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Episode 12

Virtual Trade Shows: Are They Worth Sponsoring?

Nicole Mahoney
CEO, Break the Ice Media | Host, Destination on the Left
Virtual Trade Shows & Events

Lead generation is one of the most critical components of B2B growth. Historically, B2B marketers have captured leads at trade shows for their customer relationship management (CRM) systems.

Due to the pandemic, in-person trade shows are no longer a lead generation option. That’s why many B2B marketers have begun to explore virtual trade shows and events—with mixed results.

Guest Nicole Mahoney is a marketing expert in travel and tourism, one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic. Nicole shares how she’s had to think creatively about lead generation, and answers the question “Is it worth it to sponsor a virtual trade show?”

Highlights From This Episode:

  • The role of virtual trade shows in marketing
  • Expected attendance at virtual events
  • Questions to ask event organizers
  • Preparing for a virtual trade show
  • Adding value to the event as a sponsor

Watch the Live Recording

Full Episode Transcripts

Narrator: Welcome to another episode of Lead(er) Generation by Tenlo Radio. A show where we help B2B and CPG marketers generate data that turns into money. And our host Tessa Burg is the VP of UX and technology strategy at Tenlo, Tessa and her team at Tenlo have collaborated with data science software and marketing experts in the last 10 years to develop and continuously evolve how a test and learn approach can effectively and efficiently help clients bring new products to market, accelerate leads through the funnel, and test new communication and sales channels.

Tessa Burg: Hello, and welcome to another episode of leader generation brought to you by Tenlo Radio. Today’s guest is the CEO of Break the Ice Media. We’ll be exploring a topic that’s been top of mind with a lot of our clients in the B2B marketing world, specifically in construction services, medical device, and tourism, and a lot of the industries that heavily dependent on trade shows as a means of lead generation. Nicole Mahoney is our guest today. She was named 2019 small business person of the year in Rochester, and she’s an expert in virtual events in travel and tourism industry. We’re very excited to have her today. Hello, Nicole.

Nicole Mahoney: Hi Tessa, thank you so much for having me.

Tessa Burg: Thanks for being a guest. So let’s jump into this. This is a question we keep getting from our clients. One of the things I was most impressed about you and your leadership with your company is how quickly the travel and tourism industry in your company specifically got. As soon as the pandemic hit, you knew that things were going to change. And so you’d started changing with it. Tell us a little bit about what have been some bright spots as you’ve made changes and helped your clients navigate this time.

Nicole Mahoney: Yeah. So as you’ve mentioned, we work solely really in the travel and tourism industry. And so as soon as you get a lockdown, it spells trouble for our industry. And especially for my agency, whose clients are in that industry, because traditionally, if you’re in travel and tourism, you’re relying on a visitor economy and you’re trying to get people to visit from at least 50 miles away. Ideally further away than that. All of a sudden when the world just couldn’t move anymore, we had to get really creative and really quick.

Nicole Mahoney: Some of the things that happened early on, more with the B to C space, but really looking at targeting different demographics, different geographics for clients to get visitors. And so a lot of them were looking at more local marketing and getting people to explore their own backyards for a while, but also getting creative with creating virtual experiences. So if you couldn’t go to a place because you’re in a lockdown or there’s some travel restrictions, at least you could still get that experience and do it virtually. And then once the world started to open back up, the creativity really started to show itself in some of the technologies that these traditionally, I would say not very technological businesses were adopting.

Nicole Mahoney: Like new reservation systems that help them to limit capacity or museums that were thinking through touchless traffic patterns to get people through an experience at a museum. One of the wineries, that’s actually very innovative in our area here in the Finger Lakes in New York state, they instituted a reservation system that actually generated… They ended up with higher revenues this year, but lower foot traffic. And so it was a really interesting way for them to think about their business and marketing, essentially what they did is they charged a tasting fee, but they added so much value into it that they were able to charge a premium for that tasting fee. They had fewer people coming through, but those people were spending more time. And as they spent more time there, they were actually spending more money.

