Recently, John Bettag, Heritage Nationwide Exposition Services’ Sales and Business Development Team Leader, was invited to address the International Association of Exhibitions and Events. John, who has 30 years of experience in the events industry, spoke during a panel titled Effective Collaboration = Successful Shows

A recent Heritage client joined John during his presentation–Alison Milgram, Director of Events for the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). John and Alison looked back on their efforts to hold PCMA’s annual Convening Leaders event, which took place in Las Vegas this January. Here, we cover the highlights. 

Bringing Back Convening Leaders

Traditionally, Convening Leaders was held in a different city each year with the goal of helping event professionals, organizations, and brands connect and learn about business event management. That was still the objective for 2022’s installment, but PCMA and Heritage faced some unique challenges along the way. 

First, this year’s event marked PCMA’s first time holding the event after a two-year break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, it had to be produced over a far shorter planning period than usual and was being held in a brand new location–CAESARS FORUM in Las Vegas, which had just opened in October 2020.

“We were in a very new facility, so the ideas we developed weren’t from pre-existing examples or events that had been held there before. They were new creations – it was basically taking a blank canvas and having to figure out how to brand it and do the other things PCMA wanted to do to create an event experience,” John said.

Meanwhile, the team had to deal with other issues, like finding ways to represent partners and exhibitors who wanted a presence on the show floor though they were unable or unwilling to travel for the event. Alison said Heritage displayed an “amazing” ability to deal with situations like these while delivering reliable results:

“When I came up with something crazy, nobody ever said ‘nope, sorry, we’re not going to do that.’ It was ‘we’re going to figure it out – we’re going to find a solution to this.’ And time and time again, they did,” she said.

New Challenges and Opportunities

Event organizers worked hard to create an experience that felt intimate and personal for attendees, even though the expo was held in a 110,000-square-foot space.

Of course, this was not the only goal PCMA and Heritage had to meet to make Convening Leaders 2022 a success. They also had to find a way to hold a massive event that included everything from education opportunities across four stages to food and beverages, all while keeping exhibitors and attendees as safe as possible. According to Alison, a significant portion of the planning process for the expo focused on health and safety:

“Once everyone was in Vegas and in that environment, they really embraced the fact that we were all back together again. But leading up to it, we spent a lot of time on hand sanitizer stations, spacing out chairs, and setting up the buffet so people wouldn’t touch and breathe on everything. Those were opportunities to create an event attendees could enjoy while staying safe,” she said.

Convening Leaders 2022 was far from the first event Heritage organized since the pandemic started – the company handled approximately 140 events in 2021. The business was still getting back on its feet in early 2022, but it was only able to reach that point thanks to the commitment of its workers.

“Fortunately, throughout the pandemic, we were able to retain a good volume of our employees. While we all had to sit on the sidelines for a little while, we brought back all of our employees–we didn’t lose that knowledge base,” John said.

John went on to discuss how COVID-19 gave Heritage a chance to rethink its standard operating procedures (SOPs): “When everything’s good and you’re busy, you can look past the SOPs a little bit. But we realized that those SOPs really meant something–those are things that we hung our hat on and really focused on as we came back to life. We weren’t doing events for 18 months, which was a challenge, but it was also an opportunity to look at things like that, figure out what’s working, and improve upon the things we can improve upon.”

How Event Planning Has Changed Since 2020

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has led to some significant changes in the event planning industry. To name just one example, some events now require participants to be fully vaccinated. That was the case for Convening Leaders 2022, which resulted in some difficult conversations with sponsors, partners, and attendees:

“Despite having been in customer service for most of my career in one way or another, that was a large challenge and a huge opportunity for me to learn. I was very passionate about what PCMA had decided and how we made decisions to do the best we could based on the knowledge we had, but everyone has their own opinions on the pandemic and how we should stay safe. The biggest thing that will stay with me was some of the conversations I had with people – some of the times that I had to say ‘I’m sorry, but you cannot be there if you are not fully vaccinated,’” Alison said.

According to John, event planning timelines have also been reduced across the industry. In some cases, events that Heritage would have once spent a year planning have to be organized within a month or two. Because of that, he said it is more important than ever for event organizers to work closely with their clients:

“Planning time for events is compressed, and all of our SOPs and project models are built across a much longer period of time. I think you have to communicate much more than we ever did before–we have clients today who are just coming back to do their first events since 2019. Even though we’ve done those events before, our clients are thinking differently than they were before the pandemic. We understand that it may not go back to the way it was, so we’re trying to move forward in a different way,” he said.

Getting Back to “Normal”

Though the world is still not anywhere near a state of pre-COVID normalcy, a great deal has changed since March 2020. Previously feared to be all but extinct, in-person events are once again thriving and should continue to do so well into the future.

Alison said PCMA plans to work with Heritage on next year’s Convening Leaders event: “We’re looking forward to holding Convening Leaders 2023 in an entirely different city with entirely different needs. We were fortunately able to hold some outdoor experiences because the weather in Vegas happened to be gorgeous in January, which isn’t always the case there. In Columbus, I think it would take a miracle to have an outside event. But we rebuild Convening Leaders every year based on where we are–it’s one of the things I love so much about it. It is always Convening Leaders, it is always in January, but it is never the same meeting.”

Heritage is still re-evaluating its business strategies in the wake of the pandemic, especially in regards to how it helps its employees.

“Taking care of our people is first and foremost here at Heritage. That’s different today compared to what it meant even two years ago. Then, it was ‘how do we help them get through this financially and deal with whatever else that looks like?’ Today, we’re crazy busy–we have more coming at us than we’ve ever seen in the past because the landscape has changed. Every company that’s active in our space is having to do things a little bit differently, but we want to take care of our people and make sure that they’re not overwhelmed,” John said.

Collaboration is Key

Real-world events are a highly effective way to get the word out about your organization, and that hasn’t changed as a result of COVID. What has changed is the event planning industry. In order to make your next event go off without a hitch, you’ll need to know how to handle health and safety concerns while easing participants back into the world of in-person conventions–all on a tighter timeline than ever before.

Consider collaborating with a professional partner like Heritage Nationwide Exposition Services for your next trade show, convention, or expo. With over five decades of experience and locations in 60-plus US cities, Heritage is perfectly positioned to make your event a runaway success.