Will Shoptalk’s Virtual Conference Postponement Push the Industry to Rethink Digital Pivots?

Organizers weren't prepared to deliver a successful event today

Shoptalk organizers postponed their first virtual conference at the last minute on April 30. Shoptalk
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In-person event cancellations and postponements are commonplace in the age of coronavirus, with certain events announcing plans for timely virtual pivots while others inform attendees they’ll be back in 2021. Shoptalk, however, might be the first during the pandemic to postpone a virtual conference at the last minute.

The annual retail and ecommerce industry event was slated to host its first Shoptalk Virtual Conference today, offering 12 sessions with 20 speakers addressing Covid-19’s impact on the industry. But this morning, organizers emailed attendees to inform them the event wouldn’t be moving forward as planned, and that they’d announce a new date and additional details next week.

Shoptalk, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, didn’t reveal the exact reason for postponing the free event, slated to draw more than 10,000 attendees. But the emailed statement acknowledged organizers weren’t quite prepared to launch and are continuing to explore the most effective video formats.

“We’ve been quickly learning how to produce engaging and informative content delivered over video, and we believe we’re not yet at the point of having a product that meets the needs of the industry at this critically important time,” organizers said in a statement. “At a time when in-person events have been restricted and canceled, you would think that a virtual event would take place as scheduled. However, the reality is that if you really want to get it right, translating an in-person event to a virtual one presents many unique challenges. We’re working to deliver the best possible first version of this important new initiative, and we appreciate your patience and understanding.”

As conference organizers and those who work in experiential marketing continue to develop ways to pivot virtually while we’re all quarantined, Shoptalk’s postponement might mean that producing a virtual conference is easier said than done.

Lizz Torgovnick, co-founder and CCO of New York-based events agency Sequence, said she planned to attend today’s event to get insights from brands on Covid-19’s impact, and see how the actual event would be executed. Torgovnick, whose team continues to work with its own clients on digital alternatives, said she appreciates and empathizes with Shoptalk’s decision to delay and that it sends a necessary message to an event industry in flux.

“There are assumptions that it’s so much more simple to plan an event virtually. Shoptalk was honest about the fact they didn’t feel like they nailed it yet. They didn’t feel what they would’ve put out today would hit the mark for their brand, or meet the expectations their audience had,” she said. “For me, the message is that we need time to do virtual experiences right and they’re not going to happen overnight. I think this decision will help put the industry on the right path of making virtual events impactful and necessary, as opposed to doing them just to do them.”

In early March, Shoptalk postponed its annual Las Vegas gathering, which would have had the event’s first all-women speaker lineup. Organizers rescheduled and still plan to hold the event for its more than 8,000 attendees September 14-17 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. But to address Covid-19’s current impact on retail and ecommerce, Shoptalk on April 15 announced it would launch the Shoptalk Virtual Events platform as a temporary supplement to in-person events.

The three-part platform began with Tabletalks on April 23, which was only open to retailers and brands registered for the September conference. Held via videoconference, the talks aimed to bring together individuals from retailers and brands in groups of four to six to discuss the effects of Covid-19 on retail. The rollout would’ve then included the first conference today, which was free for attendees who signed up on Shoptalk’s website. The conference is supposed to be followed by the release of a virtual version of Shoptalk’s Hosted Retailers & Brands Program, which pairs individuals from brands and retailers with sponsoring companies for upward of 10,000 onsite, one-to-one meetings annually.

Today’s conference lineup planned to include Melissa Gonzalez, founder and CEO of the Lionesque Group; Mike Edwards, CEO of Hanna Anderson; Lauri Kien Kotcher, CEO of Hello Products; and Michael Gabay, co-founder and CEO of Trigo Vision. The company planned to livestream each session using BigMarker, a video platform for virtual conferences.

Torgovnick said most virtual conferences and summits she’s attended so far have been akin to generic webinars, and that Shoptalk probably wants to work toward something more elevated. While there are plenty of available virtual webinar and conference platforms, Torgovnick said her team has found many of them to be subpar to produce an event that’s more than just an information dump.

Daphne Hoppenot, founder of event networking and idea-sharing platform The Vendry, was also going to attend the virtual conference. Similarly to Torgovnick, she said she supports Shoptalk taking more time to rethink its strategy for virtual events. She said virtual gatherings will be important to the industry in the long term, as they can offer more accessibility for less cost.

However, she said organizers need to consider how shifting conferences to a virtual medium also shifts the value for attendees.

“Historically, bringing a specific group of individuals to the same physical location to meet with one another has been a key attendance driver,” Hoppenot said. “Without that, you’re putting on a show for a noncaptive audience, intended to compete with every other distraction out there. Or you are working to facilitate engaging networking moments where you’re playing a much bigger role in the curation and moderation of these interactions.”

Patrick Jacobs, head of business development for Immerss—a retail software company specializing in shoppable live video technology—said the speaker content was why he planned to attend today’s event, and he was looking forward to getting different perspectives on what the pandemic means for the future of retail.

“I think everybody has a big appetite for information about what’s going on within the industry, and how brands and retailers are handling [the crisis],” he said. “Everyone is thirsty for some sort of answer or information sharing. These virtual events are great for that.”

Jacobs said while he’s disappointed he didn’t get to watch the discussions today, he noted it was better for organizers to postpone and avoid a potential disaster, rather than moving forward without full confidence.

When Shoptalk announces a new date, Jacobs said he’ll definitely add it to his calendar.

“I don’t fault them for this,” he said. “One thing we’ve learned during this crisis is patience. Everyone needs to take a deep breath and not get too worked up. We’re all learning as we go.”


ian.zelaya@adweek.com Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.