breakouts and Q&A. “The value to participants is that it’s a daily streaming water cooler conversation…they learn a little and teach a little.”

“How many of you have started your own online communities? I’m not going to tell you it’s easy to do. You need a fair amount of tech and a solid data-driven marketing team, but all of you already have the two most important components: great brands and a loyal community of interest,” he said. Just don’t make the most common mistake of trying to recreate an in-person experience online, he added.

“If you’re going to invent the future, you need to build on the past, not live in it.”

Julie Cottineau, Founder and CEO of BrandTwist, kept the audience’s attention with examples of how companies as disparate as Walmart and Airbnb are adapting to today’s pandemic-induced consumer realities with things like focusing on selling just tops for today’s Zoom era and offering synchronous Italian cooking classes the whole family can take together in a time when traveling isn’t happening.

One attention-getting idea Cottineau posed: Think about how you can break the rules and norms to meet the needs of today’s customers. For example, Enterprise Rent-a-Car broke its sacred rule of never renting to anybody under 25 once the pandemic hit. They waived fees and helped college students all over the country get home. “What kind of rules can you break in order to twist your offering right now and not just survive, but thrive, during this time?”

One idea she floated was thinking about how to “twist” the early-bird discount concept, which isn’t working these days when potential attendees aren’t planning as far in advance. “Maybe we can reward people somehow for late registration, or for I’m-not-sure-I-can-make-it registration, or I-meant-to-sign-up-but-forgot registration.” Before you dismiss the idea out of hand, Lippman noted that there may be something to it: “Obviously, the airlines have changed their whole approach towards cancellations and rescheduling.”

UFI’s Managing Director and CEO Kai Hattendorf (left) and UFI’s Regional Manager for Asia/Pacific Mark Cochrane

The third set of keynoters, UFI’s Managing Director and CEO Kai Hattendorf, who beamed in from Europe, and UFI’s Regional Manager for Asia/Pacific, Mark Cochrane, who joined from Hong Kong, perked up the ears of the audience with a discussion of how government responses to the pandemic outside of the U.S. underpin show organizers’ ability to bring in-person exhibitions back.

Related. Recently Released UFI and Explori Joint Report Explore Whether Virtual Events Are Here to Stay

If you weren’t able to attend ECEF live, Lippman Connects is making the general session videos available free of charge to the entire industry as of Nov. 25 at www.lippmanconnects.com/resources/executive-management.

The general sessions, which were kept to under 30 minutes, were broken up with two rounds of pithy, thought-provoking breakout sessions facilitated by industry experts, as well as Brown Bag Lunch hours hosted by destinations and venues.

The popular TechDemo feature, which traditionally has been held during the closing reception, took on new life online this year as well. More than a dozen event tech products and services from leading suppliers were available for executives and technologists to test drive during the event on Nov. 18. ECEF also gave participants three guest passes their staff, technologists and consultants could use to access the TechDemos the following two days.

Another attention-getting feature was technology-enabled networking, including video self-introductions using video networking technology from Gather Voices. Speakers also could use the technology to preview their presentations, and sponsors offered product and service information. The videos then were showcased in an interactive gallery to help facilitate networking.

“We created ECEF in 2002 to support you and advance our industry. Over the past 18 years I’ve been constantly reminded of what makes our industry special and our work valuable,” said Lippman.” And the canceling of our in-person events during this pandemic has really impressed upon me these three key truths first.

  1. We need to meet in person. We love to learn and laugh together.
  2. Due to this pandemic, we have leaped into virtual events and found they increase our reach past the limits of space and time. Has our experience the last eight months made them another arrow in our quiver?
  3. Our industry has never been this creative, reinventing ourselves and our events while at the same time helping each other by sharing what we’ve learned at events like this and throughout the year.

He added, “I know we face significant headwinds the next 12 months: decreased revenue, increased costs, downsizing businesses closing, plus health and safety concerns.

“For the past few months, when asked what I think will happen next year, I’ve said I don’t know. But I am sure that people want to meet in person again and soon.”

Reach Sam Lippman at (703) 979.4904; sam@lippmanconnects.com.