Matthew Shay

Being virtual, the National Retail Federation’s “Big Show,” considered the world’s largest retail event, won’t have the level of intensity, networking or attendance of past years when the event was all live.

Yet considering the challenges presented by the pandemic, the program for the annual NRF trade convention and expo, which begins Tuesday, is still ambitious.

“We have lined up almost 350 speakers, more than 100 sessions with 80 hours of content, and we’ve got about 330 exhibitors,” NRF president and chief executive officer Matt Shay, told WWD. Last year’s event had more than 400 speakers, 200 sessions, 100-plus hours of content, and more than 800 exhibitors.

The 2021 Big Show, themed “Forward Together,” is spread over six days this week and next, instead of the usual four days. “There’s so much content and so much interest, to cram it all in three days virtually would really burn people out and make it hard to catch all the content,” Shay said during an interview. There will also be 30 days of on-demand access to the sessions.

Regarding attendance, “At the moment we expect to have more than 20,000 participants, which is about half of what we normally get,” Shay said, adding that in light of the pandemic and its economic consequences around the world, he felt good about how the registration was proceeding.

“In the last seven, eight months since last summer, we have learned a lot about how to do these events virtually. We could not be happier that we are going to have this number of participants. It has a lot to do with the technology and platform we are using and because we have a great lineup of speakers,” he said, citing former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon; Lowe’s president and CEO Marvin Ellison; Judith McKenna, president and CEO of Walmart International; Marc Metrick, president and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue; Qurate president and CEO Mike George; Doug Mack, CEO of Fanatics, and Niraj Shah, cofounder and CEO of Wayfair.

There will also be speakers from digital, beauty, fashion, technology and consulting companies, and panels on diversity and inclusion. Retailers will seek to learn about strategies and best practices to navigate the pandemic and ways to keep shoppers and employees safe from contracting the coronavirus, and to strengthen customer engagement, fulfillment capabilities and services like buy online, pick up in store; curbside pickup, and same- and next-day delivery. They will also want to learn to work with suppliers with greater cost efficiency and flexibility in planning inventories.

“From the business perspective, there is still a lot of work to do to fight through the pandemic,” Shay said. “While we still have challenges ahead, there is a great deal of optimism with multiple vaccines being distributed every day, and a little more certainty that there will be a conclusion to this. Our members have learned a lot, and when they come out of this, they will be even better businesses than before.

“There is no way to digitally or virtually create the same level of energy you get with an in-person event,” acknowledged Shay. “This year, we’re going to miss that energy and enthusiasm with all the handshakes, hugs and kisses that come with a live event when you have people in a room together. But what we have this year is as close as we can get to the next best thing.”

With the virtual trade expo, “There’s a match-making component,” Shay explained. Retailers can schedule visits with exhibitors, and initially provide profiles to facilitate matchups that make sense and meet their needs. Online, there is a virtual platform to “walk through” the expo, and there is also a “start-up zone” featuring new tech companies and suppliers “on the leading edge,” Shay said.

The 2021 convention won’t generate the level of revenues it has in past years due to the fewer attendees and the virtual format, and the NRF Foundation Gala supporting educational initiatives, student scholarships and the Rise Up retail credentialing program won’t happen.

“People aren’t going to pay the same amount of money for a virtual event. I wouldn’t either,” said Shay. “But we feel that we’ve reached a good balance” between the pricing and the presentation. “We’re much more comfortable using the digital platform and much better creating content in an environment people feel is natural, engaging and interesting.” To stage the event, the NRF uses the Freeman brand experience and expo company.

Next year, if the pandemic is over and people feel safe traveling and venturing out, The Big Show will likely be in-person and virtual. “The real opportunity and challenge is how you blend both the physical and digital,” said Shay. It’s important for NRF events just as it’s important for NRF retail members, he said.

“Frankly, if we can get a crowd of 50,000 to the convention center, it doesn’t mean we can’t get another 500,000 from around the world participating virtually,” said Shay. “We have reached a point going forward, where [NRF events] are all going to have a virtual component. It doesn’t cannibalize the live event. You won’t put the genie back in the bottle. There are people who can and will spend to go in person, and people who won’t spend the money but will want to participate virtually.”