Virtual SMTAI 2020 Offers a Primer for Trade Show Managers

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I really must hand it to Tanya Martin, Ryan Flaherty, and the SMTA staff for pulling off something as audacious as a virtual version of SMTA International, which took place in cyberspace on September 28–30. SMTA did it in record time.

A few months ago, SMTAI was still slated to be a live event in metro Chicago. When COVID-19 travel restrictions made a live event impossible, they stopped on a dime, switched to a virtual event, and never looked back.

As a former conference chair, I know that planning a trade show is a pain in the butt during a normal year, and this was no normal year. How would you like to be in trade show management today?

No one would have blamed SMTA if they had canceled it or even “postponed” the show until 2021. But they forged ahead with the first virtual SMTAI show.

Overall, it felt almost like a trade show, which is the best anyone could have hoped for. There was a show floor with more than 60 exhibitors who were happy to engage with visitors. The technical papers were all pre-recorded, so visitors could watch them at their leisure.

It was nice to see someone you knew and start chatting with each other. We couldn’t meet each other in person, but SMTA did a great job of making the event feel like an in-person event.

The “live” events were well attended, including the SMTA Chapter Officer’s meeting, which featured a “Virtual Road Trip” theme. In his presentation, our friend Martin Anslem outlined what he hopes to accomplish in his first term as the new president of the SMTA, followed by a Q&A session and breakout workgroup meetings.

Attendees to the after-hours mixology class learned how to make drinks—like the Manhattan—the old-school way. This great idea was a nod to the fact that so many business (and pleasure) conversations take place over drinks at a trade show. You can imagine the meeting when this idea was born: “We can’t all meet in the bar, so let’s have virtual bartenders show attendees how to make drinks the right way!” I’m curious to see if other virtual trade shows borrow this concept.

Of course, there were some hiccups along the way, which was to be expected. It was difficult to log in on the first day of the show, but SMTA quickly fixed the issue. Rather than trying to create a chat environment from scratch, SMTA did well to utilize the social media platform Discord, which allows for messaging and video chat.

For journalists, a live show offers us a snapshot of the industry at this specific point in time. We’re used to gauging the general vibe of the industry by the things we see and the comments we hear at a trade show. Which segment is down? What cool new technology is everyone talking about? Is everyone having the best quarter in years or the worst?

These questions are much tougher to answer at a virtual show. I got the feeling that many who attended were there to support SMTA while meeting with suppliers and partners. Plus, getting away from Zoom meetings for a few hours was an added bonus.

The best thing about a virtual show, from an exhibitor’s point of view, is that anyone can attend, a point I heard repeatedly. Technologists at smaller companies don’t typically get to attend a three-day show, but SMTA said that one-quarter of the attendees this year were first-timers. A virtual trade show, done correctly, can be a handy tool of democratization for this industry. I wonder how many SMTAI attendees came from other parts of the world?

This was uncharted territory for SMTA, but they made it happen. And remember: SMTA doesn’t have a huge full-time staff. They employ a handful of people, and much of the work is done by dedicated volunteers with full-time jobs. Everyone involved in putting this show together deserves a round of applause.

Having said all that, let’s hope that when SMATI 2021 comes around, we can all meet in Chicago in person and shake hands. It will be a welcome change.



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