Creating Successful Business Connections Virtually – an IRL ‘how-to’

In today’s climate, business as usual and 2020 are terms that go together about as well as oil and water. The COVID-19 outbreak forced associations to assess the status quo of how to deliver value through events. The Southern Association of Wholesale Distributors, a.k.a. “The Southern,” was no exception. Last August, this 97-year-old organization maintained its annual meeting goal and created virtual connections. Here’s how.

As the trade association representing convenience wholesale distributors in the southeast United States, The Southern’s membership spans from Texas to Virginia. Member companies have an annual gross revenue of $50 billion and represent nearly 50 percent of all convenience stores in the United States. In other words, The Southern means business - its Annual Meeting is a place where business gets done.

The signature event at The Southern’s Annual Meeting is called Ten-2-Profit, essentially a reverse trade show that hosts speed dating for businesses. At the in-person event, distributors would be seated at tables and remain stationary while vendors bounced from table to table presenting their latest product lines in pre-set 10-minute appointments.

There were two keys to preserve when transitioning this event into a virtual setting: buyer and seller interaction and 10-minute appointments. The reality of our situation was simple: schedule 900-plus meetings within a five-hour time span. So, we set out to choose the right software to meet these needs.

The most important thing to remember when planning a virtual event is to make it as easy as possible for your attendees. This means your virtual event will be far more successful if the path of least resistance is from the attendees’ perspective rather than the planners’.

Thanks to its ease of use and the ability to screen share video with audio, Zoom Video Communications, Inc. won out. Not to mention, most people had about four months of Zoom training by the time of our event.

For distributors, we obtained 50-plus Zoom licenses and created virtual rooms for each distribution company. Typically, distributors would have its own table at the in-person event. With the virtual experience, all the distributors had to do was open their Zoom rooms and stay in it all afternoon as vendors would filter in and out.

For vendors, we sent each person a personalized schedule with a link to each distributor’s meeting room. All the vendors simply had to do was click on the distributor’s specific meeting link when it was time to meet. For example:

Joe’s Product Company Meeting Schedule                                                                                         

1)  12:30 p.m. – 12:42 p.m.    Doug’s Company

2)  12:45 p.m. – 12:57 p.m.    Barrel Point Wholesale

3)  1:00 p.m. – 1:12 p.m.        Peter Wholesale

4)  1:15 p.m. – 1:27 p.m.       Suburban Grocery

5)  1:30 p.m. – 1:42 p.m.       Glide Distributing

We extended the appointment times to 12-minutes to provide both sides with more time. Two extra minutes may not seem like a lot, but when your original meeting is 10 minutes and there’s real business on the line those two extra minutes might as well be gold.

We also provided a three-minute buffer between meetings to allow vendors time to close out of their existing appointment and move on to the next one. We assured both vendors and distributors that if a meeting did not take place due to technological difficulties, the association would reschedule the appointment at a later date.

Although we were confident we made the virtual event as seamless and straightforward as possible, we still wanted to cover all our bases. A few days prior to Ten-2-Profit, we hosted a Zoom tutorial for both vendors and distributors, showing them the ins and outs of the software and allowing them to test it on the computers they would be using for the event.

On the day of the event, The Southern staff acted as technical and customer support when the Ten-2-Profit kicked off. Fortunately, the event went off without a hitch as both vendors and distributors saw great value in the virtual event. Not one of the 900-plus meetings had to be rescheduled!

The virtual meeting was so successful, the association is now exploring hosting more interactions like these between their in-person annual meetings.

Although The Southern’s members missed the networking and social interactions of the in-person meeting, they will be the first to tell you that business was still able to get done … virtually.

By: VJ Mayor, CAE, Account Executive, The Southern Association of Wholesale Distributors, a.k.a. The Southern. 

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