Face-to-face events continue to take a back seat due to the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving associations to find unique alternatives for members to stay connected and engaged. Many associations are using technology to bring members together, but how do you standout? One unique format is a virtual trade show. As technology and online platforms are becoming more sophisticated, so too are virtual trade shows, making them the affordable option for online-only events.

Everyone knows what a traditional exhibition hall looks like, so it is easier to visualize how an in-person event will play out. The challenge for a virtual trade show is finding an online platform that can help mimic the traditional trade show style while also providing a return on investment to the attendees and exhibitors. Successfully planning and executing a virtual trade show can help convince an association’s members that the online solution would be a great alternative to an in-person event.

The first step is to find an ideal online platform for your association’s event, but it is not the only key factor in getting association members to attend. Just like in real life, effective step-by-step planning still applies to virtual events.

Create a Strategic Plan for your Association’s Virtual Trade Show

To start off, your event should have measurable objectives for the organizer, the attendee, and the exhibitor. As a trade show manager, you need to ensure that all partners are being considered and their goals of being involved are met. Ensure that ideas are communicated to all parties from the earliest planning stages throughout to the execution and evaluation.

Your plans must also be realistic, achievable, measurable, and inspiring; you need your members to see value in the event Explain to them that in the virtual environment, association members will be able to interact with customers, share product information, generate leads, and check out competitors – just like they could at an in-person event but without the expense and constraints of travel, and a physical booth. Tell exhibitors that the more content they can provide in their booths, such as videos or web links, the more attendees they will attract.

Provide a Demo for your Association Members

Give exhibitors a sample of the show floor with a demo. Show them what the event could look and feel like to exhibitors and members “walking” the show floor. Include key features such as how they can interact with members and how they are able to track who has visited them. Traditional trade shows provide a list of all attendees with their contact information, and the virtual platform should be the same.

Develop a Marketing Plan

Use social media channels, to reach potential attendees and exhibitors to your virtual trade show. Determine where your audience prefers to go online for information and entertainment and use that to your advantage; common marketing platforms are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and email blasts.

Provide Education

Keep members engaged by including educational elements like prerecorded sessions by industry speakers. Prerecorded sessions can help accommodate attendees from different time zones and allow them to view sessions at their own pace. Personalizing how members can interact and experience the virtual trade show can help them get the most value out of the event on their own time. Use push notifications to advertise upcoming sessions and reward members with education credits for viewing a session. The rewards can be enticing to attendees and ensure value to the speaker as well.


Giveaways are always a smart way to increase attendee engagement and can be a fun addition to a virtual event. Contests can help drive attendees to participate more in the online event. Attendees can complete an exhibitor bingo sheet by visiting ‘x’ number of booths. You can encourage attendees to “Make a Connection” by entering a draw or sharing their event experiences on social media. This also keeps the online buzz going. You should always create an event-only hashtag.

Create Networking Opportunities for your Association Members

Provide dedicated networking time to encourage attendees to meet through video calls or group chats. Make sure your colleagues and members are not suffering from Zoom fatigue by reading my colleague’s recent article. Networking time could be themed to engage more than just the attendee; it can even include their family. You could also extend the networking to include health and well being activities like online yoga or body weight exercises. It is a great change from the norm and breaks up the day while incorporating some movement. Help your body get ready to engage!

In conclusion, the design of the virtual platform is key to driving the success of your event and creating ROI. Read more about increasing event ROI in my colleague’s article. Make sure your online event has wow factor and captures the ‘walk’ traffic.