ELI Virtual Event Profile: Nicole Noonan, Grainger

Grainger Show is an annual event that brings together Grainger customers, vendors, and team members to share great ideas, new products, and strategies for working smarter and more safely. This live event draws around 6,000 customers, 4,000 team members, and 3,000 exhibitors from 550 companies during an average year.

But 2020 was not an average year. In early March, the team made the difficult decision to cancel the live show, which had been scheduled for March 15-17 in Orlando, FL, at the Orange County Convention Center. Rather than lose all the work that went into planning this event, the team hosted Grainger Show 2020 virtually in July.

Developing the Event Plan 

Grainger Show had always been a two-pronged live event. The first three days were for customers, followed by a multi-day National Sales meeting for the Grainger team.

But the move to all virtual in 2020 prompted a format change: the first two days were exclusively for the Grainger team with the usual Town Hall sessions and the following two days for customers. The National Sales Meeting was removed since it would be difficult to re-create the training, team meetings, and recognition in a virtual environment.

“Our goals for the 2020 virtual event remained largely the same as the live show for the customer portion of the event,” said Nicole Noonan, Director of Supplier Programs and Events for Grainger. “We aimed to build relationships with customers, connect our suppliers with our customers, introduce new solutions, and increase incremental sales.”

Target Audience

“Our customers are safety professionals, maintenance staff, procurement managers, CEOs, and company leaders,” said Noonan. “Compelling content draws them in, and then they venture into the exhibit hall to see new products and solutions from Grainger and our supplier partners.”

Event Agenda and Content

Grainger Show 2020 included a keynote theater, a seminar/breakout session theater, a third theater in the trade show exhibit hall, a networking lounge, a game center with a leaderboard to track winners, and a help desk. Industry speakers and thought leaders presented in the keynote and seminar theaters, while Grainger speakers were in the trade show theater.

Fortunately, Noonan was able to repurpose several speakers and content from the 2020 canceled live event. She also added timely panel discussions around recovery strategies and best practices for companies during COVID-19.

Keynote sessions kicked off the day, followed by seminar/breakout sessions that filled up the rest of the day. The exhibit hall ran concurrently during the keynotes and seminar sessions so that attendees could drop at any time.


“Since this was our first year, we did not feel we needed all the bells and whistles,” said Noonan, “so we kept the platform simple and straightforward.”

For the 2020 event, Grainger used Intrado. With the sudden shift to digital events, “We needed recommendations and advice on how to use the platform,” said Noonan. “We ended up with a good result, but taking on a new event management process was very challenging.”

For the 2021 virtual event, Grainger plans to use a different platform called UgoVirtual, along with a third-party consulting firm to provide suggestions and recommendations.

Speaker Prep

Grainger Show 2020 featured a mix of pre-recorded and live presentations, with live Q&A and live panel discussions. Keynotes and panels were live, but breakout sessions were pre-recorded with live Q&A. Session speakers preferred recording presentations ahead of time because they could re-record if needed until they got it just right.

Results and ROI

Total attendance for Grainger Show 2020 was 4,500 attendees – just about on par with the total number of in-person customer attendees. But what was interesting was the new attendees attending the virtual event. “About 45 percent of attendees were customers who have never attended our in-person event in Orlando,” said Noonan. “They either can’t attend these types of events, or the distance is too far away, so we were pleased to see them engage with our virtual event.”

Since customer attendance at Grainger Show 2020 is free, sponsors are the true revenue-generators for the event. The show drew 188 sponsors to the virtual platform, compared with 550 for the live show. “We weren’t spending as much on the virtual show compared with the live show, so we were OK with fewer sponsors paying reduced prices for the virtual environment,” said Noonan. “Virtual events don’t give as much opportunity for Grainger account managers to walk the floor with their customers, which was unfortunate.”

Sponsors had similar feelings regarding customer engagement and sales, but in their minds, getting in front of Grainger account managers was also very strategic, so much of the ROI came from those opportunities.

“For 2021, we’re hoping that our sponsors are more familiar with virtual events so we can help them manage expectations and build better ROI,” Noonan said. “We are also looking at ways to increase customer engagement.”

Conclusion and Learnings

Overall, Grainger Show 2020 was a successful event and a great learning experience for Noonan and her team.

A few key takeaways emerged according to Noonan:

  • Manage the number of booths in the exhibit hall. One hundred eighty-eight booths in the Grainger hall was just too much – more than attendees could get to during the show. For the 2021 event, Noonan plans to reduce supplier booths to between 120 and 130. Her rationale:  Fewer booths are less overwhelming and increase customer engagement with suppliers.
  • Have designated exhibitor hours during the day rather than keeping the hall open all day long. Since theaters and the exhibit hall ran concurrently, customers could pop into the virtual hall at any time. But with the long exhibit hall hours, suppliers were frequently waiting for customers to pop in.
  • Pick a time zone and stick with it when publishing the agenda. “We were open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in each time zone, starting with Atlantic Standard Time. As we were based in Central Standard Time, that meant that we were working from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m – which is a long virtual day for both suppliers and event staff and is ripe for confusion,” explained Noonan.

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