packaging world

Last week, ISA staged its Sign Expo 2021 Virtual, which succeeded in replicating, perhaps as best as possible, the feel of being at a live event and networking with colleagues. Here is a quick rundown of the first day.

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By this time, we are all likely familiar with virtual events of one kind or another. Granted, we’re tired of staring at screens, and while we continue to eagerly await in-real-life (IRL) events to resume, "The Year of Zoom" has demonstrated that virtual events do have some advantages over in-person events, such as being able to check out sessions more or less on one’s own schedule and, perhaps most importantly, allowing employees in an organization who may never have been able to attend an event due to travel costs, etc., get the benefit of educational sessions or show floor demonstrations.

For many years, one of our favorite IRL events has been the International Sign Association’s annual Sign Expo, which traditionally serves as a launch site for new products in wide-format and display graphics and signage. Last year’s was a bit of a movable feast, and by the fall the goal was to stage a live Sign Expo in spring 2021. As we all know, events conspired to prevent that from happening, so ISA opted to go the virtual route, and last week (April 7 to 9), hosted Sign Expo 2021 Virtual. ISA really went out of its way to make the Sign Expo Virtual as much like an IRL event as possible, focusing on offering venues for live interaction and networking with other attendees, exhibitors and ISA representatives. They used the Hopin platform and the interface was very well organized and easy to navigate. "The Stage" was the equivalent of a "Grand Ballroom," where the "Game Changer," "Titan Talks" and other general interest sessions were held. In "Sessions" you could find breakout educational programs by topic or see what sessions were live at any given moment. In "Expo" you could wander the virtual show floor and see exhibitor presentations and videos, again arranged by topic. There was also a "Networking Zone" where attendees could engage others individually, and perhaps arrange to meet up for one-to-one chats. 

Running down the right side of the screen was a live comment feed where attendees could comment on what keynote speakers were saying, add further information, or just chat with others and start a longer networking process. Sure, some comments could be a little cranky, but I actually found a lot of it fairly enlightening, interesting or amusing. This kind of chatter would obviously be a no-no during a live keynote (one would think), but in the virtual context it provided a nice gloss on the official presentations. 

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ISA President Lori Anderson was the host for the three days, with other ISA representatives chiming in at various times to encourage interaction and participation. The first day kicked off with what is always a much-anticipated feature of in-person Sign Expos, the "Game Changer" session. This session’s topic was “Future Trends That Will Revolutionize Business,” presented by Sheryl Connelly. This was a bird’s-eye view of the global trends that are going to impact businesses regardless of what industry you are in, things like a fast-growing global population, a changing (and aging) population, the potential for resources like food and water to become scarce and other forces. (There was a mention of something called “cricket water” that stimulated a lot of "Mystery Science Theater 3000"-like riffing in the comment feed.) The world and the market are changing in virtually all respects so, advised Connolly, “open your eyes to the endless spectrum of possibilities. The only way to predict the future is to create it.” 

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The second event of the day was the first in a series of Titan Talks featuring HP’s Guayente Sanmartin live from Barcelona, talking about her personal and professional journey and specifically how she—and HP—weathered the COVID crisis and sharing some lessons learned over the past year. During the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, she said, “Women have left the workforce more than men; how can companies better support women? We need the entire workforce.” 

Both opening sessions were thought-provoking and provided a good overture for the rest of the conference, which featured a wide gamut of educational sessions, from production, to sales and marketing, to installation. Elsewhere on the main stage, Justin Pate of the Wrap Institute led an informal Q&A “Speakeasy Session” on vehicle wrapping, and there was even a general trivia contest hosted by Sapna Budev of the Sign Research Foundation. Each day also offered virtual happy hours.

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The Sign Expo has traditionally been as much about fostering networking and collaboration as it has been about educational sessions and show floor exhibits, and ISA did an excellent job of replicating that in a virtual setting. That said, if there was one drawback, it’s that, unlike other virtual events, sessions were only available in real time, not recorded for later playback if you couldn’t make a particular session. (I am told they may be archived in the ISA site at some point in the future.) The downside to this was that if sessions conflicted, you had to pick one or click back and forth between them. I understand that they wanted to keep the “live” feel to the event, but one of the major advantages of a virtual show is that you can catch sessions that you may not have been able to attend. 


While I am eager to get back to an IRL Sign Expo, the virtual version was very well done. It will be interesting to see if next year brings some kind of hybrid in-person/virtual show that plays on the advantages of both.