Live, Virtual, or Hybrid: Game is On

Pandemic Doesn't Deter Conference Organizers

Live, Virtual, or Hybrid: Game is On

Although the pandemic shuttered in-person conferences and events this year, the industry expos and meetings that celebrate innovation and forge connections found virtual platforms and audiences, with organizers hoping for live events again in 2021.

“Packaging is necessary,” says Laura Thompson, vice president–trade shows for Chicago-based PMMI Media Group, producer of the canceled PACK EXPO International and the new virtual PACK EXPO Connects. “It has had to evolve, especially now. You can’t just stop. We did not want to just cancel our show and say, ‘See you next year.’ It is important to maintain that connection within the industry and give access to new solutions that are out there.” 

Resumption of in-person conferences in 2021 remains uncertain, but organizers have spent 2020 mastering the art of virtual staging. Whether virtual or live, today’s conferences connect participants with innovations that propel the industry forward. 

As the industry develops innovations in sustainability and convenience, conferences “play a huge role,” says Dani Diehlmann, director of communications for the Flexible Packaging Association. “They’re a great way for our members and the industry to meet, network, and showcase their capabilities.”

“Once a COVID-19 vaccine and verifiable treatment are available, PACK EXPO and other events will come back stronger than ever. People need that face-to-face touchpoint. It’s human nature and the core of business relationships.” 

Joe Angel, president of PMMI Media Group

But for 2020, the litany is familiar. FPA’s Fall Executive Conference converted to virtual sessions. Converters Expo and the Global Pouch Forum are 100% virtual, as well. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) Summer Essentials and Advance was virtual. Flexible Packaging Europe’s (FPE) summer and autumn conferences went virtual. PACK EXPO International was canceled in favor of PACK EXPO Connects. 

Together, those virtual conferences have maintained the networking, announcements, and education that keep industry players focused on new products and innovations, says Glen Gudino, group publisher-packaging for BNP Media in Troy, Michigan. 

A central feature of PACK EXPO Connects—Nov. 9–13, 2020—is the live demonstrations that showcase equipment and facilitate exhibitor-attendee interaction. The popular Innovation Stages return, and the new Solution Room features expert-led learning. PMMI Media Group editors prowl the exhibits, sharing exciting finds daily. 

“At the end of the day, the attendees want to find solutions, and the exhibitors want to create leads,” Thompson says. “We looked at how we could create this platform to do that, essentially bringing the buyers and sellers together and providing a good-quality product that allows them to see and understand and ask questions.” 

As packaging demands change, trade shows, conferences, and business-to-business media offer the tools for connecting buyers with sellers, says Joe Angel, president of PMMI Media Group. The firm’s data and marketing tools empower flexible packaging companies to target their specific markets, attracting customers to virtual conferences and their own online showrooms.

“We will continue to be a touchpoint to reach customers that normally would have attended our live event,” Angel says.

Engagement and Education 

Even without face-to-face encounters, industry players need to stay informed of fast-moving trends. Conference content “still plays an important role,” says Barbara Fowler, director of stakeholder engagement for SPC in Charlottesville, Virginia. “People really pay attention to the event program and learning opportunities, and they are really engaged.” 

FPE didn’t record meetings, choosing to facilitate free-ranging discussions, says Executive Director Guido Aufdemkamp. Some virtual participants weren’t regular live-event attendees, demonstrating that virtual could be a better fit for some companies.

Other conferences promote the live sessions that allow real-time personal engagement but also post that content online so that conference attendees can refresh their memories, catch sessions they missed, or share demonstrations with colleagues. 

“With our new virtual event, PACK EXPO Connects, exhibitors can post links to their virtual live demos and a myriad of content like videos, whitepapers, and case studies,” Angel says. 

Organizers agree that virtual events democratize attendance. Companies that once stewarded resources by limiting conference-goers to key personnel can now bring entire teams into the loop. 

The result? Shared vocabulary and widespread enthusiasm around industry innovations. 

“With a virtual conference, we can reach more people,” Diehlmann says. “If they break into workgroups on sustainability, for example, you can bring in your entire sustainability team.”

Networking and Accessibility

Technology can’t hinder the urge to network. FPE found that many virtual summer conference attendees logged into sessions early “for the opportunity to chat with each other,” Aufdemkamp says. “Even CEOs wanted to network with peers.”

SPC’s virtual event platforms will allow participants to schedule meetings before sessions, facilitating the kind of informal networking that makes live events so fruitful, Fowler says. More networking gets underway through breakout gatherings by topic—for instance, convening sustainable packaging professionals to share the latest on changing trends in e-commerce packaging. 

