What a difference a day makes! By Tuesday, the second morning of the PPAI Expo Direct-2-You, the technology challenges exhibitors and attendees had experienced the day before had been resolved and the virtual platform was humming along as it was designed to. For many, it was their first chance to see the magic of a virtual trade show in motion with real-time, in-booth customer chats, videos and instant links to new products, flyers and catalogs—all without leaving home.

However, as easy as it looked for distributors, exhibitors had to plan, organize, prepare and train their teams for this show in a very different way, and reimagine what it takes to be successful at a virtual trade show.

Industry veteran Murray Siegel, marketing director at Towel Specialties, said he started by rethinking the exhibit from the inside out. “I think virtual events are so organically different than traditional shows that there's still some exploring to do on all sides,” he says. “Towel Specialties sells towels and blankets and has enjoyed success at shows because customers can touch and feel the quality of our fabrics. It’s what sets us apart. Likewise, they can see 70-inch towels or blankets hanging on a wall at a show with images that pull them into the booth and engage them in discussions. In a virtual show, we're definitely handicapped. Not only do we surrender to the electronic medium, we also have to figure out other ways to make 'eye contact' after losing a few legs from our table.”

While the lack of physical products is a major disadvantage, there are benefits that exhibitors can build on. “On the plus side, there is a trade-off because now distributors can access us from the comfort of their homes or offices, in a more relaxing environment,” he says. “They have information about our products and other marketing materials at their fingertips and don't necessarily have to wait for someone to provide it for them. They control the pace. We're counting on that extra exposure, albeit a little less dynamic, to be a difference-maker that contributes to a strong ROI. If a virtual show lets us go wider to reach people—at a fraction of the cost of a regular show—then it may well be the wave of the future.”

Like many of the exhibitors at Expo Direct-2-You, the show was the first virtual event for Optigraphics, so the company had to develop a completely different game plan, says President and Owner Brad Bartlett, MAS. “No more packing up samples, uncrating and wiping down the booth, updating graphics, etc. We concentrated on videos, animated gif files and pictures to tell the story. Since our product is very visual and must be seen to understand, we knew this was the only way to get our message across.”

Expo Direct-2-You has been a lesson in “it’s not what happens in life, it’s how you react,” Bartlett says, explaining how impressed he was that when the platform struggled on opening day, PPAI immediately acted and resolved it. “The virtual platform is new to all of us, both distributors and exhibitors, and we are all on a learning curve. Day Two has been a breeze—quality meetings, over 150 visitors and with the tools we have created, it’s been a very positive experience for all involved. I am so proud of PPAI.”

Like most other exhibitors, he misses the in-person interaction but says, “Don’t discount the fact that you can get a lot more done virtually, see more people, get more information out quickly, save time and money and have a great experience. Distributors love that they can see many different booths in a single day. They can spend as long as they want and get immediate one-on-one help with questions and issues. Virtual reality is here to stay; we must embrace the change.”

After her second day at the Peerless Umbrella booth at Expo Direct-2-You, Charity Gibson, national account coordinator, saw just how busy a virtual booth can get. “I thought Expo in person was busy. Today has been hilariously crazy trying to keep up,” she says. “Hundreds of people in the booth (awesome), trying to keep up with the chat feed in the education sessions and the networking lounges, plus checking email, taking phone calls, etc., and social media. The biggest saving grace is that my back and feet feel awesome. And a bonus: I've actually eaten today as well. It was a fun experience! So different, and definitely not what I would have chosen had we been able to be in person, but still fun!”

Kellie Claudio, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Sweda, and her team also heard positive responses about the show from distributors who visited the booth. “The feedback is that most customers hope that we continue this virtual show because many do not travel. It was a great option for them.”

For first-time exhibitor and new member Everything Legwear, there was no comparison to other shows in the promo industry. Still, readying for this show was a different process from the in-person shows they’ve exhibited at for the past 30 years. “There was more prep on the tech side versus the building of an actual display,” says Director Blythe Harris, adding that the booth enjoyed a lot of traffic over the past two days. “We are having fun engaging with potential customers who are interested in socks. It’s great to immediately engage with people who would like to learn more about your product.”