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All right. So if you’re watching right now, you may have decided to hold a virtual event but you’re a little concerned because exhibits are such a big revenue generator for your organization, and the event’s success really hinges on that revenue. So, maybe you don’t know how to create the same level of engagement and interaction with a virtual expo as you would’ve with your live one. Maybe you’re concerned with the thought of selling exhibitors on signing on to your event because they don’t see the value.
So in today’s post, we’re going to be going through how to get confident about building a plan to maximize engagement and create value for attendees and exhibitors alike so you can sell easily. I’m here with Chris Gerhart, who is the president of Crescent Event Productions, an audio visual agency who have spent the last 30 years helping North America’s leading organizations increase revenue through flawlessly built live ritual and hybrid events.
This past year they have worked with the likes of Grant Cardone, and Eric Worre, and Peter Vargas, and selected independent funeral homes, and California State University system, and a whole bunch of other very large organizations to craft their virtual events.
In fact, one of those people was one of the most well-known self-help gurus in the world, who cannot be named. They have generated about 150 million in revenue for their customers, serviced over 250,000 attendees, and saved their clients on average about 50% in production costs versus their previous live events, while increasing their revenue and attendance. So Chris, welcome to the conversation.
Thank you. Thank you.
So Chris, you believe fundamentally that virtual conferences and expos can be just as successful, if not more, than their live counterparts. Why is that?
Yeah. No, absolutely. Thank you for the introduction. Yeah, absolutely. We have found through literally anecdotal evidence event after event after event, we’re seeing increased attendance. We’re seeing generally increased revenue, especially depending on the model that somebody puts into their event.
So increase attendance, increased revenue, and significant decrease in not only audio, visual, and production expenses, but also just event-related expenses, right? Venue, food, and beverage, you name it. All those things translate to an increased ROI, increased engagement, you have a larger audience, so your message is getting spread that much further. Yeah. I mean, like I said, the key point there: increased ROI, increased revenue, reduced expenses, while getting your message spread further out into the world.
Yeah. Nothing’s more important right now than really thinking about top and bottom line. So, tell us a little bit about the model that you used to build an engagement plan.
So yeah, honestly that engagement plan piece is the key to the success we’ve seen. It really comes down to identifying, what is the core focus of your event? Is it an expo? Is it a sales event? Are you more concerned with selling exhibit boosts or having butts in seats or whatever the case may be? So, identify. Our engagement plan model really starts with identifying who your core audiences. Then if you visualize almost like a mountain, a mountain top on the left with all of your core audience, your core target market, all their pain points on the left, and all the things that they would most wish to realize on the right, the entire engagement model is built around bridging the gap between those pains and those desires.
Really, that’s the core of what we do when we engage with the customer on a virtual event, is we don’t dive into, “Oh, what did you do in your live? Let’s just try and replicate it as best we can.” Oh, we don’t have customers come to us and say, “Here is what we want to do.” We really work with them from start to finish and identifying who their core target market is, how they want to engage them, what that target market ultimately wants in order to be engaged, and then how to bridge the gap between what they want and where they’re at so that they can get more butts in seats or more exhibitors signed up, or whatever their end goal is.
So, let’s imagine, for a second, that target that we have in mind is the exhibitor, because I know that’s a big, big problem or a big pain or a big concern for a lot of event organizers right now. How do I sell the idea of a virtual expo to potential exhibitors?
So, what could be some examples of pain points? They’re on the one side of the mountain, they want to get to the other side of the mountain, but there’s this big gap in between? What are some of the pain points on the one side of the mountain that those exhibitors might have?
Yeah. I mean, there’s one primary pain point and a few others that kind of delve off of that. The biggest pain point is getting engaged attendees to show up in their exhibit booth. Frankly, this exact same dilemma they faced in the live event environment, years and years of experience in the live event environment led planners to doing very strategic, although simple things like putting food in the back of an expo holler, or having an evening reception with cocktails in the expo hall, and that naturally facilitated engagement between the exhibitors and the attendees.
In the online environment, it’s not that easy. Oftentimes what we’re seeing are groups have their educational content throughout the morning, and then a gap for expo time. Well, in a virtual environment, and then maybe some educational content again in the afternoon, in a virtual environment, that gap for expo time is a virtual attendees’ lunch break and restroom time. It’s their time to run errands, whatever the case may be.
Unlike in a live environment where people have traveled in and they really have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, and that’s by the way where food is being served, so it’s a natural flow to go into that expo hall and when you’re walking past the booths, exhibitors do their job and kind of pick people out of the crowd and have conversations to hold their gauge with attendees.
