The NRF Big Show Marks a Big Return to In–Person Events

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Our own Martina Lalic shares why she’s calling NRF 2022 a comeback. 

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend the 2022 NRF Annual Convention & EXPO (aka Retail’s BIG Show) at the Javits Center in NYC. Traditionally held over four days in the second weekend of January, this year’s outing signified a return to normal after 2021’s digital edition. 

As far as I was concerned, the BIG Show was aptly named. Aside from its legendary status (the first convention was held in 1911) and its scale (crowds normally reach upwards of 37,000 attendees, hailing from 90–plus countries), I had joined Vendelux just a few weeks earlier, in part for the opportunity to make connections and learn from the best at industry events just like this one. 

The BIG Show was my first foray back into in–person events, and I imagined that plenty of others would be in the same boat. Naturally, I was more than a little curious to see how organizers would handle the transition back to IRL, and how fellow sponsors and guests would respond. 

In short, NRF knocked it out of the park. My weekend was filled with (delightfully) candid meetings and chats, many of which have since led to deeper conversations and real relationships. I walked away from the Javits Center on Tuesday feeling incredibly optimistic. Why? Because for those of us who live and breathe events, the glimpse of the near–future that the NRF show offered is one to be excited about. 

Now, most event marketers agree: virtual events aren’t going away. Cost effectiveness and a limitless reach are just two reasons that they make sense for certain types of engagements. But if it’s meeting new people or keeping up with key contacts that you’re after, virtual events just can’t compete with in–person ones. 

Case in point: in the lead–up to NRF, I wasn’t having much luck getting responses from contacts who I was hoping to meet there. Of course, this was understandable – they were busy prepping for the event! But my luck turned around almost immediately when I entered the Javits Center. The same people who were impossible to reach via email and LinkedIn days prior were delighted to see me in person. 

In total, I connected with about 100 qualified leads. I began to follow up the following Monday, and by Wednesday I had scheduled 13 demos. (If this seems hard to believe, I encourage you to try it out yourself – you’ll be glad you did). 

I made some strategic decisions along the way that I’m sure helped boost my success rate. For one, I arrived a bit early, on Saturday. My plan was to get the lay of the land at the Javits Center ahead of what were anticipated to be the event’s busiest days. Navigating the space and the crowds turned out to be a breeze, but I was glad I’d arrived earlier than some of my peers anyway. It was far easier to strike up conversations on Saturday, and by the end of the weekend I’d had the benefit of having one more day to mingle than some of my peers. 

The way I see it, the same “early bird catches the worm” principle applies to in–person events as a whole. I’m already experiencing the benefits of having met connections face–to–face. And once events make an inevitable, grand–scale return, I’m looking forward to greeting the connections I’m making now on the floor, like old friends. 

The reduced capacity of this year’s event also worked to my advantage. Usually, event marketers hardly have a minute to catch their breath—much less talk to people who aren’t key prospects. This year, I was lucky enough to steal some one–on–one time with plenty of them. And boy, did we have a lot to talk about. 

Because helping event marketers plan strategically for the future is what I do at Vendelux, I was thrilled to hear firsthand how they’re envisioning 2022 and beyond. Time and time again, I heard a common refrain: this year and the next will be big for in–person gatherings. 

Will you be ready for it? Because IRL events are coming back faster than you can imagine. 

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