Walking the (virtual) trade show floor with Left Coast Engineering


Left Coast Engineering joined hundreds of exhibitors showing up virtually for the first time at the NDIA Navy Gold Coast. Nova Power Solutions was the first visitor to the LCE booth with the technology allowing visits from all over the country.

The year 2020 was one of firsts on so many fronts.  Like so many businesses, Left Coast Engineering, a custom electronics product design company located in Escondido, has had to learn new ways of doing business.  The watchword seems to be “pivot” as COVID-19 has taken away so many opportunities for the personal touch.  In some ways, business has become more accessible through Zoom, Ring Central, Teams, GoTo Meeting and whatever other platforms that people are making connections on.  

Yet, none seem more mysterious than a virtual trade show. Many of the events this year have had to cancel, such as the Del Mar Electronics Show, and others delayed their events several months while they pivoted.  In August, Left Coast Engineering attended SpaceTech virtually. This event is normally in May in Pasadena and focuses on companies that service and support NASA’s efforts.  This virtual expo mostly consisted of listening to speakers through a webinar format and connecting through chats and emails with vendors. 

Normally held in late July or early August, the San Diego-based Navy Gold Coast kicked off their three-day event virtually this year on August 31. This trade show is the largest single small business expo for doing business with the Navy, and is hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA).  For the past six years, the LCE team has volunteered at this event, savoring the in-person networking and the ability to walk the floor to network and see contacts.  With the event being virtual, there were no opportunities to volunteer in the traditional fashion so, as a business, the LCE team chose to rethink the event. 

Without really understanding what the platform would be because it is so new, LCE signed up to exhibit and host a virtual booth at Gold Coast.  As is the trend, there were webinars on how to attend this virtual event, in this case from the East County Economic Development Council (ECEDC).  But there was less information on how to exhibit.  LCE sought some custom support from the ECEDC, reviewed some strategies and the tool checklist of what to include in our booth (which was really a box on the screen.)  In some areas, the ECEDC advisors were learning with us because this is so new.

Our virtual booth could include hashtags for what our company does, government codes, a company description, a link to our capabilities overview and website, and a logo.  No booth could have a better position than another because everyone gets the same size square and booths were alphabetical.  In some ways, all participants start on equal footing with access the list of attendees and speakers, and the ability to message each other for about a week ahead of time to invite them to visit the booth or have a matchmaking meeting.  

Those encounters are where the technology meets moment; the rubber meets the road.  To visit our booth, an attendee just clicks on our box and enters the LCE virtual meeting room.  Hosting our booth meant we could virtually be in our booth, both visually and audibly.  This means we needed to consider what the attendees would see behind us, yet another opportunity for a logo or backdrop as well as what we are wearing (no crazy outfits or PJ bottoms here).  

While we are in the booth, guests could stop in and talk “face to face” and share screens with the discussion being open for others joining in along the way by clicking in the booth.  Meetings could be hosted the same way but in a private fashion with a click of calendar event that opened a private meeting virtual room.  

Sometimes there was a lot of waiting and unlike on a trade show floor where you could see people coming, you have no idea what the “foot traffic” looks like in a virtual expo. So you literally have to always be ready. Sometimes, when people show up they might not use their camera or have their name up, adding to initial anonymity.  Now you are talking to a blank screen or maybe a still photo if you are lucky.  This really highlighted how much we miss the personal interactions.  Bringing a booth into our workspaces also meant that we needed to strategize how to virtually hand off hosting the booth between LCE employees, to keep the booth live and still have bathroom and meal breaks. 

Another feature that many will miss are the free giveaways in the booths. Typically, trade show attendees are greeted with a free bag upon arrival to stash the array of goodies exhibitors have to lure visitors in.  From pens to phone chargers and Popsockets, our team missed engaging in the booths in this way as it was always a conversation starter. A few exhibitors had a daily giveaway if you “dropped in” your virtual business card and shared their effort through messaging. Still not quite the same.

The virtual trade show technology platform is pretty new—so new that it would have been useful to have a dry run day to practice “moving” around the trade show floor.  This particular technology platform was created by Pathable, overlaying with Zoom capabilities.  It had a few glitches and a bit of downtime but we had to keep perspective that this is a brand new way of being in an event with several thousand people.  We did make a laundry list of suggestions that hopefully will make the technology easier to use but all in all, this new frontier is pretty remarkable.  And at least after walking the trade show floor, our feet were not any worse for the wear.  Could this be the next step for how future life is portrayed with no need to walk in the movie, “Wall-E”?

For us at Left Coast Engineering, the Consumer Electronics Show in January, 2021 will be a real test. We are still trying to get our arms around how the typical 182,000 attendees and exhibitors will interact in this arena.  Stay tuned!

About Left Coast Engineering

Now in its 21st year, Escondido, CA-based Left Coast Engineering (LCE) is a full-service, electronic product design resource.  The company supports both new and next-gen product designs from concept to production through hardware, software and RF design.  This design support includes product definition, certification testing, production test, validation/verification and intellectual property protection.  Founded in 1999, LCE has steered more than 165 designs from start to finish.  Left Coast Engineering is a dba of Park-Tours, Inc.  More information can be found at www.LeftCoastEngineering.com


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