Permanent pivot: Virtual tradeshows

Late on March 11 of this year, Kimberly Charters, Coordinator of Convention Exhibits for the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) and the PDAC team, closed their laptops and bid farewell to the 2021 virtual PDAC convention. COVID-19 had pushed and pulled event planners deep into the realm of digital technology beyond just front-of-house activities, to facilitating an entire virtual event. The pandemic had opened the doors for associations to reach new audiences, attract new sponsors and maintain revenue streams.  

Judy Healy, instructor at Ryerson University’s Department of Tourism and Hospitality, remains convinced that in-person tradeshows are tactile and are really about ‘trade-floor “buzz”’. However, after attending several online events, Healy was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the online tradeshows. “Much better than anticipated and enjoyable.” Making a virtual tradeshow or conference enjoyable means knowing your audience. That’s no surprise to Charters and her team, who spent the better part of a year doing an audience analysis – as well as Beckett and Watson, pioneers in hosting virtual events. 

Audience analysis 

After the 2020 PDAC Convention, Charters saw the skywriting that COVID-19 was hanging around, and if there were to be a 2021 convention it would have to be virtual. The first thing Charters and the PDAC team did when the conference was mandated as virtual was an in-depth audience analysis.  In many ways, Charters’ audience analysis was akin to product discovery. Would convention goers choose a virtual solution as meeting their needs? Would participants understand or find a virtual conference usable? As well, Charters and her team had to determine if they had the ability to host a virtual convention and would a virtual event remain true to its mission. After much study, a platform familiar to PDAC and its membership was chosen. It had the look and feel of a website or social media platform – a platform with which Charters’ audiences and PDAC staff were comfortable and one that moved seamlessly from a chat message to a virtual space. Familiarity minimized the attendees’ learning curve on the platform. 

Wayne Beckett and Chris Watson of Resolve Business Management (RBM) and developers of, a year-long print virtual conference, see two major benefits from offering a virtual event: the reach is significantly larger and more connections can be made. The social media analytics for the PDAC virtual conversion supports that point of view. Engagement with 2021 PDAC was high. Engagement, the currency of social media marketing, is the number of interactions (comments, shares and saves) your content receives from users. Engagement requires the user to do something with the content. It provides a perspective on the site. Reach and impressions are passive measures. 

Charters reports that it was exciting to see attendees “really engaged and excited with the platform.” More importantly, when the statistics were reviewed, the 2021 convention had raised non-Canadian attendance from 25% to 30%. Beckett and Watson added that is attracting many visitors to the show from countries that wouldn’t necessarily travel to larger, face-to-face tradeshows. And, while normally tradeshows attracted senior managers, the back-stage analytics captured for sponsors and exhibitors showed increasing logins from shop-floor employees who ‘piggybacked’ on organizations that purchased group event tickets. 

The PDAC’s post-convention report revealed impressive engagement figures.

Source Prospectors & Developers Association Convention

Yet, some things remained the same. Whether virtual or face-to-face, one needs time to attend a convention. Time is a fixed and scarce resource for everyone. Participants need to be aware of the privacy setting that can minimize their digital footprint. Yet, both Charters, and Beckett and Watson concur that the back-door analytics provide powerful information and are a plus for vendors and exhibitors alike who are technologically progressive.

David McGinlay, Sales Manager at Muller Martini UK, and a printing-expo exhibitor, believes that a virtual showroom is an excellent tool for keeping in contact with customers. He currently sees nothing comparable in the graphic arts industry. Strange times require innovative ways of delivering content and servicing clients. Perhaps, that’s why exhibitors at the PDAC 2021 convention and have made the leap to digital tradeshows and conventions.

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