PPAI’s first live, virtual trade show, held January 11-14, 2021, not only exceeded expectations, but it also delivered on all the touchpoints both attendees and exhibitors have been craving.

In the comfort and safety of their homes and offices, PPAI brought exhibitors and distributors together for Expo Direct-2-You, the first live, virtual trade show of its kind. While the connections were made on a platform instead of a convention center floor, the spirit of the PPAI Expo, the industry’s largest and longest-running trade show, permeated the four-day show from start to finish. 

At the core of the virtual experience was PPAI’s objective to provide a forum to engage members and facilitate their ability to do business together.

With nearly 500 exhibiting companies and close to 11,000 distributors in attendance, this one-of-a-kind virtual, live event not only met its objective but attracted almost as many attendees as PPAI sees at its long-running PPAI Expo in Las Vegas. All in all, the multi-layered, four-day virtual experience resulted in 479,620 booth visits, 331,833 chats with exhibitors, 178,181 scans, 439,611 product views, 31,000 education visits and 10,000 visits to the networking lounges.

Above: D2U Live emcee BJ Smith (in cap) interviews PPAI Interim President Bob McLean during one of the in-studio segments. Above, right: Sharon and Frank Yuloff, principals of Yuloff Creative Marketing Solutions, present one of the nearly 20 professional development sessions delivered during Expo D2U.

When it was first announced last September that PPAI wouldn’t be able to hold a live show in Las Vegas because of COVID-19 restrictions and would instead create a new, virtual experience for members, PPAI promised the same quality and scope of event that members have come to expect at the PPAI Expo. Working with its technology partner, SAGE, and long-time associate, Freeman, the PPAI staff created a one-of-a-kind virtual show with education sessions, live Q&A, pop-up events, gamification, networking lounges, social events and a live master of ceremonies sharing highlights and interviews throughout the four days of the event.

Staggered opening times each morning allowed attendees to participate in live chats in the various networking lounges, then be entertained as D2U Live professional emcee BJ Smith reviewed the day’s agenda, interviewed special guests and introduced other live and pre-recorded segments from Freeman’s Dallas studio. Included were an early-morning energy-infused Coffee & Comedy featuring comedian Collin Moulton and live interviews with PPAI executive and management staff; incoming Chair Todd Pottebaum, MAS+; outgoing Chair Ira Neaman, MAS; leaders from exhibitors Next Level Apparel, Artech Pro and Richardson Seating Corporation and PPEF Chair Dana Porter, MAS, among others. D2U also featured caricature artist Jehu Campos, pet pop-ups where attendees could introduce their furry friends, yoga sessions and video interviews with PPAI’s Hall of Fame, Distinguished Service and H. Ted Olson Humanitarian Award winners. Mid-week the day wound down with an online, singalong piano bar that welcomed everyone in. 

Just like at an in-person Expo, four Product Pavilions showcased the latest in the key categories of New Products, Green Products, Made In The USA and PPE Products and made it easy for attendees to browse the offerings. The “show floor” gave attendees quick access to nearly 500 exhibitors. With a single click on the “booth,” they could interact with company reps in live chats, see the company’s video, view highlighted products and request more information. They were able to create their walk lists in advance and take notes on what they saw and heard using handy tools available on the platform.

Industry education, a central element at the Expo, remained front and center at this year’s virtual event with a broad array of scheduled and on-demand programming offered daily by PPAI, SAGE and commonsku. 

Above: Even though it was virtual this year, past and current board members meet for their annual update and to catch-up about PPAI. Above, right: Show attendees could scroll and click through to all of the nearly 500 exhibiting companies, and create walk lists and use other tools on the platform.

One could almost hear the familiar roar of the crowd rising within the Mandalay Bay Convention Center as participants shared comments throughout the show using the chat function. That sense of community was further strengthened with a variety of networking lounges, annual meetings and social events held during the week, including PPAI’s Icon Recognition event where PPAI presented its top honors to the 2021 PPAI Hall Of Fame inductee Teresa Moisant, MAS; the 2021 PPAI Distinguished Service Award recipient Mark Abels, MAS; and the 2021 PPAI H. Ted Olson Humanitarian Award recipient Bob Waldorf, CAS. 

PPAI Expo Direct-2-You was an opportunity for the Association to step well beyond the boundaries of a traditional, in-person trade show, but trying something new comes with risks. During the first day, the platform had its technical challenges, but the problems were immediately addressed and quickly resolved. As a result, PPAI extended the show hours starting the second day to give attendees ample time to see and experience it all.



