10 Sep 2020

Virtual Fieldays Delivers Immersive Exhibition

Agri-sector can teach us a thing or two

As audio-visual and tech companies ‘pivot’ to supply streaming services for ‘virtual’ and ‘hybrid’ conferences, let’s not forget perhaps the most important part of any conference, the income generating, sponsor-supporting exhibition. New Zealand’s agri-sector tackled this head on and nailed it within just one hundred and eight days of the ban on mass gatherings.

Mid-June usually sees 130,000 visitors from across New Zealand, and many from Australia, descend on Mystery Creek Events Centre in the Waikato to network, to learn and perhaps most importantly for the agri-sector, to spend.

Fieldays 2019 generated $549M sales revenue for New Zealand businesses and an injection of $249M towards the national GDP.


In the space of three months, repeatedly chanting the mantra “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, and operating on “a wing and a prayer”, the New Zealand National Fieldays Society delivered a tradeshow for over 250 virtual exhibitors and over 90,000 virtual attendees from over 75 countries.

Peter Nation, CEO of the New Zealand National Fieldays Society (NZNFS) and his team sprang into action on 16th March upon hearing that mass gatherings were to be curtailed seventy-six days before the biggest week in the rural sector’s year.

They knew they had a solid platform to deliver the content – the panel discussions, the celebrity chefs, inspiring stories of young farmers and the wider sector and of course, the ubiquitous Innovation awards ceremony.

“We were lucky that we had Fieldays TV sitting on the shelf, so to speak, as we had been planning on implementing it at a future event,” recalls Peter.

Fieldays TV

The real issue was how to deliver the essence of Fieldays for both exhibitors and visitors, “We had a clear steer. We needed to continue to be a portal for New Zealand agricultural product, as well as keeping our own Fieldays brand alive.”

The Fieldays team, having pre-empted the call to fully lockdown, were already working remotely and spent the next few days hammering out a plan to put to the Board, “When I say plan, I mean a wing and a prayer,” chuckles Peter.

As with the entertainment technology sector, crises are not new to the primary industry, “We had M.Bovis a few years back, droughts, the GFC.

“These are all things farmers and communities have had to endure and ride through. Uncertainty has paved the way for innovation in times where there was no other choice.”

Fieldays already had an existing relationship with Satellite Media, an Auckland based company who design, build and operate digital marketing and communication programs, having previously used them to develop their digital ticketing system back in 2009/10.

“I’d been there before on the first day of the Fieldays, pushing the green light and opening the doors to the new ticketing system. I knew we could work with Satellite. I had complete faith in them.”

Taryn Storey, Marketing and Communications Manager at NZNFS, describes the planning phase, “It was a highly charged environment with lots going on at a high level and lots of moving pieces as we ran through proposals with internal and external stakeholders.

Fieldays Online Chefs

“There was no precedent, no rule book and we all had to be exceptionally agile.” Peter adds, “Credit to the Board too. I don’t think they had a clue how we were going to do it, but they gave us the green light and put their faith in us.”

The level of diversity required of the platform soon became apparent, “Our clients come to Fieldays for an array of reasons, to grow brand awareness, for retail, to promote a service, to launch new product and to get feedback.

“Usually we offer them a site, charge them ground rent and they liaise with other companies to fit out their stand but now we were going to have to provide not only the site but the virtual equivalent of a marquee or a partition.”

The solution was a tiered system, from a basic online directory listing, to an array of additional functions, and the option to deliver content via Fieldays TV. This ranged from product releases to educational formats.

Many exhibitors appreciated the opportunity to extend their presence beyond their product and service, unfettered by venue size. Exhibitors were searchable and displayed online on an interactive map replicating the site at Mystery Creek.

A large percentage of exhibitors also required an e-commerce platform. Whilst initially investigating the development of a bespoke platform, the team ultimately entered into a successful partnership with ‘Trade Me’, New Zealand’s domestic equivalent of eBay.

Taryn and her team had to shift mindsets, “It was difficult to grasp the altered physicality of the event. We had to call our clients and use all this new jargon. Instead of marquees and signage, we were talking about the cloud and digital marketing.”

Of the online exhibitors, ninety-six percent were previously booked into the physical event and another four percent came on board as new exhibitors, “Some were early adopters and fine with the switch, others used it as a vehicle to push their company into the digital age.

“We were under no illusions that it was going to work for everyone, and some did ask us if we had lost the plot, whilst others were concerned that this was the end of the physical exhibit – which it most definitely is not.”

Whilst the marketing team were liaising with the exhibitors, Peter was calling up favours, “I went to everyone we knew to help pull together the content for the live TV, and almost without exception they turned up
at the studio, even though for many it was their first time broadcasting live.

“We were so privileged – celebrity chefs did their thing just for the cost of their ingredients, experts and industry leaders signed up to join our panels for nothing.”

The team extended the timeframe of the event from the traditional four days to two weeks to give people time to review the large amount of content, taking advantage of the ability to be able to archive the digital resources.

Peter and Taryn even scored Prince Charles who had attended the event in 1970, “That was a real coup as royals just don’t address countries outside of Christmas, but Prince Charles embraced the opportunity to talk about his passions – sustainability, farming and food production.”

Fieldays Online VIPs

The event was free but visitors had to register for demographic data collation purposes, although there might be a re-think about this going forward, “We have an obligation to our exhibitors to minimise any barriers to entry, and that was seen as off-putting to some people,” Taryn explains.

The result was a resounding success. Attendees surpassed ninety thousand. There were vastly more attendees than usual from the South Island, for whom the cost of travel and time away from their business can be prohibitive.

Perhaps most significantly, over seventy-five countries virtually visited, including a significant presence from the USA.

The Fieldays and ‘brand New Zealand’ successfully achieved a global presence even with closed borders. Technically too, it all went smoothly, with only one drop out during the entire event due to adverse weather in Wellington.

Whilst freely admitting that the event in no way replicated the social side of the Fieldays, Peter thinks they did OK, “Some of our visitors have been coming for fifty years just to meet up with friends and family from across the country.

“We can’t replace that but anecdotally we’ve heard of people coming together to experience the event. Well, the quiz anyway,” he laughs. “We were fortunate that could happen because we were out of lockdown by the time the event began.”

Going forward Fieldays will continue to use the new exhibitor eco-system and Fieldays TV to enhance the physical event. Taryn explains “Both the virtual and physical have their own attributes.

“We are working through what next year will look like at the moment, whether we use the virtual before to build engagement and enquiries, during or after. We are talking to those that attended and those that didn’t.”

For Peter and Taryn, the key to pulling together your virtual exhibitor space is to understand what your customer wants, both the businesses and visitors, “Talk to them otherwise your platform could be completely misaligned.”

And whilst arguing over who is the biggest risk taker, both Peter and Taryn agreed that you shouldn’t overthink the strategy, “We could have put up so many roadblocks and talked ourselves out of it but ultimately we thought we are in for a penny, in for a pound.

“Whilst it involved a lot of hard yakka, it has kept us going as an event venue and as an event owner, and we managed to support our wider industry when they needed us.”

Peter and Taryn are happy to share their journey with anyone else in the events business, “We are all in this together. We’ve learnt a lot of things from other industries in the past and hopefully we can do our bit to help every sector through this crisis.”

CX Magazine – September 2020   

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