It doesn’t happen naturally in a virtual environment. So when you talk about how to bridge that gap, it’s really about revamping and totally kind of eliminating the old model of, “We got to put food in the back of the expo hall.” You’re not going to put a coupon for food at the bottom of your virtual exhibit page. You have to find a way to get attendees to actually engage with the exhibitors throughout the event and not isolate it to these windows that seem so convenient to the flow of your educational content.
Ultimately, if your goal as an event coordinator is to engage, get exhibitors, to sign up, because that’s oftentimes a big revenue generating piece of the event, and you can’t make exhibit time the secondary focus of your planning process. It needs to be one of the primary focuses of your planning process. That really is the crux of the engagement plan that we helped develop, is revamping where it fits in the schedule, and then what we’re actually doing with that time in order to facilitate that engagement so that attendees do show up and the exhibitors do get the ROI that they’re seeking. Because ultimately if they realize the ROI they are seeking, the organization that’s hosting the event will realize the ROI by getting more exhibitors to sign up.
Right. So if I was to summarize what you said in terms of this model, you’ve got the pain on the one side. In this case, the pain that we’re talking about is I’m really concerned attendees are not going to show up in my booth. Another pain might be, “I don’t know how to engage with them because I’ve never engaged with somebody online before. I don’t really understand how that works.”
So on the other side of the mountain, where they’re trying to get to is, “I want a steady flow or stream of leads showing up at my booth, and I want to feel confident that I know how to engage my visitors and get them excited about me.” So, you’re saying the gap is really the role of the event planner is to figure out what is it that we can do to get them from that one side of the mountain, bridge the gap so they can get to the other side?
Yeah, absolutely. Listen, I mean, you made a great point about how to engage with them online. I think in most cases, organizations who are exhibiting at a show, they’re taking the sales team they would’ve put live in an exhibit booth who have experienced plucking people out of a crowd as they walk by and trying to engage them, it’s not the same in a virtual environment at all.
In a live environment, you have the ability to kind of eavesdrop on conversations, come and go as you please, things of that nature. In a virtual environment, it’s pretty cut and dry. If they’re in your Zoom meeting, or whatever the case may be, if they’re in your room or not. So, how you engage with the attendees as they pass through your booth is a little bit different.
Something that we do with all of our customers when they’re running a virtual expo hall is we actually run training for the exhibitors on how to facilitate that engagement in a meaningful way, and quickly. If you have an hour of exhibit time, you can’t have an hour presentation prepared because people are going to come into your booth and leave five minutes later, and other people who have been in other booths are going to come in 30 minutes later. If you don’t have somebody who is highly interested in your product, and there from the start, you’re losing very valuable opportunities with everybody who does come and go from your booth.
So, we’ll encourage our exhibitors to come up with a real quick two- to three minute spiel. Two- to three-minute spiel, followed by two to three minutes of Q&A. If you have an hour of time block, repeat that literally 12 times. It’s almost like being a docent at a museum. You’ve got a quick presentation, and then a couple of minutes for Q&A, and then you repeat it. So if somebody comes in, all they have to do is sit around for three to four minutes to get to the top of your presentation and start the process all over. Little snippets like that have definitely led to much higher engagement between exhibitors and the attendees as they pass through the booth.
Got it. So, I remember when we first started having this discussion about this particular interview that we’re doing, one of the things that you said was the biggest pain for planners and even getting to the part where they want to have a virtual expo attach their event is, one, so many don’t have that engagement plan or not, or aren’t really sure how to build the engagement plan.
The other thing was because virtual events are so new, there aren’t a lot of case studies, there isn’t a lot of data to help support planners in selling this idea upwards within their organization. So, can you touch on some ideas in terms of what you’ve done, what you’ve seen done, and what you’ve produced for some of your clients to help that engagement?
Yeah, absolutely. Honestly, we’ve tried and tested a number of different models. Frankly, all of them have worked better than doing nothing, and they run the gamut in terms of cost. So, I think that goes back to the power of just an engagement plan in general, right? It’s doing your event with no plan is an option, in terms of how to engage. You could just say, “I’m going to have a virtual expo page on my virtual event web platform,” and put attendees in the event and hope that they just kind of intermingle.
That, I would call having no plan. Having any plan is going to be better than that. We have implemented plans that run the gamut in terms of cost and technical intricacy, and you name it. I mean, a couple of examples: we’ve done things as simple as a bingo card concept, right? It could literally be a virtual bingo card, where it’s built into the web platform and people click and type and all that, or it could be a PDF download on the virtual event platform. When people fill it out, and at the end, they email it in. If they fill out the bingo card, then they get entered in for a raffle. Right? It could be very simple to track.