And those fun evening events where industry players meet and reconnect aren’t being overlooked. At SPC’s wine-tasting sessions, participants bonded over sips shipped to their homes. As PMMI was planning PACK EXPO Connects, a trivia event was being considered for its emerging leaders group, helping industry up-and-comers get acquainted.  

How to Attend

Assuring value from live events has always required strategy. Attendees map out their booth visits and workshops. Exhibitors target potential customers before, during, and after the shows.

Virtual events demand the same preparation, but they also give broader audiences the time to tune into videos and exhibits, Gudino says. “The first advantage of virtual events is awareness of more customers and awareness of more potential partners,” he says. It is, of course, “very difficult” to buy equipment based on a video, but “at least it gives exposure.” 

PMMI packages virtual events in navigable fashion, allowing attendees to search their options by product category, keywords, and industry. A “preview week” provides the chance to plan online visits to live demos or schedule appointments with exhibitors. PACK EXPO Connects was deliberately designed in four-hour segments over five days because organizers realized that virtual attendees are swatting off a host of distractions. 

“When people travel to a show, they’re focused on the show,” Thompson says. “If they’re attending a virtual event, they still have their day jobs. We know we’re competing for people’s time, and we want to make sure that it’s productive and we’re able to get them in contact directly with what they’re looking for.” 

The 2021 Outlook

The crystal ball is cloudy on the fate of live conferences and expos in 2021. Expect more hybrid conferences that combine live and virtual events, Diehlmann predicts. “No one knows when in-person meetings are going to be back,” she says.

However, industry experts know it is tough to completely replicate a trade show or live experience. “Once a COVID-19 vaccine and verifiable treatment are available, PACK EXPO and other events will come back stronger than ever,” Angel says. “People need that face-to-face touchpoint. It’s human nature and the core of business relationships.”

Across the spectrum, attendees tell organizers they’re eager for live events, but even the most hopeful organizers are preparing virtual backups. No one knows when restrictions on airports, venues, restaurants, and transportation will be lifted. Some organizers have learned of company travel bans imposed until at least the second quarter of 2021. 

No matter how conferences and expos are staged for 2021, there will be lots to talk about. Organizers expect to sustain discussions around industry evergreens such as sustainability, while also tackling the lingering effects of the pandemic on industry operations and consumer behavior. 

“For the first time, the pandemic has opened up the general public’s eyes to the reality that you can’t just hit a button and more toilet paper or paper towels or sanitizing equipment appears,” Gudino says. “There is a complex supply chain process that is involved. People need to understand what goes into that process.”

Organizers agree: Whether virtual or live, conferences and expos will continue. 

“Events bring people together around a common purpose,” Fowler says. “It’s keeping that balance of content and networking and engagement and leaving people inspired, leaving them with something they can take back. You can do that in person, or you can do that online.” 

M. Diane McCormick is a freelance writer and editor based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Watch for Event Updates

Organizations are keeping open the possibility that some events might be live in 2021, or at least a hybrid format. Here is a glimpse at some of the latest thinking: 

  • FPA: Hope remains for a live Annual Meeting in March, but FPA is expanding its virtual meeting platform as a contingency.
  • BNP Media: All events, including Converters Expo South in February, will probably feature online components, whether hybrid or fully virtual, says Glen Gudino, group publisher-packaging for BNP Media in Troy, Michigan . Global Pouch Forum’s existing virtual elements, including live broadcasts of major speakers, will expand to include an exhibitor component. BNP Media fielded a full slate of exhibitors and retained all sponsors in 2020, and Gudino expects similarly robust participation in 2021.
  • SPC: The Sustainable Packaging Coalition remains hopeful about hosting in-person events in summer 2021 and beyond, but it will continue to watch how the situation evolves and adapt as needed, says Barbara Fowler, director of stakeholder engagement for the Charlottesville, Virginia-based firm.  
  • Flexible Packaging Europe: FPE’s summer 2021 conference remains on track as “a major event,” but decisions on how to proceed will be made in late autumn 2020, says Executive Director, Guido Aufdemkamp. While virtual conference attendees expressed a preference for live events, many said they could see regular use for virtual events around single topics, “as a way to collaborate more often for shorter periods.”
  • PMMI: Some in-person events are scheduled for early 2021, but “obviously, we’ll monitor that,” says Laura Thompson, PMMI vice president- trade shows. No matter the format, she expects that Chicago-based PMMI will supplement events with the benefits of virtual offerings. “I don’t think that virtual will completely replace the in-person event, but there are definitely opportunities to combine these platforms to really improve our reach and the content we’re able to get out into the marketplace,” she says.