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CEOs share key lessons learned from virtual meetings, shows

Participants value breakout rooms; groups can plan to include attendees in other time zones and host ‘preview day’ for troubleshooting


By Kathryn Walson
July 1, 2020

Networking at a virtual event is not only possible, it is often a highlight of the meeting for participants. At United Fresh Produce Association’s first virtual event and trade show June 15-19, groups of 200 to 300 people attended Zoom receptions for young professionals, women in produce and others. The large groups then split into 10-to-15-person breakout rooms, “where people would just have a chance to have an open conversation” guided by a discussion leader, United Fresh CEO Tom Stenzel said during the CEO Update LIVE webcast, “Meetings Have Gone Virtual: What We’ve Learned So Far.”

“People said, ‘If I had just been coming back to the in-person show, I would have gone to see my friends, gotten a cocktail and stood off in the corner talking to my friends. This way we met new people from all around the world,’” Stenzel said.

The June 24 webcast also featured Bill Yanek, CEO of Connex, an Irving, Texas-based group whose members are retail and multi-site facilities management professionals; and Laura Lott, CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. Lynn McNutt, CEO Update’s editor-in-chief, moderated the discussion.

The pandemic forced Connex to cancel its in-person conference less than two weeks out. The event typically draws 2,000 people and features a 500-booth tradeshow.

Connex quickly went into “triage” to plan a virtual conference for the same dates, April 20-22. They cut the event back to two hours a day. They nixed the 25th anniversary gala but kept keynote speakers with a reduced speaking time of 20-25 minutes during the lunch hour. They quickly converted in-person programs, such as industry roundtables and speed networking, to a virtual format.

“We didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about it and certainly didn’t have time to re-plan a new event,” Yanek said. “We were able to keep a lot of the content. ... If there was one real gap, it’s that virtual networking. That’s definitely a work in progress.”

Connex used a combination of Zoom and Vimeo but is partnering with a company called Klik to launch a virtual trade show for its next event. Yanek sees hybrid physical-virtual events going forward.

Rather than engage with sponsors at periodic events, the association is working toward a “continuous model” in which Connex will maintain the sponsor relationship year-round, Yanek said.


‘Social media journalists’ generate buzz

AAM’s annual show typically draws 4,000 to 5,000 people. The museum group worked with CommPartners to host a virtual event June 1-4.

The meeting ended up with 95% of the average in-person attendance, but about 50% were first-time attendees, Lott said, representing “a whole new audience really in our field with folks who had never been to a conference before and a younger and much more racially and ethnically diverse attendance.”

One thing that proved beneficial for AAM was holding a “preview day” about two weeks before the main event.

“(It) gave us an opportunity to troubleshoot some of the technical challenges. And it also generated some buzz and added about 1,000 registrants—25% of our attendance for the complete event,” Lott said.

Like Stenzel, Lott found that participants enjoyed small-group networking opportunities.

“Our attendees reported they just really liked the ability to informally chat with each other in the chat boxes and in the breakout rooms. So I think we’d find more ways to make those kinds of opportunities happen to better mimic the experience of the in-person event.”

As protests over the death of George Floyd rocked the nation, AAM decided to add a session on the role of the museum field in racial justice. They were able to hire “some stellar speakers that we probably wouldn’t have been able to get on the fly if we had to fly them someplace to participate in a conference.”

At past in-person events, AAM has relied on “social media journalists” to build buzz and share content with people who can’t attend.

“That translated quite well to the virtual platform,” Lott said, adding that they will likely expand the program in the future.

Participants from 75 countries

United Fresh’s annual show typically draws 5,000 people and includes 200 large exhibitor booths, Stentzel said. The association made the virtual event free and open to members and nonmembers who registered on the website. It drew nearly 10,000 people, which is keeping the group’s sales team busy with a roster of prospective members, Stenzel said. The virtual show will remain open through summer.

Longer term, the group needs to determine how monetize the trade show content, Stenzel said.

United Fresh partnered with Intrado to host the event.

“We were learning the platform and the capability, and we’d start in one direction and then have to pivot again. I think almost every day through March and April and May were learning experiences. So we’ve got a much better idea now of how to make the process more efficient,” he said.

United Fresh’s in-person show typically draws people from 25 countries. They ended up with attendees from 75 countries at the virtual event.

“We just hadn’t really thought far enough ahead to plan for that,” Stenzel said, adding that next time, they will space out networking sessions to include people in different time zones.

Every year, United Fresh hosts a national competition to recognize produce managers from grocery stores in the U.S. and Canada. This year, the group honored them virtually.

“We put all 25 (honorees) on a Zoom camera. I actually traveled to a Kroger store in Indianapolis. And I did a live remote with one of the winners. And it came off. It was not perfect. We had a few technical glitches, but we felt we really wanted to honor those essential frontline workers,” Stenzel said.

Watch this CEO Update LIVE webcast and others here:


This story was updated July 10 with additional information.