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44: What Makes a Virtual Event Work? The Mind Behind Virtual PrimeTime Shares Her Secrets

Written by Rob Stott

November 17, 2020

There may be no one who knows what makes a PrimeTime show tick quite like Nationwide Marketing Group VP of Member Experience Melissa Stenson. After closing the books on the first-ever Virtual PrimeTime, she sat down with us talk about the keys to planning a successful virtual event.

Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking podcast. This is an episode that’s been a long time coming. I’m not going to call you out, Mel, even though I sound like I just did, but we’ve been waiting to talk about Virtual Primetime and get you on the podcast, but we’re finally doing it. So I’m excited to have you on. For those who don’t know, Melissa Stenson, our VP of Member Experience for Nationwide Marketing Group. Thank you for finally taking the time.

Melissa Stenson: You did call me out, but thank you very much. I’m glad to be here and happy to finally get to talk with you about the virtual show.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely. Before we get to it, I want to give you the chance for anyone. I feel like everyone knows Melissa Stenson, but for those who don’t, tell us a little bit about yourself and your role as VP of Member Experience and your path to Nationwide.

Melissa Stenson: Yeah, I stumbled onto Nationwide a long, long time ago, early in my career. I was between jobs and was taken some temp jobs from a friend of mine that owned a temp agency. And so she would send me on all the cool jobs. And she said to me one day, I have a meeting planner that needs help. And I thought to myself, what is a meeting planner? How is that someone’s job? And this was years and years ago. So the job was actually helping Nationwide with PrimeTime back in 2000. So it’s been a long time. And I worked for Sterling Events who has planned PrimeTime for many years. I worked for them for several years. Took some time off, worked for a couple of other large third-party planning companies. And then I think in 2013, ended up coming back to North Carolina and working with Sterling Events again on the Nationwide PrimeTime show. And then as of last October, it’s been just over a year, I joined Nationwide full-time

Rob Stott: I always forget, we started right around the same, I think, within almost the same week. So our anniversaries at Nationwide are basically the same. So happy just over one year as we’re talking here.

Melissa Stenson: Congratulations to you too.

Rob Stott: Thank you.

Melissa Stenson: It’s interesting. We both were working with Nationwide in some fashion before we both joined the company. So we knew what we were getting into and I was happy to join the team last year.

Rob Stott: Somehow they convinced us and we drank the juice enough to decide to let’s just dive right into the bowl. So here we are.

Melissa Stenson: It’s a really good group. I’ve worked for lots of different companies over the years, doing events and incentives and planning. And there’s something to be said about working hard for these independent retailers. It’s a level of satisfaction and they’re hard working and we want to spoil them and do everything we can to help them, so it’s a good time.

Rob Stott: Yeah. And that kind of was leaning into where I was going next. And you mentioned your career history kind of has revolved around events and event planning, and you’ve seen a lot of events, I know. You mentioned working for these independents, what is it that makes PrimeTime stand out from other events that you’ve seen? Is it the independent specifically? Is there anything else about PrimeTime that sort of stands out?

Melissa Stenson: It really is. It is the people. When we go to PrimeTime twice a year, not only our team and our members and even our vendor partners, we all get reenergized and re-excited about kind of what we’re doing. And it is a family. Every six months we get to kind of check in and see how they’re doing and see how their families are doing and see who’s put on a few pounds and who’s lost a little hair or the other way, who’s getting in shape. So it is a family.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Well talking about, it’s kind of like, it’s been every six month reunions just about, so by the time we get in person again here after this whole COVID thing, we’re going to have a lot of different looking members potentially. So we’ll see what it’s like the next time we all get together. It’ll be interesting to see the before and afters. That kind of lends itself to where we were going next. And that’s, it’s been quite the year. 2020 has been something to behold for all of us. I know all of our jobs, we’ve had to adjust on the fly. Our members have had to adjust on the fly. And you’ve kind of gotten a front seat look at it, a front row look at it as VP of Member Experience. And before we get specifically into Virtual PrimeTime, kind of taking your meeting background, with all these virtual events, what’s sort of been the big takeaway for you as to how the meeting industry has adjusted during these last eight, nine months?