Nicole Mahoney: Now I know this show’s a lot about lead generation and more on the B2B. We have that in travel and tourism as well. And one of the things we had to do real early on is figure out for our clients, how are they going to continue to do business in the B2B space without those in-person trade shows and how are they going to continue to build relationships so that when borders reopened, travel restrictions were lessened that they were in a good position to start to recover and recover quickly.

Nicole Mahoney: And so we did have to pivot very quickly for our clients to figure out how to put together virtual conferences for them. Some of them were virtual appointment taking shows. So there was still this relationship building happening. Virtual happy hours and educational like webinars and things like that. So a lot happened in a short period of time. And I feel like now that we’re nine months into this, a lot of this is evolving. There’s still a lot of virtual events happening, virtual experiences happening, and they’re getting richer. And as I said, more evolved.

Tessa Burg: That was a lot in there, where I think we can start to pull out some learnings for B2B marketers. One, that winery example was really interesting. So they were able to increase revenue by focusing more on the quality of the experience, as opposed to the quantity of things going through. That sort of theme, increasing quality to the customer, whether that’s a B to C customer or a professional customer, has that also been a theme that’s played out in the different types of virtual events and the appointment taking and the happy hours?

Nicole Mahoney: Yeah, absolutely. And I think you make a good point because in the case of the winery, instead of trying to get as many people through the door… So, I actually kind of think of it like a website even. Instead of trying to have as much traffic to your website as possible and then hopefully people self-select themselves into good leads through your website because you have it set up right. Same with the winery. Instead of trying to get the masses to come, they wanted to really position themselves and target those people that were more likely to spend. And so they actually set their reservation and ticket price relatively high for this area. Now in California, it might not be considered so high, but there was one experience that was at a $15 price point and another at a $40 price point. And it had to do with how long you spent on premise.

Nicole Mahoney: Now this particular winery is kind of like the Disneyland, their wineries, there’s like six different experiences within one large campus, but that is what they did. And they found a lot more people were buying that at that $40 price point. So it was really interesting to talk to that business owner and really see how they worked their way through that and how they built out that experience. And talk about silver lining, to say that here you have this business, their revenue is up, right? Even though their traffic is down.

Nicole Mahoney: And then back to the virtual events, same thing. And I know we were going to maybe talk about this in a little while, but some events, and I’ve been a participant in a few that have had thousands of attendees. I was actually a panelist at a show and it was just giant. It was an international show. They had thousands of attendees, it had all kinds of keynotes and workshops, and there was a virtual trade show floor. There were so many things that you could do within this virtual event that to me, I felt even though I was a panelist, I wasn’t there necessarily as an attendee, but of course I did experience it. I felt a little bit lost. Like it wasn’t necessarily the quality. It was more about quantity.

Nicole Mahoney: Some of the shows that we’ve done for our clients have been very small, but very targeted. A few hundred people. When you have a few hundred people at a virtual event, you’re more likely actually, depending on the type of event and what you’re doing, if it’s just a webinar where you don’t see each other, that’s one thing. But a lot of the events that we have our mix of formats, where you might be doing things very similar to Zoom where we’re all on video, talking to each other, using breakout rooms. And then you might also do things that would be like a keynote that are more like webinars style, where you weren’t seeing the attendees. You’re just really seeing the presenters. With a few hundred people and depending on the format and how you build out the interactivity of that format, you can really, as an event attendee, feel more connected to the event itself, to the sponsors or the exhibitors or whatever it is that you’re trying to showcase than I felt when I attended that event with thousands of people.

Tessa Burg: That is really interesting because I think when we look at trade show opportunities, a lot of times we’re looking at foot traffic. How many people are going to be there so we can get more people to our booth. But what you’re sharing is in this virtual world, maybe the questions sponsors and partners need to be asking is what’s the value of the attendee and how likely are they to be ready to buy? And can I get that quality time with them to share the experience of our products or our services? Have you seen any examples of virtual events or shows starting to do that, to bring sort of this more intimate experience for partners and sponsors and on the other side still provide a lot of value to the attendees?

