Watch the full webcast, featuring Association Forum's leaders discussing specifics of how Holiday Showcase was converted into a digital event. The full session is available on-demand here
When a venerable industry conference pivots to digital, ensuring it delivers the quality of the in-person original takes creativity and strong partnerships. That was a main theme discussed during the webcast, "How They Did It" Series #1: Association Forum's Successful Pivot to a "Virtual from Chicago" Holiday Showcase, in which Association Forum's leaders discussed the transformation of the organization's signature annual event into an all-digital experience, in partnership with Northstar Meetings Group.
The association of almost 4,000 members representing 1,600 Chicagoland associations has been hosting the Holiday Showcase in its hometown for more than 30 years. The annual event connects members with providers of products and services for the association industry over several days of networking, education and the strengthening of business relationships. But as the ongoing pandemic made an in-person gathering at that scale impossible in 2020, the organization's leadership had to rethink the event for a digital audience.
"It wasn't a question of whether or not we were going to have the event — it was how," said Michelle Mason, Association Forum's CEO, during the Jan. 7 webcast. "We know Holiday Showcase centers around celebration, engagement, community and experiences, so we needed to bring that into this new space… and we believe we pulled it off."
The two-day "Virtual from Chicago" Holiday Showcase, held on Dec. 15-16, attracted nearly 800 attendees, with 94 percent joining for more than two hours. Both the platform data and the participant feedback were uniformly positive:
- 95 percent of attendees reported they were satisfied with their experience
- 92 percent of exhibitors reported a positive return on investment
- 86 percent of attendees rated the education quality as "excellent"
- 80 percent of attendees visited with exhibitors
Total exhibitor visits was 36,287 over the two-day event, with each exhibitor yielding an average of 18 unique visits and more than 2,600 unique attendee-to-attendee chats.
Mason and her team explained that getting this kind of return began with partnering with event producers who could bring their own experience and expertise in hosting digital events.
Clear Criteria in Selecting Partners
Read some of the key takeaways from the Holiday Showcase, including the central role of diversity, by reading Northstar's coverage here
Association Forum's director of education and content, Kara Brockman, outlined the criteria used in selecting a production partner, including that they provide a few essentials. Among them were an exhibitor and speaker resource center; a schedule builder for attendees; and a sponsor/exhibitor module. When evaluating vendors, the Association Forum team prioritized the platform's ease of use, a sufficient level of support and attendee engagement tools.
"Ultimately it came down to a conversation, and it was more of a qualitative decision than what was just in that matrix," said Brockman.
"It was our first event, so we didn't know everything we needed to know and we wanted a partner who would say 'we've used this before, have you thought about this?'" said Phyllis Scott, director of business services for Association Forum.
The decision to partner with Northstar Meetings Group came down to the company's experience with events of this scale and understanding of the association market and meetings industry in general, the team agreed.
"We know Holiday Showcase centers around celebration, engagement, community and experiences, so we needed to bring that into this new space… and we believe we pulled it off."
Michelle Mason, CEO, Association Forum
"Normally we do about 25 live events each year; this year, we produced four live events and 31 virtual events," said Angela Cox, senior director of meetings and events for Northstar Meetings Group, who oversaw the virtual Holiday Showcase production for Northstar. "I think the fact that we were an events company, not a tech company, and we could bring that meeting planner know-how to Association Forum was a benefit. We'd done it before and could bring those experiences to bear."
An Expansive Virtual Trade Show
Together, the partners created an expansive virtual environment, complete with an exhibition hall of booths providing one-on-one meetings and individual vendor resources, multiple interactive education areas, a "40 Under 40" recognition spotlight area and numerous other features, all branded with Chicago landmarks. To enhance engagement, a series of networking lounges were incorporated into the event with set times for facilitated discussions, as well as activities such as a morning yoga session and the show-within-a-show of CEOnly, a virtual CEO Summit aimed exclusively at the several dozen CEOs in attendance.
"We wanted to capture the excitement that happens at our regular on-site event in the virtual space, so having the chat and video functionality was very important," said Sarah Murphy, director of membership for Association Forum.
The organizers sought to create an agenda as rich with content as attendees had come to expect at the in-person editions of Holiday Showcase. To that end, the event featured more than 40 educational elements, including 28 live breakout sessions with more than 80 speakers, as well as a "State of the Association Industry" panel and opening keynotes on associations and diversity. While that scale of live programming — with as many as four concurrent sessions taking place throughout the day — required a more ambitious approach to production than would be required for a simpler event, Brockman emphasized that preparation and practice ensured that it all ran well.
"The education went so smoothly, and I think it was because we spent the time doing so many rehearsals ahead of time," said Brockman, describing how the "virtual green room" approach that was used ensured speakers were prepared and the sessions ran without a glitch. "We had a lot of backup plans in place, and luckily we didn't need to use them."
Opportunities for Improvement
Among the areas cited where improvements could be made were greater communication as far as deadlines (e.g., when sales wants to continue selling exhibit booths and operations needs to finalize the exhibit hall setup) and in providing additional guidance and training videos to exhibitors and attendees.
The 2020 Holiday Showcase theme was "Connecting the Association Community," and Mason underscored the importance of getting the involvement and support of other industry associations early in the program-development process. Among those involved were ASAE, Destinations International, EIC, IMEX, PCMA and IAEE.
"Partners really do make it possible," said Mason. "They really enhance the value and quality of your event."
Watch the full webcast on-demand here. For more information about Northstar's digital event production services, contact Joe D'Andrea at [email protected].