“The Expo impressed me this year. It’s a nice platform that is user-friendly. We are able to see all the resources and download them and/or bookmark them. This ‘virtual Expo’ has allowed me to attend and pause [as I need to] during the day. I really like the flexibility!”
Jessica Pozo, Warehouse Uniform & Embroidery

“To be honest, I am learning more about some of the companies [from] watching their videos than if I was walking the show floor. And being able to see info on products in the Product Pavilion is great and with no one blocking your view.”
Jay Shaplin, MAS, Sonic Promos

“I’ve been having great success. Considering all the traffic being funneled through here, I’m very impressed with what I’ve been able to see. Great job, PPAI!”
Janie Gaunce, Grapevine Designs

“I absolutely love the convenience and ease of the entire virtual show. All the new product information is really helpful, and I love that you can request catalogs and samples with a click of a button. It’s just super cool!”
Amy Ehl, ROBYN Promotions

“Of course, we would all prefer to be in-person and most certainly there will always be technical difficulties but the thought, time and execution put into making this happen for thousands of individuals to learn, network and grow in so many ways for a successful 2021 is just beyond amazing! Thank you!”
Jamie-Shelli Grimmelsman, Shell Yeah! And Company

“As a one-person company who was never able to take the time off or expense to attend a trade show across the country, I really appreciate the virtual show, and you have done an amazing job with the format. I can still work and at the same time take advantage of education and product information. In my previous career, I attended and exhibited at trade shows, so I know what they are like and was a bit burned out on them anyway. In the future, I hope you will consider continuing some sort of online event for small distributors like me.”
Erin Eberhardt, West Shore Promotions

 “Expo Direct-2-You made a way for many of us to connect this year in a safe and unique way. I’m not going to sugar-coat how weird it felt at first but the more I hopped around and explored, I quickly realized how much I was seeing and learning that will be very useful in the near future. Great work, and your efforts are appreciated.”
Chris Wachowiak, North Star Identity, LLC

 “Thanks all! It was a great show. Where else can you speak with hundreds of suppliers, have tons of great education, enjoy a virtual piano bar and walk away with a both a caricature and a signed photo of Beach Victim #1 from Sharknado? I look forward to Vegas but hope to see more of this virtual component as well.”
Cindy Wooten, Universal Creative Concepts

“I was jumping on and off today as I was not able to clear my schedule to attend 100 percent [of the time]. I am so excited and optimistic for 2021/22. The industry is going to explode once things really open up.”
Christine Padgett Petre, Jersey Girl Promo

 “I am happy to be among the many attendees to the PPAI Expo who are loving the show. Education sessions, supplier booth visits, instant communication with reps via chat and download of featured products and programs, all literally with the click of a button! I am already wishing these features would remain for convenience when we move back to in-person shows as well. Kudos to PPAI and participating suppliers! Fabulous job!”
Susan Heneson Kornblatt, HALO Branded Solutions

 “Thank you. This show was better than I expected. Quality connections with suppliers. Great education series. Engaged with groups that I would not normally have because of the accessibility. I still miss being around the sights and sounds at the in-person floor and the networking events. It’s a different kind of fun. Thank you to everyone for putting this together.”
Raziel Arcega, MAS, LNR Promotions

“The virtual show isn’t anywhere close to the same experience as the PPAI Expo that happens in person, but there have been a lot of positives for me with this year’s virtual experience. For one thing, I definitely wouldn’t have attended the in-person event at all with eight-month-old twins at home! And I’ve still found the same excitement and renewed passion for my job that I’ve gotten from previous visits to the Expo.” 
Sara Gundell, Jag Forms


A conversation with Alan Peterson, PPAI vice president, business development, and Ellen Tucker, CAE, PPAI director of business development and expositions, on all the behind-the-scenes decisions and planning that went into creating the PPAI Expo Direct-2-You.

When was the decision made to go virtual and when did your actual planning begin?

Ellen Tucker: We started preparing for the possibility of having a hybrid or fully virtual show in April 2020 and started looking into and evaluating options then, but we didn’t make decisions or start planning specifics until we knew if the in-person show would be possible. The board was informed that we would be doing some level of a virtual component early in the year and approved the fully virtual event in September, and we announced it to the industry that month. 