Nicole Mahoney: Yeah. Actually, we’re working on a show right now for a client. We ran the show for them in July and they are wanting to implement another show in January. And so, this is a buyer and seller show and it’s an appointment taking show. It’s virtual. And what they’re doing this time around is they’re doing a lot more vetting of the attendees that are coming. So they have the suppliers or the exhibitors from this particular destination, which just so happens to be in Africa. And they are looking for international travel agents and tour operators that want to bring business to this destination. And so in the registration process, in this particular instance, the attendees don’t have to pay. Some events, attendees are paying. In this instance, they’re invited and because they’re invited, there’s a series of questions that they’re asking them and they’re going to vet them to make sure that the highest quality because the destination and their partner exhibitors are really the ones that are paying to have this event take place to bring the right type of people in.

Nicole Mahoney: So the other thing is with virtual, especially if you’re doing like one-on-one appointments, you can only do so many appointments in a day, and you can only have so many days of that. There is such a thing as screen burnout or Zoom burnout or whatever those newer terms are now. You can only have so many of those. And so you really want to make sure that they’re quality, you’re spending your time with quality vetted people in that particular case. And I like your analogy to the live event where it’s foot traffic. Because again, it makes me think of the website again. It’s just how many people are going by your booth, how many you draw in from there, how many of those would be a qualified lead that you’d move to the next stage of your funnel or whatever it is that you’re working towards. So what’s interesting about virtual events is you have the opportunity to have more of those one-on-one experiences and to learn more about the attendees before you can get to the event. It’s all online. There’s a lot of data I think that you can access.

Tessa Burg: So I haven’t attended any virtual events, but obviously, like everyone I’ve done a ton of Zoom calls. When people are in the virtual event, how many people have their cameras on or how many are off and does that make a difference? Whether or not you can see people and sort of really interact with them face to face.

Nicole Mahoney: It has to do with the way the event is organized I would say. So there are platforms out there that house an entire trade show. The ones that I’ve experienced and that I’ve demoed, they have an exhibit floor, they have meeting rooms for one-on-one meetings and they have breakout session rooms and rooms for general session or keynotes and things like that. And by rooms, you’re really just navigating around on an interactive website, clicking on different areas to go into these rooms. What I found with those kinds of events is for the most part, people aren’t turning their cameras on unless they’re in like an environment where it’s like a one-on-one meeting and it’s anticipated that I’m here to talk to you Tessa, so I’m going to turn my camera on.

Nicole Mahoney: But to just walk up on a show floor, you can, in some of these platforms flip on your camera, because you can see there’s a little avatar of somebody that’s standing there, hopefully they’ll flip on their camera. But to be honest, when I was at a show that had that, I didn’t do it. I’m like, well, you don’t need to, right? So I was like, “Yeah, I don’t feel like doing that.” So I don’t know. I can only speak from my own personal experience.

Nicole Mahoney: What we’ve done with some of our events is we make sure that there’s networking, which we primarily use Zoom for that there are platforms that will do the networking in the platform as well, but we’ve used Zoom for several networking events. And so that at least some point during an event gets everybody into one big room, you feel like you’re part of a crowd. Even if people are talking over each other, because you’ve got a hundred people on a zoom screen and then we quickly break them out into breakout rooms so we can get everybody in.

Nicole Mahoney: So you get like the buzz and like the excitement of being part of a big group. And then we break them into breakout rooms where you might have five to 10 people, 15 people. In Zoom, you can set however many people you want per room. And people loved that because you get the buzz and the feel when you first enter the Zoom meeting with all these people, and then you get the intimate, let me have a conversation with just a small group.

Nicole Mahoney: And the way we ran those, we used Zoom and we did the random room assignment and we would do it two times, maybe three times. So you’re mixing and mingling with people. When you do it that way, you don’t know who you’re with because it’s a random assignment. And people really liked it because they said there were people in their rooms that they wouldn’t have talked to at a live event because how we are at live events, we kind of gravitate to the people we already know, the people that are already in our circles. Now there’s silver lining. It gives you a way to interact and talk to someone that you may not have otherwise met. So that’s on the networking side. So again, it just depends on what the organizers doing, how much face-to-face time you have. But if I were a sponsor or an exhibitor, I would ask about that. When can I get face to face time? Is there an opportunity to schedule meetings? Is there networking where I can have some face time. Those kinds of questions.