Melissa Stenson: Yeah. It’s hit this industry really hard. And I have a lot of friends that are still hurting and hotel partners and there’s so many people in this business that it’s really devastating when you sit down and think about it. On the other side, it has, when we started back in March, when things started shutting down and many of our members had their stores closed, we started doing more webinars. We did specific COVID webinars and we did a furniture market live event. And seeing the engagement from our members at that time was really exciting for us because we kind of built this on, we get together twice a year and we have some regional meetings and stuff like that, but seeing how frequently we were all jumping on Zoom and getting on together and seeing that level of engagement was exciting. Virtual has definitely opened up a broader reach for us, for people that don’t have time or money to travel. So that’s a positive, the other thing that we’ve seen is, we can put something together and execute it so much faster digitally than we could with a live physical event, so that really opens lots of avenues for us as well.

Rob Stott: Yeah. I mean, we kind of saw it with Virtual PrimeTime, the level of engagement kind of reaching members that maybe typically hadn’t been able to get to a show or in some cases maybe never been to a show engage with the platform. So I know you talked about the potential to expand the reach, that that is certainly top of mind. Again, specifically thinking about virtual events, the in-person contact, face-to-face contact is something that can’t be overstated. Aside from trying to overcome that challenge, what have been some of the bigger challenges with virtual events, again, more generally speaking as they’ve tried to adjust to this new sort of way of meeting.

Melissa Stenson: Yeah. One of our biggest challenges has been just keeping people’s attention. So when you have someone travel with you to Las Vegas, you kind of have them captured there and they really don’t have anything else to do. So you get them up and feed them breakfast and you take them on this journey all day long and try to keep them in the lobby bar at night and see how long you can keep them. When they are in the middle of their daily lives and working in their stores and have all of the other just distractions that life and work bring to you, it’s a lot harder to get their full engagement. So that’s been probably the hardest thing to plan for. We did our virtual event, we’ve had a couple of, PrimeTime kind of stretched out because when we realized we were not going to be able to have PrimeTime in August and Vegas, we pushed it to October.

And as soon as we pushed it to October, we said that our members need this time to purchase. And inventory was a challenge. So we wanted to make sure we still had that. So in August, we had our early access program, which was mostly just buying, where members could come and get deals and specials and cashback to solve that problem. And then the wrap-up was the full PrimeTime event in October, which ended up going all virtual as well. And there, we were able to do more deals and specials and cashback, but also our education and also some networking, so it was more of a full blown virtual convention than anything we had tried in the past. So it was a bigger undertaking, but I think that we planned for three days for the virtual event.

And it’s hard to say even now, we still have our content on demand so members can go back in at their leisure to see things that they missed, and they are taking advantage of that. But with everyone in their daily lives, it’s hard to say, what is the right timeframe for a virtual event, like across time zones when you make this information available. So I think some of the things we’re looking at going forward is, should it be smaller chunks or more bite-size and definitely on demand because that helps everyone with their schedules, but it would be interesting to see what 2021 brings in all of these virtual events.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you’re starting to dive into it a little bit with, at the outset of this, there’s so many different factors you kind of have to navigate and consider as you’re planning a full-blown virtual event as opposed to some of the other types of virtual events that Nationwide has held over the past couple of months. So, as you’re considering what a Virtual PrimeTime looks like, and as you were going into planning, was there one thing you were trying to accomplish, or how do you even kind of gauge what you want to accomplish when you go into planning such a different event that has never, it’s a historical event because we’ve never had a Virtual PrimeTime, so how do you try to tackle that and sort of gauge what you think success should be?

Melissa Stenson: We’re still trying to work that out. We’re tracking all of our virtual events and saying, okay, what does success look like here. For our typical PrimeTime show, our goals are the deals for the members, creating commerce, networking, and education. So those are the things that we kind of kept in front of us for this virtual event. And education was one that we really focused on because we had started the buying session portion early, but we wanted to make sure that we got the education and facilitated as much networking as we could. So those were the two that we kind of leaned on going into it.

