Jenifer Bice is senior director of event solutions at Walmart. Her co-author, Bryan Mizelle is also senior director of event solutions with the company. The 2020 U.S. Holiday Meeting was activated in partnership with INVNT. To contribute to eventmarketer.com, email Kait at email@example.com. All brand-side voices welcome.
Change. Adjust. Create. Challenge. Zoom. Screen. Engage. Pivot. These are all words that describe what we have all likely experienced over the past seven months, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the in-person event industry has been dramatically affected, it’s given us a new lens with which to view our craft. What event professionals around the world are doing to step up to the challenge is inspiring.
It’s exciting to see the evolution over the past few months of what a virtual event can be. Whether it’s the Country Music Awards, the Experiential Marketing Summit, one of our Walmart events or something else, we’re all looking for new and innovative ways to get audiences engaged.
At Walmart, we’re much the same as everyone else—canceling large, in-person events, adjusting contracts and figuring out new ways to deliver content through virtual experiences. For us, the March shutdown came the week before our annual Walmart U.S. Year Beginning Meeting that traditionally gathers about 6,500 store leaders over two days in a convention center. Trucks were unloading. People were on the ground setting up. The dates were set. Transportation and hotels were confirmed. The content was nearly complete. And then we had to quickly adjust, moving everything to a video format within a week.
Almost overnight, our more than one million Walmart associates around the country became front line workers, ensuring communities had what they needed in the safest ways possible. So when we set out to develop our annual Holiday Meeting for store leadership, we knew this virtual meeting needed to provide a platform to recognize their hard work while also sharing important information to prepare for what will be the most unique holiday season ever.
A PIVOT TO INSPIRE
Each year our goals for the Holiday Meeting are to prepare store leaders for the upcoming holiday season by sharing best practices, plans for the season, showcasing new merchandise, and recognizing key accomplishments. Leaders from all 50 states gather in one location for two days of learning and networking across general sessions, rotational breakouts, divisional breakouts and a merchandise expo. But it’s 2020, and we all know nothing happens like it used to. So, we set out to bring associates together in the form of a virtual experience online for 7,000 attendees that kicked off Sept. 8-9.
We looked to experiential partners, INVNT, to help us make the shift to virtual. Together, we designed, delivered and managed an attendee experience based on what a Walmart store in “Anytown, USA” would feel like during a typical holiday season. Through an online platform, the Holiday Meeting was brought to life, incorporating the vibrant holiday branding created by our marketing team with the excitement of the holiday season.
The meeting included a variety of session types, presenters and guest appearances, bite-sized content, and some surprises to keep the audience engaged. The general sessions, for example, included a mix of live and pre-recorded executive messages, and attendees could comment on them or talk to each other real time via interactive chats. We also wove a trivia experience throughout the event, which featured a live leaderboard.
The key to all of this was to be creative in the approach. Everyone is Zoomed out, so we came up with more interesting ways to deliver key messages. For instance, we paired our Chief Operating Officer and Chief Customer Officer to compete in a game show, complete with a host, custom graphics, buzzers and a trophy.
While general sessions and specific breakouts were live at certain times, we made the conscious decision for most sessions to be available on demand so attendees could access them in the order they wanted to, based on what is most important to their own businesses and communities. This also allowed our store leaders to navigate through and refer back to all of the information during times that best suited their busy schedules.
The merchandise expo is an integral part of our in-person event, so we took that online, too. Each area of the “merchandise floor” showcased exciting Walmart products for attendees to explore, through videos of merchants or product features, downloadable documents and more. The only thing missing was the taste tests!
While COVID-19 has presented us all with various challenges, one positive is that it’s encouraged us to really flex our creative muscles. It’s an approach that worked well, with the U.S. Holiday Meeting seeing high levels of engagement and receiving positive attendee feedback.
We hope in-person, live events come back very soon, but even when they do many of the things we’ve learned through going virtual are surely going to be here to stay.