Narrator: And that’s a good place for a break. We’ll be back in a minute.

Narrator: In the past year, marketing and sales have changed drastically. So where does your business go from here? Sign up for a one hour digital readiness session with Tenlo. We’ll talk about how you can meet your business goals. Using digital marketing. Plus you’ll receive a digital readiness playbook. It’s a step-by-step guide to execute digital marketing tactics that drive growth for more info into sign up, go to Tenlo.com. That’s T-E-N-L-O.com And now back to our show.

Tessa Burg: I think another thing that popped in my head as you were talking about the importance of face time and quality and people getting excited to be there is what time is this happening? Like sometimes I feel like it’s hard to see a client’s on a call. It’s hard for them to even schedule appointments because, like many other businesses, everyone is busy in trying to catch up. They might have smaller staffs. So is there a good time of day to have a virtual event or to have a networking happy hour?

Nicole Mahoney: One of the things when you’re thinking about trade shows in particular, think about a trade show: it’s in Chicago, it’s in Chicago why? Because it’s central for the entire country, right? And everybody’s in the same time zone. And we’re all going to the event at the same time of day, because we’re in the same time zone. What happens when you have these events that are national or international as you’re dealing with all kinds of time zone issues? So the event organizer really needs to be tuned into the audience and the time zones that the audience is in. I would suggest to the exhibitors or the sponsors or the people who are putting the event on that, they be the most flexible. You want to be there at the time that the audience is really going to be that engaged, right? Cause those are the people you’re trying to interact with.

Nicole Mahoney: So what we’ve done because we’ve done a couple of international events and a national event I’m in Eastern Standard Time. So most of them start 11:00 AM, noon Eastern Time and go till six, 7:00 PM Eastern Time so that we’re able to accommodate for the West coast time zones. Or in the case of the Africa event, the very first event that they held, we had European time zones, we had East coast to West coast US, we had Central America. So we had so many crazy times zones, it was just crazy. So what they’ve decided to do is do it by market. So the next show they do is just for North America. So only dealing with the North American time zones. And then they’re going to do one just for Europe, one just for Australia. So they don’t have to worry about that. But you have to think about that as well. You know, where are the attendees coming from?

Tessa Burg: Yeah, that’s a really good point. So I really liked when you’re talking about the Africa event, that one way to start bringing more value to the sponsors and the partners is to better vet the attendees. Are there opportunities for the sponsors and partners to improve how they’re approaching the event to bring more value to the overall experience?

Nicole Mahoney: Yeah, I think partners and sponsors can bring so much value. So much more than an event organizer can do by themselves. A couple of examples of things I’ve seen. One example is shipping swag ahead of the event. I’ve heard of a lot of events who have done that. One of the events that we posted, we had a sponsor who was from Kentucky and they shipped a little bottles of Kentucky bourbon to all the event attendees. And then they sponsored a happy hour and they had a mixologist do some drinks and demonstrate how to make some drinks. So it helped the event organizer because it makes the event organizer look good, because you’re getting this fun thing in the mail. It gave another part of interactivity to the event and to the happy hour. And then there’s just this other connection, even though we’re all over the United States, we have this connection, we’re all drinking our bourbon drinks at our happy hour and doing our breakout rooms.

Nicole Mahoney: And so whenever a sponsor or a partner can do something like that, I think it leaves first of all, a lasting impression for the sponsor and for the event organizer.

Tessa Burg: Yeah.

Nicole Mahoney: Another example I’ve seen is there’s some really cool virtual photo booths out there right now. And that also adds a really fun element to online events. People can go on, it can be branded. There’s a lot of different things that you can do. And so if a sponsor were to be able to bring a photo booth, let’s say to an event again, it does the same thing as that mailing the swag in advance, or we had… And I’m in travel tourism. So we get to do some pretty fun things. But one of our sponsors for one of the events is the National Comedy Center. And so they sponsored a happy hour and they had a comedian at our happy hour. So anything that you can do that will add to the experience, I think will go a really long way.

