Beginning in August, the Small Business Expo will return to live in-person events, aiming to bring along new best practices that were learned through virtual events.

Why it matters:

  • Businesses are eager to return to face-to-face networking, although they remain cautious about their safety.
  • Some conference organizers are confident that precautions will keep their attendees safe, while others are relying on hybrid or virtual events.
  • Nearly nine in 10 events were canceled, postponed or held virtually last year.

Businesspeople are eager to get back to having face-to-face meetings as traditional conferences resume with a focus on in-person —versus virtual — gatherings.

“We are obviously super excited about getting back to live shows,” said Zachary Lezberg, founder and CEO of the Small Business Expo, which holds regional conferences around the country for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

In March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the Small Business Expo canceled all remaining conferences for the rest of the year and hosted virtual events instead. This actually enabled the company to expand the reach of its events, Lezberg said.

“Instead of doing what a lot of companies did, which was take a step back and slow down because of COVID, we actually sped up,” he said. “We decided to use this opportunity to our benefit, to try and expand quicker and get in as many cities as possible.”

The company ended up staging 45 different virtual shows — more than double the number of in-person events it held in 2019.

This year the Small Business Expo series is returning with 15 regional in-person events beginning in August, and Lezberg said both the conference and the attendees are ready to return to business as usual.

“We're trying to promote normalcy in our shows,” he said. “Obviously we're taking the safety precautions that the CDC and the local ordinances recommend, but we want to actually promote networking. We want to continue to help small businesses get back to business. They've been through a very, very rough time for nearly 18 months.”

The International Congress and Convention Association reported that out of 8,409 planned events for 2020 that the ICCA examined globally, about 14% were canceled and 44% were postponed, and another 30% were conducted virtually. The rest were either unaffected (9%), hybrid virtual/in-person events (2%) or relocated (1%).

Conference organizers are eager to get back to hosting in-person events because of the revenues they generate, ICCA said.

[Read here for what experts say on networking the right way.]

Bringing best practices from virtual events to in-person conferences

“In the future, meetings are likely to include elements and best practices from virtual and hybrid events,” said Senthil Gopinath, CEO of the ICCA, in the report.

Lezberg said he expects that some Small Business Expo attendees may still be cautious about coming to live events, and it’s in the process of formulating a plan for telecasting its workshops and seminars.

As far as the content of the presentations at the Small Business Expos, he said presenters have been told to steer away from pandemic-related topics and focus on the tools small businesses need to be successful going forward.

“I feel personally that people are just sick of hearing about COVID,” he said. “We're trying to get businesses back to the way they were and focus on the things that they need to learn about, whether it's marketing, how to build an e-commerce store, how to drive more customer loyalty and things like that.”

Obviously we're taking the safety precautions that the CDC and the local ordinances recommend, but we want to actually promote networking. We want to continue to help small businesses get back to business. They've been through a very, very rough time for nearly 18 months.

Zachary Lezberg, founder and CEO, Small Business Expo

In fact, the Small Business Expo has added a new component to its shows for 2021 focusing specifically on e-commerce, based on the increased demand for online ordering that escalated in 2020.

The pandemic has also prompted the Small Business Expo to become more digitally focused and incorporate more features into its mobile app, including digital show guides and social media feeds.

The shows will also now feature touch-free registration and contactless business card exchanges. Attendees can register using their phone, and then scan a QR code to print their badge, or use the badge that will be housed in the app, along with the built-in-scanner, to exchange contact information with other attendees using the app.

“There are a lot of cool new technologies we're able to take advantage of that actually help promote the safety precautions, and that also make it easier for everybody,” said Lezberg. “The break we had from doing the live shows during COVID gave us the time to get those things ready.”

 Woman looking at snacks on display at the NCA's Sweet Snacks Expo.
The National Confectioners Association plans to bring back its in-person Sweets & Snacks Expo with almost no changes from the way the event was previously held. — National Confectioners Association

Pandemic-informed business insights to ‘help attendees navigate shifting retail landscape, evolving consumer needs’

Meanwhile, the National Confectioners Association is bringing back its Sweets & Snacks Expo this year with almost no changes from the way the event was previously held, said Christopher Gindlesperger, senior vice president of public affairs and communications at the NCA. The Sweets & Snacks Expo is scheduled for June 23 to 25 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.

"If anything, the virtual-centered lifestyles we've all experienced this year make our industry even more excited to come together in person,” Gindlesperger said. “The Sweets & Snacks Expo won't have any virtual components this year because we are confident that we can host a safe and successful live event with our partners in the city of Indianapolis.”

Gindlesperger said that after the cancellation of last year’s show, the association’s manufacturer members are eager to showcase two years’ worth of product innovation in person to potential buyers.

“There is a significant amount of pent-up demand for in-person events and engagement within the industry heading into the back half of this year,” he said.

The association added a Supplier Showcase to the event that’s scheduled the day before the Expo opens. The Supplier Showcase is designed to connect the association’s supplier community with their manufacturer partners.

Unlike the Small Business Expo, which Lezberg said will steer away from pandemic-related content in its educational presentations, Gindlesperger said the Sweets & Snacks Expo will offer a variety of education tracks designed to provide insights into the impact that the pandemic had on the industry, and to “help attendees navigate the shifting retail landscape and evolving consumer needs.”

Education session topics will include consumer and shopper trends, retail and category trends and business disruptions, he said.

Gindlesperger said the Expo is expecting more than 450 exhibitors, along with thousands of retail attendees representing about 1,800 banners across multiple classes of trade.

Not all trade groups have embraced the return of in-person events, however. The National Association of Chain Drug Stores, which canceled its Total Store Expo conference last year but had been preparing to stage it live in Denver this August, recently said it would instead transition it to a virtual event.

[Read here about 7 smart tips for livestreaming your event.]

“The current realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the travel policies of many NACDS members dictate that in-person conferences remain impractical for the immediate future,” said Steven C. Anderson, president and CEO of NACDS, in a statement.

The association pledged to provide 100% refunds to members for all attendance fees already paid.

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Published June 15, 2021