Plainscraft Booth 2020

A booth at the Virtual Hospitality Expo.

Editor’s note: This column was written by Art Liberman, CEO of MCPS for Campgrounds, a credit card processor. Lieberman, along with Deanne Bower are the co-producers of the upcoming 2020 Virtual Hospitality Expo. To learn more about the 2020 Virtual Hospitality Expo head to its website at www.virtualhospitalityexpo.com, email [email protected] or call (855) 666-6277. 

So far in this unusual year, as the producer of the Virtual Hospitality Expo, I took the time to attend three virtual events, two of which dealt with the hospitality industry, the other was for an unrelated business.

Because Campground Expo’s latest endeavor is the third one we have produced, the first was ten years ago, I believe our company has an edge in evaluating virtual trade shows and conferences.

Back in 2010, because the very idea of an event being run on the Internet was a mind-shattering idea, we decided to make the Expo look like a real industry live event. We tried to accomplish several goals to make both participants like sponsors, exhibitors and speakers, comfortable with the actual layout of the show itself.

As in a REAL event, we needed a place to register, actual booths where information could be gathered by attendees, a conference room and a place where people could gather and talk away from the hurly-burly of the buying, selling and educating. We knew, because of the average age of the owners of RV parks, that many of them were not computer savvy, so we had to make the entire Expo user friendly.

This meant easy access to the show itself, registration in the show, familiarity with the layout of the show by making real booths with information available from the exhibitor and communication between all attendees, exhibitors, speaks and, most importantly, between anyone and the software designers.

The first question upon landing in the software is “What do I do now?” which has to be answered by someone who is in the know. The Information booth at our shows are manned by the software people.

In sales and marketing, I once learned to “think like your customer, put yourself in their place.” We wanted our Expo to be easy to attend, simple to communicate with others and visually, no different than the live events people attended over many years. By 2010, we had attended about 40 trade shows and conferences in the outdoor hospitality industry. Perhaps, more importantly, I had produced five live shows in the video rental industry (remember those myriad video rent stores of the ‘80s), two live shows in the hobby industry and a show called INSICON – The International Singles Convention. Almost all of these were in Atlantic City, N.J.

Almost none of that applies to virtual shows. In the virtual world, you have to accomplish what is a no-brainer in a live event. People know where the show is, how to get there, how to shake hands, how to talk with others, how to listen and there is no confusion. the event is, what it is.

In the virtual world, all of the participants are “babes in the woods.” They must find out how to get into the show, how to see where everything is, how to view the conferences, the items being marketed and how to communicate with anyone.

In both our 2010 and 2011 Expos we accomplished 90% of those goals – BUT – the software was flawed each time. In 2010, I stupidly designed 10-booth aisles (Aisles A, C, C, D). I did it to reward people who signed on earlier and sponsors who were definitely in Aisle A. It worked for them. They did tons of business, however, about 50% of the attendees didn’t know how to get to the other aisles. Exhibitors in the remaining aisles never even “spoke” to half of the attendees. We discovered the problem late on the second and final day of the Expo (through the cat rooms) and fixed it – but it was almost too late. The show was a mixture of delight to disappointment, based upon where your booth was.

So in 2011, there were no aisles, but this time the software provider’s chat sessions stopped working sometimes They were sporadic and this couldn’t really be fixed. Again, there was some satisfaction from participants since 3,374 people signed in to the Expo – probably because it was FREE to attend both years.

So, when we were contacted by several state associations to try to produce a virtual show, we decide that we would definitely NOT make those mistakes but build on the lessons we had learned. We hired the most experienced designer of virtual software we could find and in April, we signed a contract for an Expo that would open in September and run until the end of 2020.

We also started looking at other events that were being touted as virtual conferences and attending them to see how they looked and for anything that might ruin the show.

We looked for: simplicity of design while having a familiar look of a real trade show; ease of registration; sessions whose information was important to ALL of the attendees; a price for either exhibiting or attending that didn’t lead people to say “I’m that spending THAT KIND of money to sit at my computer;” and how was the communication between everyone. Could sales be made easily by the people who paid for the software?

We noticed that all 3 of the virtual events we attended failed on 2 or more levels in our opinion. We did speak to attendees and exhibitors, and the best reaction we got was “it was OK”.

The two most common complaints were – “It didn’t LOOK like a trade show” and “I couldn’t ‘talk’ to the buyers (or sellers).” So, the lesson we learned in 2011 wasn’t learned by these first-timers.

This could be especially important going forward. We have no idea how long this pandemic will last. Will shows scheduled for March be held?

There are still two major shows approaching, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds’ Outdoor Hospitality Conference and Expo and Kampgrounds of America Inc.’s Virtual Conference.

There is also the redo of our Virtual Hospitality Expo which will run live next week on Tuesday (Oct. 20) and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (EST). You can register for free by going to the website at www.virtualhospitalityexpo.com.

Evaluate for yourself – did we do it right? Chat LIVE with our exhibitors. ENJOY!