Rob Stott: You talk about the networking, the platform, it was cool to experience the chat for anyone that was at Virtual PrimeTime. There’s a lot of chat functionality, whether it was, in the lounge, there was a lounge area. You can kind of say, I know we all weren’t walking around like that behind you, for those watching this on TV, but we weren’t physically walking around the hall, but, it felt like you were still bumping into people in that lounge area. But then also, in the booths in the expo hall, you could chat with the vendors there and other experiences like that in the education sessions. Talk about that a little bit, how we were kind of able to allow that networking to happen even though it was in this virtual platform.

Melissa Stenson: Yeah. We were pleased with the amount of chatting that our members and vendors actually did. There were several options, there’s a group chat that’s available like you talked about in the lounge for any attendee. There were, in each exhibitor’s booth, they had a group chat. Then you could also individually one-to-one private chat, text chat someone, or you could even video chat them and you could call them in essence. So there were a lot of different options depending on what you were comfortable with. We had, I would say it was over close to 50,000 chats initiated on the platform. So we were really excited by that number and happy to see people chatting. I know myself when I was in the platform, I would see someone’s name or a comment by someone. And you recognize the name and you’re like, oh, so-and-so’s here. And it’s awesome to see them and kind of see what they’re thinking, not the same as face to face.

Rob Stott: You still get that kind of like, oh, it’s nice to bump into you feeling that you would get at an in-person show.

Melissa Stenson: Yeah, yeah.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. I know chat is certainly, and that networking is one of the big things that you kind of want to, as you’re planning an event like the virtual event, you want to get right. Were there other aspects of Virtual PrimeTime that, not to say certain things were more important than others because obviously the whole overall experience is something you want to get right. But, when you’re thinking about the specific portions of PrimeTime, was there one or two things that you wanted to focus on to make sure we have to get this right, to make sure that this event is what we want it to be?

Melissa Stenson: Like we said earlier, the education was important for us. The other piece is the exhibit hall and getting our members close to our vendor partners and facilitating those interactions. What we liked about the platform we chose is that it was very flexible. So our larger manufacturers were able to really customize it and they could incorporate some of their really cool 3D, 360 and more interactive things that they had developed for our members. And then our smaller vendors also had the ability to customize it to them and link to things that worked for them. We had some exhibitors there that had 150 plus booth reps working our virtual event. And we had some smaller vendors that were frantically trying to get to all the chats and answer everyone with a much smaller staff. So it had to be flexible enough to allow success for every size of our partner.

Rob Stott: To that point, something I’ve heard from a couple of vendors. One thing I think that was maybe different about the Nationwide PrimeTime platform is that, the vendors weren’t necessarily tied. Yes, they all had virtual booths and experiences that were part of the Virtual PrimeTime platform, but they weren’t necessarily tied to the platform. They could take a member if they needed to, whether it was their website or if they had built a virtual presence themselves, they could go experience that. And it still felt like a seamless experience as part of Virtual PrimeTime. Talk about that decision a little bit, to allow vendors to not necessarily have to stay within the confines of this structure.

Melissa Stenson: That’s one of the things that this platform offered us a little bit more interactivity than some of the others. Originally, honestly, I was not excited about vendors taking our members outside of the platform and afraid that they may not come back or they may get distracted or something like that. But when you start to look to see what these exhibitors are bringing, you want them to put their best foot forward and you want them to bring something cool and exciting to your show. So I think it’s important that we had a framework that was familiar across all of our exhibitor booths. So our members could easily kind of look through and it felt like once you got the hang of it, you knew what you were doing, but then also being able to jump into somebody’s booth and go to a 360 tour of their showroom or see something more unique or a face-to-face meeting. I mean, I think that’s what keeps it interesting and also allows the exhibitor to put their best foot forward.

Rob Stott: I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of feedback from members about what they enjoyed most and vendors as well, what they liked best about. What was your favorite aspect of Virtual PrimeTime?