Tessa Burg: I love that. And all of those were examples of entertainment or bringing something that’s a little lighter than maybe just talking about business or your product, but you said it best with making it memorable. So you touched on a couple of good questions that sponsors and partners should be asking what is going to be the quality of the attendees? How much FaceTime can they expect to get? Are there any other questions that you think sponsors and partners should be asking to make sure that participating in this specific virtual trade show is going to be a good use of their time and give them an opportunity to create memorable experiences and really engage with the audience?

Nicole Mahoney: Yeah, I think from a sponsor’s perspective, they should be asking where are the touch points exactly that this audience will interact with the sponsor? Is it just within the event platform, is there a virtual exhibit hall? Or are there other touch points, like emails that might happen pre event or post event or landing pages that people might have to go to grab links or where a schedule of events might be, where people are repeatedly going there.

Nicole Mahoney: There’s technology now where you have a keynote speaker and you can have the logo on the screen, like in the corner while the keynote is presenting. So that gives a little bit more prominent exposure to a sponsor. So really understanding like where are all of those touch points so that I’m not just in this big, huge, what we call like logo soup, right? Of all the sponsors at this event, where are those actual touch points going to be? And to really understand that, and then perhaps the event organizer could say… Maybe this is just the logo soup. Well then maybe the sponsor could say, “Well, hey, I’ve got this really good idea for a photo booth.” And it would give them a lot more touch points.

Tessa Burg: Love that. Tell me a little bit about your experience being a speaker. I think in some packages for trade shows, you can have a speaking opportunity or does that still exist in a virtual world? And were there any learnings that you had that could help people better prepare for sharing content themselves?

Nicole Mahoney: Yeah, it definitely still exists in a virtual world. I think it was the same at live events. I would say than it is even now, which is can’t be just a big sales pitch. You know, you always have to bring value to the audience regardless. So I have seen where there are exhibit halls or exhibitor presentations that are a sales pitch. I personally don’t believe in those. I don’t think they’re as effective. If you can bring some content that really adds to the event that really helps the audience and then maybe has a soft pitch, I think it’ll go a lot further for the sponsor. But I mean, we need content and in the virtual event, honestly, there’s more content that you need because there’s less… You’re not walking in the hallway. You don’t have a dinner event or a lunch event. So it’s, the content is really what sells the virtual events. So I would not be shy about suggesting topics or asking for those speaking opportunities.

Tessa Burg: I feel like this conversation makes virtual events way less intimidating and less unknown. There’s a few things that feel really different, making sure you’re focusing on quality and being more intentional about digital touchpoints before the show and even after the show. I know right now sometimes, just being an email feels good enough, but I love some of these ideas of pulling in physical elements to create a connection once you’re inside that virtual experience. Are there any other trends that Break the Ice Media is going to start following or any sort of new ideas that you’re going to start pitching to clients if virtual events continue? Or do you think virtual events will still have a place even after the pandemic?

Nicole Mahoney: I think they will have a place and I’ll leave your listeners with this to think about, which is with a virtual event, you end up with online content that doesn’t go away. So there could be ways to repurpose your online content. Now it depends on the event organizer and what they’ll allow you to do if you were a speaker. Will they let you reshare that on your social channels? Can you link to it from your website? But I think that in the long run virtual events are going to have a place in the marketing strategy, regardless if we can have live and in person.

Nicole Mahoney: Another benefit, actually, I didn’t mention this about virtual events yet is that you can go deeper into an organization. So you go to these trade shows and you have the buyer from whatever your target audience is, the buyer’s there. But maybe you need the buyer to know, and then you also need like a frontline staff person to know, or you need the VP of whatever to know, and they can only send, say one person or two people. You’re not going to send an entire company or entire team to an in-person trade show because it’s too much resources. Well, for a virtual event, you can go much deeper into an organization and have those prospects have more experience with you and what it is you’re offering. That’s why I think virtual events are going to stay because they provide this deeper service that a live and in in-person event doesn’t necessarily do.

Tessa Burg: So for your next virtual events, or in 2021, are there any other creative ways that you’ll be using to get more attendees?

