The Industrial Supply Association's premier annual event, ISA22, is rapidly approaching. Held April 11-13 in Houston and online, the event will bring together hundreds of industrial distributors and suppliers for networking, exhibition and a whole lot of education. After the show, the event continues online every Tuesday for the next three weeks in virtual sessions.
It's been two years since ISA has been able to host an in-person convention. ISA20 had to be quickly re-formatted to an online event in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and ISA21 likewise was all-virtual. Finally, ISA members and non-members alike will have the chance to attend in person again, but the association has revamped several key elements of the show compared to past recent conventions — all for the better. From much more flexible networking, to educational sessions more robust than ever, to a uniquely curated agenda designed to engage all of your company's attendees, this certainly isn't your typical ISA convention.
This week, we spoke with newly-elected ISA president Brendan Breen about what's new at ISA22 and what attendees can expect.
Industrial Distribution: After having to suddenly cancel the 2020 convention and pivot to an all-virtual in 2021, ISA22 brings back the highly-desired in-person element. How important was it for ISA to have a robust in-person agenda for this year's convention?
Breen: It is absolutely essential. The opportunity to re-engage with our community in person is long overdue but we can’t ignore the fact that the world is not the same that it was the last time we were all together. We have all had to find new ways of connecting with each other these past few years and that fact has to leave a permanent impression on our members. As a result, we could not simply snap back to our old model of a traditional tradeshow and expect everyone to return just because they missed each other. We had to provide a different experience and a robust, future-focused agenda is a core part of the change this year. We wanted our attendees to hear from the experts on topics like the future of the workplace/workforce, emerging technology, and the evolving voice of the customer. On top of that, we want our attendees to discuss these topics with each other in collaborative roundtables. ISA22 is about building a channel for the future and learning and collaborating through the education we are providing is a big part of that.
ID: In the recent pre-COVID ISA conventions, the expo was set up in the 'Distributor Day' and 'Supplier Day' format and featured the speed dating-like fast-track meetings that had to be set up in advance. While efficient, it seemed to limit attendees' flexibility for meeting with who they want, along with when and where. How was that addressed for ISA22?
Breen: We have set everyone free to build the networking experience that makes the most sense for them. Again, snapping fully back wasn’t an option. But at the same time, we didn’t want to take away the opportunities to connect previously utilized at distributor and manufacturer day. So, this year we removed the rules. Meetings can be any length of time… 15 minutes or 2 hours, for example. Any attendee can send a meeting request to any other attendee. The location of the meeting can be at your booth, a table in the attendee lounge, the couches in the hotel lobby, or at the bar across the street. The quantity of meetings is not the only measure of success… the quality of the meeting and the ability to have the right meetings matters far more.
ID: At past pre-2020 ISA conventions, the expo/trade show seemed to be, by far, the marquee offering. This year, it looks like the educational element is just as — if not more so — centerpiece-worthy. How would you describe the educational element (workshops/speaking sessions/thought leadership) compared to recent years?
Breen: You are correct! The education component of ISA22 has taken a step forward in terms of sharing the spotlight with the tradeshow element. This intentional move is a product of the changing needs of our attendees described in the previous question, but also comes right from our learnings from last year’s ISA 21 virtual event. We got fantastic feedback that companies loved the channel-focused education as a way to grow personally but also as a way to elevate their entire company. Being a “learning-focused” company is a major trend these days. It leads to creativity, new growth opportunities and improved employee satisfaction. I can say with confidence that ISA is going to continue running in this direction.
ID: Also at previous ISA conventions, it seemed the agenda was tailored for attendees to stick with topics that were only most relevant for their job title. While understandable, that may have swayed companies from encouraging their attendees to sit in on certain sessions that may have been a little outside their job description but could still help how they interact with other departments — i.e., sales staff attending hiring/recruiting sessions or marketing attendees attending sales-based sessions. How does this year's ISA address that?
Breen: This year, ISA22 is offering a unique hybrid approach for the companies in this channel. The in-person experience and agenda is built to offer C-suite and leadership teams the opportunity to leverage ISA22 to strategically plan for the next 3-5 years of their business. Think of it like a leadership retreat for their company… Who would be invited to that and what would they want to discuss? They wouldn’t discuss how to put out the daily fires occurring in your business. They would instead want to talk about building a roadmap for the future. However, the virtual program is where we engage the rest of the company. In the weeks following ISA22, we will be offering mini-summits of related workshops and content that drills down on three main subject matter areas: Sales and Marketing, Technology, and Talent. What this does is allow companies to easily identify the employees that should engage in the appropriate content on a staggered schedule putting less of a resource drain on the company.
ID: The most recent in-person ISA convention, ISA 19, was a Saturday-Monday show, which isn't the most convenient for a lot of attendees since they have to give up a weekend for it. How much do you think attendees will appreciate ISA22 being a Monday-Wednesday show?
Breen: It’s hard to say, but given the demographic shifts in the workforce, I am going to assume that there will be attendees juggling the pressures of work and home. The research out there says the modern workforce appreciates their weekends, so our approach has to follow suit.
ID: Anything else you think our readers should know about ISA22?
Breen: To wrap it up… The ISA convention program has largely remained unchanged for many years. The industry feedback was clear that change was necessary. We are proud to introduce a new approach to our members that creates new opportunities to connect and delivers significant value for those companies that attend. I am asking all companies in this channel to come to Houston and give the new ISA format a fair shot. Don’t miss the opportunity to see it for yourself.