Melissa Stenson: That’s a great question. I think that, for me what I was most pleased about is that what we were planning for, it worked. There were small hiccups and there were things that surprised us, but the platform held, our members showed up, our vendors showed up. We had a good show. We had a good experience on the platform. Not having done a full convention on a virtual platform in the past, there were some times where I was kind of thinking, okay. When you’re face-to-face with a hotel and you talk to their team and you’ve had these conversations and you know you’re in good shape, there’s a certain level of security when you’re addressing a digital platform.

Now granted, our partner was reassuring me and saying, but there’s a lot of trust there that, I don’t have a lot of experience in websites and design and stuff like that. So there was a lot of just unknown there. So the fact that, and I actually, I mean, even as of last week, I was on another virtual event and their platform crashed.

Rob Stott: Oh no.

Melissa Stenson: There was about 13 minutes where they couldn’t get it back up and running. So for us to have a great experience for both our team and our members and our vendors that’s a low bar.

Rob Stott: But hey, first of all, it wouldn’t be a convention of any sort, whether virtual or in-person without … if there’s no hiccups then did you even have a show, that’s a question to ask. But it goes to show that having that sort of experience where there aren’t nothing major, like that makes a difference. It makes a big difference. There’s no one leaving Virtual PrimeTime saying, “Oh my God, do you remember that thing that happened?” And that’s what they’ll remember from the experience. So, that’s a testament, I think, obviously to the work that went into it and of course the partner that we had and worked with. So, it’s something to look forward to.

I think moving forward too is just the fact that we’ve proven that you can do it. It is possible to have a show like this, that isn’t in-person per se, but, it still had all the hallmarks. It had the cashbacks and Palooza even took off. And we found ways to get giving involved as well, the charity aspect, and it still felt like a PrimeTime. For us, we’re heads down in it for three days and everyone’s so crazy. I consider my feet didn’t hurt as much necessarily, but it still felt like we ran all over the place and I was as exhausted by the end of the day. And that’s me, I wasn’t, as up from dusk till dawn, as you on the platform. So I can just imagine what the days were like for you.

Melissa Stenson: I’ve heard that from several people that, physically, our legs aren’t tired and we’re not like just worn out from walking miles and miles in Las Vegas or wherever we are, but we were still tired from, you get up at early in the morning, we had sessions starting at 7:00 most days. So you get up and you start working on these sessions and you’re running around, talking to members and talking to vendors inside the platform, and then seeing somebody and calling them on your phone or emailing. So there was a lot of engagement and I got that from several team members. They’re like, I’ve talked to more people today and I’m just worn out just from the sheer number of conversations, I guess. So that was good, a different feeling, but still good.

Rob Stott: That kind of lends to another question too, because virtual conferences aside, I know something that’s been a big talking point during this pandemic is virtual burnout. Is that something that you had to consider as you’re going through this? How do we ensure that members don’t experience that as they’re engaging with the platform?

Melissa Stenson: Yeah. We hear that all the time. We’re tired of Zoom meetings. When you’re on camera, just like for my kids that are doing school through Zoom and stuff like that, being in a room where you’re kind of all circled around something and not so directly facing someone, it is more exhausting to be wall to wall, straight on. There’s a level of, it’s just more tiring. It’s not as relaxing as a table full of people that you’re having dinner with. So there’s definitely a difference. And we did specifically keep our sessions shorter. We had some sections that were five minutes, they were just quick kind of update on here’s … We did a short session on A.R.T. that was under 10 minutes where they just kind of explained that new tool. Most of our sessions in NLA were under 30 minutes. And that way we kind of keep that to a minimum. It’s interesting that we’ve had members come back to us already and say, Hey, can I watch this on one and a half speeds, because I want to see all the content, but I just don’t have the time for it.

