In his signature tartan kilt, chef Alain Bossé is offering up the finer points of preparing a fresh lobster with honey mayo served on naan bread.
There are 122 people at Food & Beverage Atlantic’s trade show and conference. Five of them are hanging on Bossé’s every word. Others are milling about the exhibition halls featuring food and beverages from the region.
Nearby, Pump House Brewery is promoting its Crafty Radler, a low-alcohol beer made with grapefruit juice and tangerines, at its booth. There are 41 other exhibitors and roughly 500 people registered to attend the event.
In the lounge, a who’s-who of industry insiders is hobnobbing with buyers from all over the world. Translators are providing their services in 27 languages.
This is a trade show exactly like hundreds held throughout Canada every year.
Except for one small detail.
There’s no “here” here.
Everything at this conference in June was virtual, including the swag bags. This is an online conference where no-one actually ever meets in the flesh. Face to face, yes. In the flesh, no.
All the chatting, cooking demonstrations, showcases, exhibition booths and wheeling and dealing was done online.
Welcome to the brainchild of Sara Robinson, founder and president of Moncton-based HOST Event and Association Management.
When the pandemic hit New Brunswick in March, Robinson realized her company and its four to seven employees were going to have to step up their game quickly.
Overnight, trade shows and conferences, which make up roughly half her company’s revenues, were postponed or cancelled. Although it gets a sizable chunk of revenue providing administrative and operational support to non-profits, the revenue generated by organizing trade shows and conferences is crucial.
“In order for us to continue to operate in the building we’re in and with the staff we have, we need the event management,” says Robinson.
Virtual events were clearly the wave of the future even before the pandemic because they cut travel costs and allow organizers to draw prospective buyers from throughout the world. Robinson had read up on many aspects of making such events a reality.
“It’s something we knew was out there,” she says.
“We just stepped things up.”
Robinson dug into the course material and got a certificate in virtual event and meeting management. She and her staff quickly expanded their network to include suppliers to provide the technology needed to put on virtual conferences.
“We did a lot of research, consulted with several service providers who shared demos and answered all our questions,” says Robinson.
“We also investigated privacy and security with online platforms because this is extremely important with a digital platform. With collecting online data comes much responsibility. We consulted legal advice to ensure our terms and conditions were appropriate and that we were abiding by privacy laws.”
The result? The company’s first virtual conference was a hit with attendees and exhibitors.
“This is absolutely awesome!” raved the kilted chef in a comment on Facebook.
Exhibitors at the Atlantic Canada Showcase could see exactly who was walking up to their booths and immediately open up a chat with simultaneous translation. All materials for the virtual trade show were in six languages: simplified and traditional Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and English.
“The simultaneous translation was a godsend,” said Robinson.
A privately held company, HOST does not divulge revenues or profits. Robinson would also not give an exact breakdown of the costs of hosting virtual conferences.
But she says the cost of a virtual event is still about the same as an in-person trade show.
“It’s no cheaper because the money you save on one thing, you spend on another.”
The events, though, are safer for attendees and much less expensive.
“There’s a huge savings for the people attending and the buyers because they save all that traveling and hotels,” says Robinson.
“They just did all that on their computers. . . . It’s also absolutely easier for exhibitors to be at these events virtually because you’re not traveling all over the world.”
The bottom line for exhibitors at these events is often measured in the number of deals that can be made. By that metric, the Atlantic Canada Showcase measured up.
“The exhibitors were very pleased with the quality of the meetings they had with the buyers,” says Robinson.
“They felt they were really able to do what they needed to do.”
In the past few weeks, governments have eased up on restrictions in Canada and many businesses are reopening, but Robinson expects it will be a long time before her industry bounces back.
In a blog post, she wrote: “The truth of the matter is the events industry will undoubtedly be one of the last sectors to regain any sense of normalcy after this pandemic. Although we see things opening again and restrictions being lifted, the days of large gatherings of people are still a long way off. To this end I have many friends and colleagues who have been seriously affected by loss of work and still have a long road of uncertainty ahead of them.”
Virtual events, though, hold a lot of promise, she said. They allow companies to showcase products and services, buyers to meet with them, and seminars and talks to be offered in a safe, low-cost way.
On the HOST website, project management for digital events is offered as prominently as the company’s other services.
“Don't lose your audience by delaying your event. Give them an experience - it will be the highlight of their day!”
According to Robinson, online events are here to stay, both as stand-alone offerings and as an added-value feature of in-the-flesh events.
“We expect to be providing virtual event solutions on a permanent basis,” says Robinson.
“Once the in-person event is back, we still expect to have requests for some virtual or hybrid events.”
The Pivot is a regular business feature showcasing an Atlantic Canadian company adapting to new market realities with innovative products, services or strategies. To suggest a business, e-mail Pivot@SaltWire.com.