Nicole Mahoney: I don’t have anything that really comes to mind that I haven’t already shared with you. I think really the biggest thing is just to continually try to be creative and think outside of the box so that we’re providing an experience that people are going to want to participate in because I think there’s going to be some fatigue. It’s getting harder, I think, to really stand out and get people to pick your virtual event because there’s so many. Everything’s virtual. But I think if you can bring in those extra elements that make it fun, that give you some face-to-face time, that mix the educational with the business and the fun, that that is really what’s going to make things stand out.

Nicole Mahoney: At the beginning of this pandemic, I had already had a virtual event planned for my own business. We are doing an educational event, a virtual summit. Because of the pandemic we ended up doing really, really well with it. We had really high attendance because the shutdown and happened like two weeks before my event took place. But you know, I’m thinking about it for next year and I’m thinking, I can’t just have an educational event the way I did this year because people have been to so many of these now. It’s going to have to have a new twist on it.

Nicole Mahoney: Whether it’s the opportunity for the networking with breakout rooms or some style of one-on-one networking appointments, something that is going to make somebody say, “Yeah, I’ll spend my time there.” Rather than, “I’m going to spend, two days watching educational webinars.” So really format, I think it’s just going to become… You have to be really creative break up the monotony. I think the more niche, like if I was an event organizer and I’m thinking about next year, the more niche I can be with my event. But I think that would be more appealing to the attendee and more appealing to the exhibitors and the sponsors. Because again, it’s about quality, not quantity, which is what we started this conversation with. The more targeted you can be the better and more effective use of your time it will be.

Tessa Burg: I have jotted down three pages of notes. There’s so many good takeaways. I think the theme of quality, being more niche, less is more. I also feel like when you were describing the technologies that are available, that there might be a temptation for event organizers to want to use all of the features and maybe they should not do that, or be very specific on which features are going to be best for that niche. What are your thoughts there?

Nicole Mahoney:  Oh, 100% agree. So when we had the pivot really early in all of this for one of our clients and put their show online, we did it all in Zoom. It was not a perfect setup because Zoom has its quirks, but people were accepting of it because we were all in this together. Everybody, all of a sudden was learning Zoom. And so people were okay with the weird quirks and things like that. The same clients that were doing shows for now, we have a platform that we’re using that manages this a lot more at a better level, a little bit higher quality, but we are thinking we’re still going to use Zoom for the networking because we want to be able to create that buzz. And we can’t find it in those platforms where you get all those little boxes, a hundred people on a screen and you know, there’s all this chatter and you feel like you’re part of something. That’s what we’re doing. We want to mix up our tools and use different platforms. Again, to break up the monotony and to keep it interesting.

Tessa Burg: That is really interesting. What a great point, because I think, especially when you start exploring new tools, you get really excited about it and the tendency might be to over feature, but I love mixing it up, be niche, choose the tool that’s best for your purpose and really focus on, touch points across the experience. It doesn’t all have to happen in that one face-to-face meeting, bringing in those physical elements and the follow-up. How do you keep that conversation and value going?

Nicole Mahoney: Exactly.

Tessa Burg: Well, that is all the time that we have today. Thank you so much, Nicole, for being our guest, I’m excited to turn this into content that goes on the internet forever and distributed out to our clients and other CMOs who are looking at ways to better connect with prospects and opportunities.

Nicole Mahoney: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. It was fun talking to you, Tessa.

Narrator: You’ve been listening to another episode of leader generation by Tenlo Radio. Be sure to subscribe on Tenloradio.com.

Nicole Mahoney

CEO, Break the Ice Media | Host, Destination on the Left

In 2009, Nicole Mahoney founded Break the Ice Media, a marketing agency focused on tourism marketing. As CEO, Nicole works with clients to understand their marketing needs, develops strategic marketing plans and leads a team of professionals to execute those plans.

In 2016, Nicole launched the weekly podcast Destination on the Left, focused on destination marketing. She expanded in 2019, introducing the Destination on the Left Virtual Summit, which features presentations from tourism industry experts.

Nicole and her team then added virtual event planning services to their capabilities. Since March of 2020, they’ve helped clients host 8 virtual events.