This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Exhibition & Convention Executives Forum (ECEF), but in many respects, ECEF 2021 — making its debut as a hybrid event — will feel entirely new. Produced by Lippman Connects, the in-person ECEF 21 will take place Nov. 3 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, with a program online Nov. 1-5.
For its first 18 years, the face-to-face event was held in late May/early June. The 2020 edition was moved to the fall in the hopes that COVID would be under control by then, but then became a fully digital event. “When we were looking at dates for 2021,” said Sam Lippman, president and founder of Lippman Connects, “we felt that the best chance we would have of meeting in person would be to continue to put it into the fourth quarter. So, we moved it as close to Thanksgiving as we could.”
But finding dates in the fourth quarter, Lippman found “is nigh on impossible, especially considering I wanted champagne on a beer budget and that ECEF is not a high-revenue event,” he said. “And I didn’t want to be one-third of a ballroom and sharing it with cheerleaders and pipefitters.”
Lippman said that he was able to find a space — the Hyatt’s Independence Center — that kept the event in the D.C. area. “That was crucial because that’s where associations are located,” he said. The site, he added, is “unique in that it gave me all of the room I needed to spread out or contract as needed based on COVID realities a year in advance.”
One thing that won’t change is keeping the in-person program to a one-day event. “The No. 1 piece of feedback I’ve heard over the years,” he said, is, “’I love the one-day event; I can get in the night before and get out the next day and conduct a lot of business.’”
Lippman recently shared with Convene a draft of the event floorplan — and the thinking behind the event’s physical and program redesign.
This space is very different than where you’ve typically hosted ECEF. How did that lead you to reconfigure the entire event?
In 2019, we had a jewel-box setting — everyone facing the stage seated in long tables and a program with long networking breaks. In 2021, I realized we weren’t going to go backwards. People did not want to sit in a jewel box, even with long breaks and listen to highly curated content. So, what we did was we created an entire day of networking that is accentuated with four, one-hour blocks of programming. So, we turned it inside out.
When looking at the space, what we did was we put in the biggest things first, which was 150 people theater/classroom–style. Where was the best place — the only place — in the Independence Center to do that? And from there, we were able to figure out functionally the meal seating area in the part of the space with low ceilings — that’s what determined that would be where we would have meals. Now we don’t know how meals are going to be served yet because we don’t know what’s going to happen in November.
The first function was the stage. The second function was food. There will be a space for a studio for ECEF TV, set up by CNTV, for executive interviews and on-the-floor reports. Once I saw the space, I thought that if I’m sitting in the back of one of the main sessions and I see somebody heading over to get another cup of coffee or the tech demo, I want to be able to get up and see them and talk to them.
If I’m in the speed-networking area and over to the far left, and I see someone at one of the tech-demo kiosks, when I finished my speed date, I can walk over and talk to them. So, what I’ve tried to create is two different ways of networking. One would be organic and natural, and that would be bumping into somebody at the tech demo, bumping into somebody heading in and out of the restrooms. And then the speed-networking appointments is the other way.
What’s not on this floorplan is a make-your-own-video kiosk, the idea being that people could share something like an answer to the question, What’s the best thing you’ve learned today?
What are you planning for the digital ECEF audience?
We are looking to have the C-level executive audience participate online via the platform, and they will be able to do polling questions and vote. They’ll be able to have video meetings with other attendees either in person or online. Sessions will be livestreamed.
The online and in-person audience will both have access to the same voting and polling tool. So, for the four hours of content, they will be for practical purposes, one audience, and we will have the availability for the online audience to also interact with the tech-demo kiosks, to set up appointments, and to ask questions during the Q&A.
What are you finding to be most challenging and most interesting in terms of redesigning this event?
I would say that the biggest challenge is economics. I mean the budgeting, the costs — that’s the biggest challenge. As far as the creativity, it’s just, gosh-darn fun to be looking at this floorplan and creating something new. Creating something that’s going to be in person, finally. In person is what we know, it’s what we enjoy. And it’s a lot easier to change things around on the floorplan than it is to do that same thing when you’re a couple of months or a couple of weeks into creating your online-only platform.
Creating the online platform, if you want to make any changes, it’s very difficult. For the in-person part of the event, you can just use an eraser to make changes to the floorplan.
Do you have any sense of how many people to expect face to face and online?
We have two things happening at cross purposes. The first thing is people are really, really anxious to be in person. And the second, equally in the other direction, is a gazillion people are going to have their own events in October and November, so they won’t be able to come to my event because they’ll be hosting their own. And that’s one of the reasons why we decided to really try to see if we can get 45 to 60 C-level executives to log in on Nov. 3, because if they’re in Chicago or Dallas or Beijing doing their own event and it’s move-in that day or it’s move-out that day, or they don’t have an event until that evening, would they spend $145 and log on with their laptop? We’ll see.
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.