We are getting lots of feedback now from members on what we can do to make this better. And not saying, we’re hopeful for March in Denver. Tom and I had talked about it, Tom Hickman, and as soon as we do get back together with our vendors, we’re going to have a great big PrimeTime party. But until then, we do want to make sure that we have a way to talk to these members. And like you mentioned earlier, we had over 300 new first timers to this Virtual PrimeTime. So these were members that had not been to a PrimeTime in the past, whether it was because of time or cost or whatnot, but they did come and join us at Virtual PrimeTime. So there’s a place for it going forward. A lot of people in my industry are talking about hybrid events now where you have the live event, but you’ve also stream some of it to people that couldn’t make it. So I think that’ll be a big opportunity for us going forward. But yeah, it’ll be interesting to see what 2021 brings.

Rob Stott: Yeah. You mentioned some of the feedback. We proved that the platform, this type of experience can work and it’s great, but you’re always looking for areas and ways to improve. So what are some of those, as you start to think ahead to whether it is another full Virtual PrimeTime or the hybrids, like you mentioned. What are some of the things that you hope to improve on with the virtual experience?

Melissa Stenson: I think one of the things that we want to make easier is being able to chat and react to chat sessions better. We would see comments that we love seeing, and we weren’t able to like them per se, in the platform and stuff like that. So that was something that we thought was missing. The other thing is, we had 134 booths, maybe 70 or so, 70 or 80 sessions over, I think, close to 3,500 people on the platform. It was a big event. So we need to find a way to make it easier to find the people you’re looking for. So finding your exhibitors is easy because you go to their booths, but such a big part of PrimeTime is the member-to-member, peer-to-peer interactions. So we want to really find a way to make that easier and make that happen faster. And maybe by using certain topics for lounges or something like that. So that’s probably where our biggest opportunity is to make it better.

Rob Stott: That makes sense. It kind of feels like adding more of a social networky feel, like a Facebook or you’ve got your messenger on the side, who you’re, not saying we’re going to be friending members and vendors and things like that, but kind of knowing who your contacts are and having that sort of experience, that absolutely makes sense.

Melissa Stenson: The other think we definitely want is we want, inventory was a challenge for our manufacturing partners as well as our members, obviously for several months now. We’re excited to see what will happen when that’s not a challenge. And if we do have another event that is done virtually or done online, like we did early access or Virtual PrimeTime to see how much business we can do.

Rob Stott: Which we know, members were very engaged, the inventory challenges aside, they engaged well with the platform. And I know a lot of vendors had reported some record numbers in some instances. So to your point, when things are sort of back to normal or whatever a new normal looks like, it’ll be interesting to see how much more that this can sort of enable that type of experience and success for vendors and members alike. So that’ll be awesome. A lot to look forward to. And like you said, this is something that seems it’s resonated. It’s done well, it’s gotten awesome feedback and I’m sure I know you’re hearing it all the time in different ways, shapes and forms. So we look forward to kind of seeing how it evolves and what it does to PrimeTimes moving forward.

Melissa Stenson: Yeah. I think for the person that for some reason can’t actually get to us in that space, I think there’ll be an option for them to see parts of our shows, obviously not all of it, but some of it to see what they missed. I would be remiss if I didn’t say, we were happy with our event and on all sides, we had a good show, but overwhelmingly, I hear over and over again. When are we going to get back to face-to-face? When is that going to happen? Tell me we’re going to see you in the March. And we can’t wait to get back face-to-face with our members and our exhibitors.

Rob Stott: Absolutely. Something to be said about those, whether it’s bumping in, on the show floor or the dinner meetings. It’s missed, it’s certainly missed. I can not wait. I know it’ll be, you mentioned it, but it’ll be quite the shebang when we do get all back together and not to mention, looking at 2021, it’s 50th anniversary for Nationwide. So, in some way, shape, it was always going to be a big year for PrimeTime, but having missed the at least one in-person opportunity, I can only imagine what would a PrimeTime look like with 50th anniversary and then finally seeing everyone again. So it’ll be quite the year.

Melissa Stenson: Yeah. Lots of reasons to celebrate.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Well, I appreciate you taking time and chatting on virtual events and PrimeTime and all the above and finally allowing me to get you on camera.

Melissa Stenson: Yes, my pleasure.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Thank you.

Melissa Stenson: All right. Thanks, Rob.

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