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The Year Without An NRF

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You’ve likely heard by now that “Chapter Two” of NRF’s annual Big Show, meant to be in an in-person conference the first week of June in New York – has officially been made virtual. On the event’s online landing page, the reason given is that the Javitz Center is being used that specific week as a venue for vaccine distribution. And while we certainly understand why the folks at NRF would have been hoping we could all meet in person (that is a highly lucrative show, after all), the news hardly comes as a shock: we’re just not ready for such events yet. The only surprising thing about it to me, at least, is that they didn’t make the announcement a few weeks earlier when we were all assembled at the virtual version of Chapter One.

And while we’ve been telling anyone who’s asked anytime over the past few months (as part of trying to lay out a realistic marketing plan) there was no way this event was going to happen, the slow wave of the official news washing over our industry has had a very specific effect. The question we are getting is no longer, “Do you think we’ll be meeting in June in New York?” In very short order it has morphed to a much more urgent, “How on earth are we supposed to get our message in front of retailers now?”

The lack of a true Big Show has left a hole much larger than any of us would have expected. Turns out all those hours on the trade show floor in uncomfortable shoes are worth an awful lot more than most of us realized – even for veterans like us.

2021 would have been my 18th consecutive NRF. For Brian it would have been well into the 20s. And we’ve always known it was valuable. We’d get to see how our clients’ messaging plays out, find out about technologies we’d never hear of otherwise, have interesting conversations with brilliant people and see not only the content that presenters put forth, but the reaction of those being presented to. Turns out that’s tremendously powerful.

And yet because it has been so routine for so long, we’d often bemoan the long hours, the brutal weather while standing in line for taxis, and the invariable flu-like symptoms many of us would start to exhibit on the plane or train on the way home after several days of shaking hands.

Turns out we really, really need that show.

It’s been a solid year now of online meetings and virtual events. We know what a good one looks like, what a bad one feels like, and by and large – how wildly average most of them can be. And when you’re in the business of making cool technologies, wildly average just doesn’t cut it. Chapter One was okay – I wrote up some of the better sessions in this very newsletter a few weeks ago. But the expo hall component was an absolute dud, and every vendor we’ve spoken with since – those whose opinion of it matters most – has said the exact same thing. The industry needs creative alternatives for the online “Let me tell you that 2020 was a strange year” content presentation – and marketing departments are scrambling to come up with ideas to fill the void.

We’ve actually had some fascinating conversations with marketers (both clients and non) to formulate new formats that stand out – if you find yourself in a similar position we’d love to help/hear your ideas as well. This is the kind of stuff we love to do, so please don’t be shy.

And in the meantime, the question lurks: will there be in-person shows in the fall? Maybe a user group conference or two? I’d like to see that, personally. From my point of view, a lot of it will be determined by individual tech vendors’ political stance. I could easily envision a youthful organization hosting something in Texas in September. By that point, not only will the most vulnerable among us and the medical professionals who put themselves in harm’s way to aid them have been vaccinated, but we’ll have a much better idea if we’ll ever get ahead of this virus – or if it will just keep adapting at a rate that guarantees it’s here to stay. The more I read, the more I fear it’s the latter, and that we’re going to have to learn live with this virus in all new ways for many years to come.

And that means that no matter what happens, there are going to be a lot of people – people we’re all trying to reach – that just are not ever going back to a gigantic cinderblock box full of sweaty humanity bumping into one another, hugging friends and sharing handshakes and appetizer trays with total strangers.

The race to stand out in the year without and NRF just got a whole lot more competitive.

Newsletter Articles February 9, 2021
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