What It’s Like to Plan a Virtual PrimeTime

Written by Rob Stott

March 19, 2021

Planning any PrimeTime show for Nationwide Marketing Group presents plenty of challenges. But Melissa Stenson, vice president of member experience, has always managed to put the organization’s best foot forward each spring and summer.

The challenge of planning a PrimeTime took quite the turn late last summer, though, as the coronavirus pandemic forced the trade show industry to grind to a halt while virtual shows rose to become the begrudging norm. Arguably, virtual shows have been even more challenging to plan than a traditional trade show for a number of reasons. Attendees — Nationwide’s Members, in the case of PrimeTime — have certain expectations for what the show experience should be like. But converting an in-person show to an all-digital format that includes all of the same bells and whistles can feel like trying to plug a square piece into a round hole.

Stenson shared some of her secret sauce for planning a Virtual PrimeTime during a recent appearance on our Independent Thinking Podcast. Here’s a segment of that conversation.

IT: In your career path, you’ve seen and helped plan many different kinds of events. What is it that makes PrimeTime stand out from other shows? 

Stenson: When we go to Primetime twice a year, not only our team, but our Members and even our vendor partners, we all get reenergized and excited about 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, 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.

2020 was a year of adjusting on the fly, for retailers especially, but the events industry as well. What was that like for you? 

COVID hit this industry really hard. And I have a lot of friends that are still hurting and hotel partners — there are so many people in this business that it’s really devastating when you sit down and think about it. On the other side, when we started shutting down last March, when many of our members had their stores closed, we started doing more webinars. We did specific COVID webinars and we did the Furniture Market Live event. Seeing the engagement from our Members at that time was really exciting for us, and we just built on that momentum. Virtual has definitely opened up a broader reach for us. And 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 event, which really opens lots of avenues for us.

What are some of the bigger challenges with planning a virtual event? 

One of our biggest challenges has been just keeping people’s attention. When you have someone travel with you to a Las Vegas, you have them captured there and you get to take them on this day-long journey. With virtual, they are in the middle of their daily lives and working in their stores and have all these distractions, which makes it a lot harder to get their full engagement. That’s been probably the hardest thing to plan for, but you’ll see things like content on-demand after the show, extended hours on deals and things like that so we can work across time zones and around their schedules.

As you’re planning a Virtual Primetime, are there certain aspects of the show that you want to focus on more in order to have it be the best possible experience for Members? 

The education was probably the most 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 October show was how flexible that experience was. Our larger manufacturers were able to customize the booth experience in order to incorporate some of their really cool 3D, 360-degree interactive things that they had developed for Members. And then our smaller vendors also had the ability to customize it and link to things that worked for them.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say, we’ve been very happy with our virtual events on all sides. October was a good show and March is shaping up to be even better. 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?” And we can’t wait to get back face-to-face with our members and our exhibitors. As soon as we do get back together with our Members and 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 our Members. And even moving forward, a lot of people in the events industry are talking about hybrid events where you have the live event, but you also stream some of it to people that couldn’t make it. I think that’ll be a big opportunity for us as we push ahead. It’ll be interesting to see what the rest of 2021 brings.

Catch the full podcast with Melissa Stenson on the Independent Thinking Podcast. 

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