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Interview: How Imex CEO Carina Bauer moved two global exhibitions online

Carina Bauer admits she was “devastated” this year to cancel IMEX Group’s two major exhibitions for the global meetings industry. She shares her ‘pivot to virtual’ story and why virtual events will play an important role in the future of IMEX Exhibitions

Imex Group CEO, Carina Bauer

IMEX in Frankfurt is one of the biggest events in the calendar for the global MICE industry, typically attracting around 14,000 participants.

The 2020 edition was scheduled to take place in early May but, with the worldwide pandemic worsening, the event was cancelled.

Bauer and her team chose to deliver elements of the event virtually within a six-week timeframe. IMEX America, which usually takes place in Las Vegas in the early autumn, was also cancelled.

When you cancelled IMEX in Frankfurt, what did you do?

It was devastating to cancel, but we soon decided to do something virtually as a kind of gift to the industry. We didn’t have any sponsors – it wasn’t about making money. Back in March, the industry was in flux and no one knew what was ahead.

How did you pivot your team?

I asked who wanted to be involved in delivering the event virtually and divided the team into sub-groups. We embraced an agile project management methodology, with everyone working in short sprints and then coming back together to give feedback.

What was your ‘pivot to virtual’ approach?

We were real novices with virtual. Rather than simply replicate the physical event online, which wouldn’t be the right approach, we broke the event down by fundamental experiences, such as education, exhibition, awards, networking, fundraising run etc.

We looked at each one in turn and assessed what we could achieve online in the six-week timeframe. For example, we didn’t feel we could recreate the same experience online for our awards ceremony, so we decided not to run it.

What was the final product?

Our tech partners helped us piece the event together virtually to create a 3D world – PlanetIMEX – where attendees could access all the event’s features. Content was mostly all live, and pre-recorded content had a live element to it so the audience could pose questions to a moderator.

Content was available on-demand within minutes of it finishing and was accessible for a few weeks after the event. We then pulled all this together for our YouTube channel and distributed it via our e-newsletters post-event.

How did you improve the virtual experience for IMEX America in October?

The user experience was a bit disjointed at IMEX in Frankfurt because it required attendees to register multiple times for different areas of the event. We simplified the delegate journey by the time we held IMEX America.

We knew this virtual experience needed to be much higher quality with better production values, and to have a clear beginning and closing. Our objectives were really around delivering inspiration and building connections in the industry.

How did you replicate the exhibitor experience online?

We looked at a lot of platforms with 3D exhibitor booths but we didn’t find anything we were enamoured with so we didn’t go there.

In the real world, we know we're delivering value and how to drive appointments between exhibitor and buyer but, in the online world, how do you incentivize the buyers to come in and to take part in a business focused way?

We wanted to hone in on what we knew we could deliver really well, which is bringing people together. We focused on creating content that was a bit different and fun, which our exhibitors could get involved with to showcase themselves.

We chose a platform called Grip that matches people and enables one-to-one meetings, which helped to drive meetings without it being forced. Our other tech suppliers included Storyscape, Brella, 6Connex and Slido, and we used Vimeo for live streaming video.

What type of content did you deliver?

Pre-recorded video content featured a helicopter ride over the Las Vegas strip from Maverick Aviation group, an interview with the CEO of the new Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas and a hot air balloon trip in Turkey. We felt this was a much more interesting way to showcase our exhibitors and partners than an online exhibitor directory, and this created sponsorship opportunities. For example, one of our speakers, Daniel Fox, who is a wildlife photographer, was interviewed at a Marriott hotel in Vancouver, which was sponsored by Marriott International.

What are your plans for 2021?

We will focus our efforts on what we call ‘digital activations’ for specific communities within our wider community. It is about helping those communities to stay connected year-round, to offer them great content, to enable them to meet each other and do business.

Next year, it will be a mixture of live and digital. We're now asking, how does digital work once the live shows come back? What value can we provide and what do people actually want? Business connections? Peer-to-peer connections? Is it content and how do we create smaller, curated experiences that really fit their needs? And how does this fit with an exhibition?

We worked so fast this year, so it is important for us to reflect, spend more time looking at the data and feedback, and to decide what is needed.

The industry used to worry about virtual cannibalizing physical events, do you think this is still a valid concern?

All I've seen for the past 20 years is the events industry learning how to use technology to enhance in-person events. The reality is that the events that won’t come back after this year are the ones that should never happen in-person in the first place or were delivering poorly to their objectives.

How will the wider events industry evolve in 2021?

Organizers will become more focused on purpose and will assess what their audiences want digitally and in-person. The big transformation for the events industry will be how to marry these worlds in a complimentary way. It will be about experimenting and defining what hybrid really means. It will be exciting and challenging.

We've got to be really cognizant of the fact we're learning with our customers as well. We're going through this transformation so quickly that we don't have all the answers immediately. We've got to create value and know that we can really deliver on that promise.


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