Alan Peterson: We had a plan to do a live show, so we felt like we needed to have a virtual plan as well. As we were negotiating with Mandalay Bay and learned that we could not have an in-person show, that’s when the virtual show plans really ramped up and we began having meetings on a weekly basis. 

What needs were you trying to fill with a virtual show?

Peterson: Our primary need was to bring distributors and suppliers together, but it was also about still wanting to own that Expo experience and those Expo dates in January. Nothing had been done yet in the industry in terms of a virtual event on steroids. There were good virtual events but nothing like what we had in mind.

Tucker: The three pillars Expo is built on every year are to provide the industry knowledge, community and a forum to do business. The latter is at the heart of our trade show—it’s about bringing suppliers and distributors together—but also key to the event are knowledge and community. The community piece is a bit harder to accomplish on a virtual platform. But we kept those three pillars in mind throughout our planning to remind us why we were doing this show. 

Peterson: There’s an expectation for Expo in terms of all the things you can do at an in-person show—professional development, the show floor, pop-ups and prizes. Our goal was to try to recreate that live experience in a virtual format—that was our goal from the start. The Expo has a reputation and a brand that we wanted to make sure we maintained both as an important event kicking off the year and as an effective solution to get the industry through to January 2022. 

How did you evaluate virtual show platforms? What type of questions did you ask potential providers?

Tucker: This process, from a broad perspective, began for us in late April. We put together an internal team consisting of 10 or so PPAI employees from various departments; almost all departments had at least one person involved. In addition, allowing us to take a full-picture approach to the evaluation also helped us to be efficient in evaluating platforms for our smaller professional development events such as Technology Summit and Product Responsibility Summit. We started with a list of 30-plus non-industry-specific platforms and narrowed that down to the ones from which we wanted a demo. From there, we asked questions about everything from how much bandwidth they could prove to be capable of handling and what type of networking opportunities they offered, to the customization and capabilities available on the platform. The reporting capabilities for our exhibitors was important, as was the ability to live-stream and provide education on-demand—all of these things came into play. Another big consideration was registration and how we’d be able to verify attendees because it was and is important to us that our show remains closed to those outside of industry suppliers, distributors and business services companies.

Peterson: We whittled our list down to two providers. One had good bandwidth and customization opportunities but what SAGE brought us was depth of supplier information including videos and products. We knew we had to make it as easy as possible for suppliers to upload and create their booth experience. We didn’t have the resources for customer service to help suppliers create videos and so forth, but SAGE did. They had the inside track because they knew the industry, and they had the data. 

Tucker: One of the things SAGE was also able to offer was a commitment to fulfilling a number of programming updates and development requests to enhance their platform. We wouldn’t have been able to get that, at least not at the same level, through another platform. Their commitment to doing specific upgrades, and then their follow through in exceeding what they had committed to upfront, made a key difference to us.  

How were you able to bring the unique personality of the PPAI Expo into this virtual event?

Peterson: We took the schedule from Expo last year, as well as other things we do, and looked at what we could take from these physical events and make virtual. There was a long list of things, such as lounges for different groups including regional associations, large distributor companies and the Women’s Leadership Conference community; hosting D2U Live with an emcee talking about what’s coming up next and new products, and doing interviews with me, Ellen and our leadership—the live aspect was a key component to achieve that Expo-like feel. Additionally, we offered professional development sessions from PPAI, SAGE and commonsku. We did a FAQ lounge, held many of our standard meetings and our annual Association Update—all of those things we historically have done at Expo but on this platform. I would say that, other than the actual face-to-face element, we were about 90-percent successful in providing that Expo experience.

Tucker: One suggestion we made to participants was to open a separate browser window for D2U Live so they could keep it running as they worked the trade-show floor, and that seems to have been successful in helping participants experience virtually some of the in-person show sensations. D2U Live was able to perform better, reaching more participants with longer engagement, on a virtual platform, and is an example of something we will look to enhance when we go back to an in-person show. Virtually, attendees could experience D2U Live throughout the event; at an in-person show you haven’t been able to do that. That element helped create a ‘we’re there with you’ experience that Expo brings and was a unique way to infuse the Expo personality into this platform. It also allowed our attendees a way to congregate in discussion groups and add their personalities to the show as well. It was a key component in getting people to engage in those group discussions.

What role did PPAI’s longtime logistics associate, Freeman, play in this virtual show? 

