Reimagining Retail’s Big Show

Tips for navigating January’s virtual event, NRF 2021 – Chapter One
Susan Reda
VP, Education Strategy

NRF’s annual conference and expo has been around for more than 100 years, and each year has been a bit different as Retail’s Big Show progressed with the times.

We’re making some changes again for 2021. But this time it has little to do with shifts in the retail industry and everything to do with adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the nation and the world for nearly a year.

NRF 2021: Retail’s Big Show – Chapter 1 will be virtual. While retailers, exhibitors, media and the like won’t be together in a physical sense, many traditions that are hallmarks of the show have been reimagined for the January event.

Consumer trends

Check out the latest innovations and trends in the retail industry here.

Will there be a way to meet up with vendors showcasing emerging new technology? Of course.

Are there still keynote and feature stage sessions delivering timely content? You bet.

Will there be opportunities to network – even if attendees can’t meet face to face? Absolutely.

Any surprise guests or celebrities? Stay tuned.

‘A new mindset’

NRF worked closely with Freeman Company, the same New York-based firm we partner with to produce Big Show in person, and registered attendees will be able to connect with more than 250 exhibitors at NRF 2021 – Chapter 1. There are also more than 45 educational sessions curated by NRF and more than 80 Exhibitor Big Ideas meetings, plus numerous prospects for networking with peers, meeting up with colleagues and being introduced to new connections.

“It’s not about duplicating what was done at the Javits Center and moving it online. It’s about navigating the event in a new way with a new mindset,” says Matthew Gill, producer of digital success at Freeman.

“Success in a 2D environment looks different than success in a 3D environment. In many ways, virtual events have opened doors — we’re all working in ways that we’ve never had to work together before. That’s the COVID silver lining.”

Tech-enabled connections

While fresh doughnuts and a bottomless supply of coffee are likely to be in short supply for registrants attending via work-from-home computers, Gill says the January conference and expo will still be nourishing.

Attendees will have access to a pre-event landing page beginning December 28 and extending through the start of the show. There, they can explore networking offerings using the “Schedule a Meeting” function. Along with traditional outreach to set up meetings, Gill says the feature is powered by an AI matchmaking platform that meshes registration data across the event and suggests potential meet-ups with like-minded peers.

Once NRF 2021 – Chapter 1 opens on January 12, there will be a plethora of chances to network, hear from a notable list of speakers, engage with exhibitors and participate in Exhibitor Big Ideas, the Equality Lounge and the newly created Interactive Discussion Rooms.

Gill also called out the Help Desk Live Agent, just a click away for those who experience hiccups when trying to engage.

“In the same way that there’s a help desk at a live event, we will have a virtual help desk powered by chatbot technology to assist those who may have log-in issues or the like,” he says.

“The platform is tactical, so once users begin to interact it becomes intuitive. It’s a lot like YouTube — once someone clicks into something, the preview screen comes up and they can engage with the content.”

Learnings for the future

Though many say they can’t wait to return to in-person events, Gill feels that the future will not be about turning back to what was but rather re-engineering events for a new time and, in many ways, a new attendee.

“Looking ahead I expect there will be a hybrid virtual component built into every event. Conferences of the future will need to appeal to the professionals that miss the handshake, the hug and the meetup at a local bar, as well as the millennials and Gen Zers who may not have been able to attend in-person events in the past because of cost or other factors,” he says.

“I think we will see more disruption across industries — events included. We’re building event spaces for a broader base of users. Those who have now spent the last eight months attending virtual events won’t easily give that up.

“There are so many new opportunities opening up for those that have used the pivot to virtual to explore new certifications, accreditations and trainings. It’s about embracing the value in virtual.”

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