One thing we’ve noticed, just to kind of back up a little bit, in the virtual inventor environment, there’s no challenge in tracking the data on your attendees, right? It’s all built into the platform. So when somebody clicks into your booth, you can capture their first name, last name, email, address, all the information that exhibitor may want. That’s easy to do. What has become a little bit more challenging has been folks who, especially if groups will offer prizes or some sort of a giveaway in order to get that engagement increase, has been attendees that will just click into a booth just to get that click tracked, and then move on.
So, that’s where you back up and you start thinking through an engagement plan, as opposed to just a prize giveaway, right? An engagement plan could include the virtual bingo card concept, where the information being filled out in those squares, if you visualize a bingo card with squares, the information is being filled in there is information that the exhibitor has said an attendee will learn by spending five minutes in their booth, right? So, that then to fill out that bingo card requires an attending to spend five minutes in the booth.
If they spend the five minutes in the booth and the exhibitor doesn’t make headway, I mean, that’s on the exhibitor or it’s just not a good fit between the exhibitor and attendee, whatever the case may be. But if you can facilitate that five-minute conversation as an event planner, you’ve definitely done your job in providing the exhibitor the opportunity.
So again, bingo card: very cheap, easy to very inexpensive, easy to implement model. We’ve done things including virtual happy hours, where it might be actually sponsored by an organization. Throughout the happy hour, attendees are pushed into Breakout rooms, right within Zoom, for example. In those Breakout rooms are sales reps from the sponsoring organization so that the attendees get a couple minutes. But they want to come back to the session between break. They don’t just bail when the Breakout start, because they want to actually come back and see the next piece of the virtual happy hour, the content that’s being delivered.
A third example is actually we’ve done a live concert, where between music sets the musician would play two to three songs, maybe one or two songs, and then we’d push attendees into Breakouts with different exhibitors and give them some time for engagement.
Again, those kind of run the gamut from virtually free to put together, like a bingo card, all the way up to having to pay musician and have a separate set for them to cut back and forth.
Another piece, and I mentioned this kind of at the top of the call, is reviewing your schedule a little bit. I think oftentimes when you think to live events, planners would do educational time, expo time, educational time, and it would all be separated. The more you can co-mingle exhibitor time with educational content that the attendees need to or want to engage with, the more engagement you’re going to create for your exhibitors.
So when we’ve done the virtual happy hour concept, we actually had it be an educational session that would occasionally cut to a mixologist who was actually mixing a drink and teaching the attendees how to mix that same drink if they wanted to partake, and then it would kick to time with the exhibitors. So because there was education mixed in there, when we kicked to the time with the exhibitors, which is oftentimes when people who don’t want to be “sold to” by an exhibitor, would might bail on the Breakout room, they stuck around because they wanted to get back to the educational content that followed. Same thing with the concert.
So, it is an all-encompassing engagement plan. It’s not just a, “Well, what price should we offer an exchange for people coming to the booth?” It really is all encompassing to your event plan. But if it’s the core of how you’re funding your organization, or as key component of how you’re funding organization, then it needs to be thought through in that regard, and not just as simple as we’re going to slap some logos and zoom links on a page and hope that people show up.
Yeah, yeah. So, those are all fantastic ideas. So if you had to recap, and just if people watching this walked away with one or two or three key lessons from today’s interview, what would they be?
I mean, I would say that the model works. The virtual event model absolutely works. We have case study example after case study example of the model working. We’re seeing increased attendance, we’re seeing increased engagement, we’re seeing reduced expenses, and all of that leads to a more profitable model for virtual events than their live counterparts.
So no question, I’d say that the key takeaway is that the model’s working, and that the model works even without a really well-thought out engagement plan between whomever you’re trying to engage, right? Again, purpose of this conversation is to talk about exhibitors, but even if it’s just to attendees, to the main event host, the model works even without a really thought through engagement plan. But without putting a tremendous amount of effort into an engagement plan, the model works tenfold better.
So, I’d say that the top two takeaways are go forward with your event. Go forward. It makes sense. Right now, the market is absolutely supporting it. Who knows what the future holds in terms of live events returning, and when they’ll return, and how they’ll return, and the hybrid events and everything else. But right now, the model is working quite well, but it works tenfold better if you have a thought-out engagement plan and really can identify your core key target demographic, what are their pains, what are their desires, and how can you bridge that gap?
Got it. So if somebody watching right now, if you’re watching and you’re really interested in, “Okay, I want to put together an engagement plan,” how can they get ahold of you? How can they get this information from you?
For sure. Yeah. Well, we’re offering free consult calls on how to bridge this gap. It’s kind of considered a gap analysis consult call where we’re really looking to identify, again, what your target demographic? What is it that they’re seeking? What are their pain points? How can we bridge that gap between? The goal of these calls is we come up with three key items, key factors of your organization’s engagement plan that can be implemented relatively easily, relatively inexpensively, but that can help to facilitate the engagement between your core key demographic and their audience.