Let’s Put on a (Virtual) Show: AVB’s Jennifer Baldwin on Staging Immersive Events

“Make everything an experience,” Baldwin advises, “so attendees feel like they are actually at the event.” Above, Tom Bennett’s Summit-closing Pool Party & Awards session.

By Alan Wolf, YSN

Last summer marked the industry’s first major foray into online trade events with BrandSource’s 2020 Virtual Convention. AVB’s Senior Leadership Team made the tough call early on in the interest of attendee safety as the pandemic continued to grip the nation, and it was up to the AVB Events team, led by Customer Experience GM Jennifer Baldwin, to make it happen.

Despite an occasional digital hiccup, members, exhibitors and the trade press lauded the web-based show, and other industry groups soon followed BrandSource online. Now, half a year later, Baldwin and her team built on that success for Summit 21, which brought myriad enhancements over the group’s digital debut.

AVB Events’ Jennifer Baldwin

What was different about Summit, and what lessons can members and Regions apply to their own virtual gatherings? YourSource magazine recently spoke with Baldwin, who gave us the skinny on staging an online event.

BrandSource’s 2020 Virtual Convention was the first major industry event to move online last year. With no prior template, how did you go about planning it?

Baldwin: In 2019 we hosted over 92 events — everything from intimate Town Hall dinners and incentive trips to region meetings, vendor and member meetings, and of course our two major trade shows, the Convention and Summit. So you can imagine our shock having all that come to a screeching halt last year.

But having been involved in so many events, you learn things don’t always go exactly as planned; you have to quickly pivot and find something else that works. We knew with it being the first of anything we needed all hands on deck, lots of research, endless testing and training sessions, and about 10 Hail Mary’s. Yes, there were some video delays and a learning curve with the virtual platform, but surprisingly our attendees adapted quickly.

In our post show surveys attendees said their overall experience was above average. Obviously, this was the first show of its kind, so they had nothing to compare it to but their own expectations. I think it was hard for people at first to envision how we would hold an expo virtually and still host region meetings and main stage events. But once they got onto the platform, they were able to see they could still benefit from attending a show in this format.

What lessons did you take away from that first pioneering event that were applied to Summit?

Baldwin: No one is an expert yet in the virtual event world, but we’d like to think we learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work in a digital format for our members. For Summit 21, our team worked closely with each of our vendor partners to help structure their virtual booths, to make sure it was easy for our members to navigate, get the information they needed, and to get access to the right people, fast.

We also had weekly tips and tricks on the platform’s features that we sent out to the membership, to help them get the most out of the show. And we not only provided training on the platform itself, but also had a Help Desk available to troubleshoot any IT issues like setting up webcams, Wi-Fi connectivity or downloading new browsers.

Lastly, we had more contingency plans in place in case things didn’t go according to plan, so that our attendees wouldn’t miss a thing. In the end the goal remains the same — to have people leave our event feeling they’ve gained something from it. Nothing replaces an in-person show, but if there is a silver lining to holding an event this way, it’s that our attendance is way up because members were able to register more of their employees, who are not normally able to break away from their stores when the show is out of state.

Summit 21 featured a full schedule of educational sessions once again. Why were there no guest speakers at the Convention?

Baldwin: When we invited members to in-person events we’d always say, “You have to take time away from your business to reinvest in your business.” That’s a lot harder to do when most members were attending the virtual show from their stores, where there are many distractions, and the customers are their No. 1 priority. Since members couldn’t commit the same amount of time online, we wanted whatever time they could devote to be focused on our vendor partners.

This time, members were used to doing more virtually, and professional speakers have figured out ways to still engage their audience and connect with them in a digital format. We had over 20 sessions at Summit, tackling such topics as how to turn your showroom around to increase sales; how to find great employees and reduce turnover; how to connect faster with consumers; how to cultivate a culture of service excellence; and how to stay resilient in these unprecedented times.

See: Summit in the Rearview

How else was Summit different from last summer’s Convention?

Baldwin: We were less timid this time around, so we offered way more sessions for members to attend. We had daily product trainings, YSN’s morning previews, a keynote speaker and Region Lounges where members could spend time and network. There were also Social Hours featuring a cooking demo, bingo, a magic show, a comedian, a dog lover’s session, a virtual campfire — something for everyone, where members could meet in smaller groups and connect over common interests.

We’re trying all new ways to make everything an experience, so that rather than just watch the show, the attendees become a part of it, and feel like they are actually at the event.

What advice do you have for BrandSource Region boards that want to make their next meeting virtual?

Baldwin: First, I would recommend they host their events Tuesday through Thursday, after 10:30 a.m. CST. Mondays and Fridays are too busy, as retailers are either catching up from or gearing up for the weekend.

Also, our most popular virtual events have been those with lots of interaction between attendees, so I would suggest conducting a live poll to start the dialogue, perhaps on something like best practices. It’s so important to figure out a way to maintain peer-to-peer collaboration.

You can also achieve this by utilizing the breakout rooms that Zoom and other platforms offer. This allows members to discuss topics in smaller groups and then reconvene later to share their conclusions and insights with all.

BrandSource, a unit of YSN publisher AVB Inc., is a nationwide buying group for independent appliance, furniture, mattress and CE dealers.