Virtual Cultivate’20 Pt. 1: Exhibitors get to participate

There’s no getting around it: I was worried about Virtual Cultivate’20. I was worried AmericanHort wouldn’t see the attendance they had hoped. I was worried the platform wouldn’t hold up to the traffic if people showed up. I was worried exhibitors wouldn’t see any traffic through the virtual trade show.

It turned out the only thing I had to fear was fear itself.

Virtual Cultivate’20 was as engaging and entertaining as I could have hoped. I looked forward to each of the four days of the conference from start to finish. (For all you exhibitors, you know how hard it is to keep it going around noon on Tuesday!)

Let’s take a look at how the show went from a vendor’s perspective, what worked, what didn’t and what we’re looking forward to in the future — if virtual conferences continue past 2020.

What it was like to actually participate in virtual Cultivate’20

For the first time, I got a chance to see what it was like to actually participate in a Cultivate conference. “But Amanda,” you may say, “Practical Software Solutions has been an exhibitor for 10 years! Of course you got to participate in Cultivate!”

Not so fast. The most I ever got to do at Cultivate was to attend a pre-show breakfast discussion, usually hosted by one of the trade publications. The rest of the time, I was either in our trade show booth or at least walking around the trade show floor. While you could get some semblance of what the trade show was like, you couldn’t really get a feel for the entire conference.

With Cultivate’20 being online, I was able to actually participate in many of the networking events, even while sitting in the comfort of my trade show booth (which was technically my office). This was the first time I was actually able to interact with the show attendees who were not just interested in Grower Vertical or other software products we offer.

My favorite part each day was participating in the Coffee Chat networking sessions. All participants joined a Zoom meeting room for a welcome and introduction, then we were randomly sent into different rooms in groups of five to eight. We were given a couple of questions to discuss over 15 minutes, which were sometimes answered or sometimes lost in a different train of thought.

Virtual Cultivate'20 trade show

While exhibiting at the trade show is great, Virtual Cultivate’20 allowed exhibitors to participate in more of the convention.

I got a chance to talk to HortScholars, marketers, professors, finished growers, IGC owners, young plant growers, manufacturers, retirees, and AmericanHort representatives, to name a few. We talked about how COVID-19 affected the industry, how to retain customers who were introduced to gardening this year, and how supply chain management was the No. 1 thing AmericanHort concentrated on. We learned exactly what I had said for years: That no matter where you fit in the industry, you can learn from everyone and anyone, even if your segments don’t match on a 1:1 ratio.

The afternoon networking sessions were slightly more formal with sticking to the questions posed each day, but they still had the same effect of bringing together people who normally wouldn’t strike up a conversation at a large event such as Cultivate. It reminded me a bit of Sage Summit, where you sat down for your buffet lunch at a large table, and you would mostly sit next to someone you’d never met and have a nice chat.

While I didn’t have a chance to attend the evening networking sessions, everyone raved about how successful they were. I was happy to hear these were well attended. From what I saw in the Zoom chats, most everyone was participating from home, so it was easy to transition to participating in a post-show event, especially for those on the West Coast. Speaking of time zones, people were generally in agreement that the show’s official start time each day of 10 a.m. eastern was about as fair as you can ask for people participating across North America.

Other exhibitors I came across said the same thing: It was really nice to actually participate in the conference instead of being sequestered in a 10′ x 20′ space, or to the trade show floor itself. Even better, we did get to participate in Cultivate’20 while still being in our trade show booth!

Education for virtual Cultivate’20 wasn’t up to par for AmericanHort

The folks at AmericanHort were really in a bind as far as educational sessions for Virtual Cultivate’20. The whole reason-to-be during the 90-year history of Cultivate is its educational sessions. However, due to a lack of bandwidth (literally and figuratively), it would have been impossible for AmericanHort to host every single one of its usual educational sessions.

You could tell it was the biggest regret of all of the AmericanHort people I spoke with. From receiving CE credits to learning what worked and what didn’t over the past 12 months, the educational sessions are the most important part of the conference. They were handcuffed this year, but this may change if virtual conferences stick around for more than a year.

One of the best things about networking is how discussions can turn into brainstorming sessions. Since most of the networking sessions featured at least one AmericanHort representative, these brainstorming sessions did not fall on deaf ears.

Whenever the idea of how to improve the virtual educational sessions was brought up, it was met with a wealth of ideas — some crazy, some not — of how AmericanHort could try to still have all of its sessions. These ideas ranged from using a platform like Zoom or Teams to hold more classes at once, to having several smaller digital events throughout the year to get all the educational sessions in.

That’s not to say the educational sessions that were a part of Virtual Cultivate’20 weren’t successful. By all accounts, they were well attended and well received. Every networking session seemed to include a couple of people talking about one of the sessions from the day before and how they liked it.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at how the trade show went and whether Virtual Cultivate’20 was a success or not.

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