Tucker: Freeman provided support, through media and technology, of the D2U Live that fed into the SAGE platform. I got to be onsite with Freeman at its South Dallas location and it was what I imagine it’s like in a newsroom during a live broadcast. You get to see all the steps involved and the number of people who make that livestream go through—it’s surprising. Freeman had nine staff there, plus limited PPAI staff and our live host. We were temperature-checking daily, physically distancing, wearing our masks and using hand sanitizer. Freeman really stepped up to provide their expertise in this virtual environment and a professional, safe studio to produce D2U Live.

In what ways did you seek member feedback during the development phase of this show?

Peterson: We created a plan of what we wanted to do, and Ellen did a very good job of reaching out to key stakeholders—the larger distributor companies, the board members and others—to provide demos and information on how to work the show. We couldn’t do everything everyone wanted given our limited amount of time, but our goal was to provide Expo as closely as possible in a virtual format and I think we accomplished that. 

Tucker: We did demos for key stakeholders at certain companies during the development stage so we could find out what would and wouldn’t meet their needs. Based on their feedback, we put through additional development requests. We also had conversations with exhibitors. We did live demos for user experience closer to the event, including two for exhibitors and one for distributors. These were also available on-demand.

How did the PPAI team transition to this new format?

Peterson: Whatever the question was, our staff was fully geared up to make sure we got questions answered quickly. That made a big difference in the customer experience.

Tucker: Our customer service excelled this year, even with fewer staff. I’m most proud of how our staff stepped up and maintained the high standard of member and customer service that is expected from PPAI. It was phenomenal and I’m so proud of this team.

Peterson: We asked team members to imagine they were in Vegas. We encouraged them to have that same mentality because we were producing a show, and everyone had to be fully involved in it. A hallmark of Expo has been the flood of purple shirts, with staff available to answer questions as quickly as possible and deliver on customer service. Even without the purple shirts, everybody on staff had some engagement level, and most had a ton of engagement, from the time we opened Monday morning through 11 pm Thursday night. It was the most unique virtual show that any of us had seen, not only in the promotional products industry, but in other industries as well.

What methods are you using to evaluate this show? How is it different from evaluating an in-person trade show?

Tucker: There are a few different ways we are evaluating this show. One is capturing the feedback that we received before, during and that we are continuing to receive after the show. We are consolidating that information and reviewing it. What’s amazing about a virtual show is that we got immediate feedback and could participate in multiple conversations at once—especially those ‘hallway’ conversations that we are usually not part of. We have a lot of data reports we are able to pull, too. For me, what’s different from an in-person show is that when we leave an Expo, we have the expectation that we’ll do another in-person trade show the following year. We feel confident that we’ll be able to meet in person in Vegas in 2022 and I think I can say there will be a virtual component as well but what that looks like—whether it’s a stand-alone virtual, a replacement for in-person or a hybrid event—has yet to be determined. 

Peterson: The same logic applies that we had going into this year’s show. Now, at the end of January, it’s our full intent to have an in-person event in 2022 but we will have a virtual component too, in some form or fashion. And, if we can’t have an in-person show, we know what we can roll into. As far as evaluating it, at a live event, you can watch people coming down the walkway in the mornings and you know if the show will be busy. It’s different—and maybe even better—in a virtual show. We and the exhibitors know exactly what kind of response they got from distributors—what products were looked at the most, how many chats they had, how many videos were seen, how many downloads there were of products. The exhibitors don’t know all that information from an in-person event, so part of our challenge, really our opportunity, is to determine how we amp up the data returned to the exhibitors at an in-person show. 

Tucker: One more thing, it’s important to mention our appreciation and thanks to our board for their confidence and faith in us, and their support for how we chose to move forward. I also want to thank our attendees and exhibitors for how they embraced something new. Without our industry embracing it and without the support of our board and members, we could have planned and executed this show, but it would not have been as successful. Everybody at PPAI feels that same way. A huge piece of our show is the people who show up, interact and engage, and the time they commit to the event, whether it’s in person or virtual. We are here to serve them and I’m proud of the way we did that. Our members are to be commended for embracing something that they didn’t view as ideal, but they took it in stride given the situation we are all in.


Education sessions from Expo Direct-2-You are available free on-demand at onlineeducation.ppai.org.

The PPAI Expo 2022 is scheduled for January 9-13, 2022 in Las Vegas. This five-day event includes two days (January 9-10) of educational sessions followed by three days (January 11-13) of open show floor with products from companies all around the country. Be notified when registration opens by filling out the form here: expo.ppai.org/notify-me-when-registration-opens.  


Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.