REVIEW OF ASNT's DI/UT VIRTUAL CONFERENCE & OTHERS IN NDT
Where we are, areas for improvement, and how to get the most out of an exhibit
By Marybeth Miceli
NDTnow.com is starting a series to review as many of the virtual conferences as we can over the new few months as we all adjust to this temporary new normal way of doing business. We are fresh off of the ASNT Digital Imaging and Ultrasonics Conference which was scheduled to happen the last week of July in New Orleans. This was ASNT’s second all virtual conference following the mass shutdown of conferences this this past Spring. It is certainly a brand new world in terms of onsite events and it is making us rethink the whole way every piece of a conference and exhibition are executed. It is also making us analyze why it is that people attend them as well as how business actually gets done in NDT.
WHERE WE ARE
First, a big kudos to ASNT for bravely navigating this virtual conference format and trying to make the best of it. Certainly, there were commendable innovations on ASNT’s part that should be mentioned.
Platform - ASNT went into this conference using a platform from Digitell, which had interfaces for the overall conference, the technical sessions, exhibit hall, as well as tech support and even gamification badges. There were advantages and disadvantages of this system but overall, it was more than adequate for continuing education, chatting, and the general intellectual idea exchange that occurs during technical talks. The exhibit hall format, however, even with the gamification of it, did not result in as much of the coveted foot traffic for which these conferences generally are so important. Some of this is because of the limitations inherent in virtual exhibits, but some was on the exhibitors themselves and we will explore this more below.
Virtual happy hour – This was an innovative way to get folks to engage at the beginning of the conference. Attendees hopped onto the Digitell system while ASNT, the conference organizers, and the exhibitors were on zoom to be able to speak. Each exhibitor was given one minute to introduce themselves, moderated well by Ruth Staat from ASNT. Later, we will give you some tips on how to make the most of this time. Remember, the goal is to get folks to come to your booth later so we all need to work on how best to accomplish this (but again more on this later...). Then, since the program was supposed to be in New Orleans, we had a Creole cooking demonstration. Chef Joshua Wickham from the Culinary Department of the Columbus State Community College, Columbus, Ohio was both engaging and helpful (even I, as avid home chef, learned some tips). There was about 15 minutes left for engaging with the exhibitors “in” the exhibit hall part of the platform. Looking back at this, perhaps it would have been better to have the cooking demonstration at the beginning as an ice breaker and welcome, then the exhibitor intros and then right to the “hall” to engage directly with the exhibitors.
Keynote – This was impressive. ASNT’s conference organizers managed to get a celebrity who actually knew about NDT. Brad Keselowski, the driver of the #2 car on Team Penske Motorsports talked about his company Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing and how they utilize PT and XRCT in their processes and why it is so important. Had this program not been virtual, we would not have had the opportunity to hear this talk given that the busy NASCAR season is in full swing (actually double time, due to COVID-19.) This was inspiring to me, perhaps because I am always so surprised when anyone knows what NDT is, let alone a celeb or sports figure!
Educational program – Now I did not attend every talk BUT I will say I got to attend more talks than I normally do and I did hear this from other individuals as well. Folks who normally would be at a booth or talking in the halls about ASNT committee work were able to attend talks, get recert points and gain powerful information about the latest technological advancements and research. The chat function was easy to use and was used well throughout the conference. Handouts were easily accessed directly on the site after day one, which was convenient. The ASNT app which has been used for all events for several years now was easily accessible and interfaced easily with codes to get credit for attending technical talks. Lastly, intermixing video of the speaker with the slides was a little more engaging than typical webinars with slides only.
AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
Though the technical program appeared to run smoothly, it seems that we still have a ways to go on the exhibit hall and business front. This is certainly not on ASNT, it’s simply something that the conference industry as a whole has not figured out yet. Digitell seem to be experts in the field and well regarded. In fact, they are completely sold out for 2020 and not taking any new business. However, I would argue that virtual exhibit halls could use some more features. NDT is known as a belly to belly business and we thrive on in person meetings. I think there are some easy ways to improve upon this with a “virtual hallway” open zoom with available break out rooms, an arrangement of companies around “the hall”, giving the spatial feel of a hall, and dedicated hours where you could “walk” around the hall and visit various companies’ open zoom rooms or video conference rooms.
That said, there was a chat function for most of the vendors, which did not accommodate for time zone differences so I was constantly chatting in the future (if only!) There was also a one on one feature where you could reserve a time to speak with a vendor and this was facilitated via zoom. While this worked fine, many vendors did not have this feature set up even though they paid for it (it was a feature with the Premium package but not the basic package.) So then you were stuck with the chat feature or trying to catch their “virtual showcase”. The latter, I never got to work. The first one I attended popped up a zoom room in which there was a gentleman coughing and once he realized I was on the line, ended the zoom meeting and I could not get back in. On the second one, I was stuck in the waiting room in the zoom for 10 minutes before I gave up. Did anyone else have a different experience with these? We would love to hear from you.
In general, the vendors I spoke to said the traffic was lower than expected but all expressed that ASNT was doing their best. Agreed, but I think if we are going to be stuck doing business this way for a while, we need to find an alternative. In addition to my suggestions above, I believe the exhibit hall should be on a platform that can open to anyone at all. This would provide more value for the exhibitors and allow for even more interaction within the community. This is something that ASNT is looking at for their annual conference.
HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF AN EXHIBIT DURING COVID-19
So, as a vendor at many a conference, I will say these times are challenging for sure. And while the format is not ideal, many of the vendors did not take full advantage of the tools and opportunities given to them. Let’s start with the introduction opportunity. ASNT gave exhibitors a chance to give a one minute intro to entice people to engage with them further, some did this extremely well (we’re looking at you, Dan Guerrero, from Willick!) and some, well, fell really flat.
Here are 5 tips to make the most of this kind of opportunity.
Show up – well this might seem like a no-brainer but seriously, some people did not even show up. We understand that some folks had some technical difficulties with the zoom invite and got on late but some did not show up at all. Yikes.
Make sure your camera is working and that you are presentable – it is important for folks to see your face. Maybe they don’t recognize your name but they do recognize your face. Use every available avenue to connect with a potential buyer. Additionally, make sure you are dressed professionally and that your background is equally professional. Use a virtual background if you must. Lastly, if your system allows it, be sure to put your name and organization on the screen for your introduction. You don’t want to leave viewers saying, “Wait, where was he/she from again?”
Gratitude and Hospitality - we know that every second in that minute is precious but take a moment to thank the organizers and the folks for showing up and remember to welcome them. This goes a long way in life and in sales.
Be prepared and personable – just like the boy scouts, always be prepared. You’ve got one minute, one chance to present your company or latest product to the attendees. Be sure you don’t spend too much of that time saying uh… but also, try to refrain from reading a statement. Look at the camera, speak clearly, smile, and you might even want to crack a joke. Just like no one wants to hear someone read off of a powerpoint, no one wants to hear you reading from a piece of paper.
Entice folks to come to the booth – tell them what you have to show them at the booth and why they should come by. Focus on the what’s in it for them. Why should they take time out of their busy work day, not only to attend the conference but to make it to your “booth” to set up a one on one.
Next up, use the tools available. As mentioned above, many vendors did not even set up the one on one appointments for people to meet with their people. Whether this was a technical issue, a timing issue, or apathy, it was a poor showing.
Overall, we all need to come together to brainstorm the best way to get business done during COVID and during devastation to the O&G and commercial aviation industries. NDT is a resilient business and we will get through this if we pool our ideas to try to make our “show” experience the most productive and engaging that it can be.
Thank you to ASNT for providing a press pass to We-NDT in order to write this article.
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