Shifting gears: How Sweetwater’s internationally attended GearFest is going virtual in 2020

Large, public gatherings like concerts, conferences, and seminars have the ability to bring people from all around the world together in powerful ways. But what happens when a pandemic challenges the nature of in-person events, perhaps forever? And how can event planners add value for guests stuck at home?

As a global leader in the online music retail industry, Sweetwater is looking to answer these questions this summer, taking its annual GearFest on Friday and Saturday into an online-only format this year, aptly named GearFest Online.

Under normal conditions, Sweetwater hosts the two-day smorgasbord of music artists, engineers, producers, brands, and gear at its Fort Wayne campus. The spectacle attracts a robust attendance of international guests and speakers from as far away as Japan, Denmark, and Australia, says GearFest Executive Director Bob Bailey.

“Last year, we had right under 17,000 customers come on campus,” he says. “We set up 100,000-square feet of space, in which we had just under 500 companies represented, with representatives from all the manufacturers of those companies displaying their latest and greatest products.”

Bailey

Along with marketing gear during the festival, Bailey says the weekend usually involves about 90 seminars, appearances, and breakout sessions.

“For example, it could be educational performances, how-to tips and tricks, behind the scenes encounters from Grammy® Award-winning producers and engineers,” he says. “It could be artists showing the gear they use and how they produce certain sounds.”

This year, all of that is going virtual as Sweetwater navigates the global pandemic. And while shifting an event of this magnitude to the internet has its challenges, there may be a silver lining to the format change, too, says Thad Tegtmeyer, Sweetwater's Vice President of Campus Sales Operations & Artist Relations.

“It actually might open the door for us to do some different things in the future in conjunction with a live event,” Tegtmeyer explains. “I think we’ll certainly be back live at some point; hopefully, it's next year.”

Tegtmeyer

In the meantime, Sweetwater is working to retain the elements of its live events in any way it can during the pandemic as much as possible. After all, music and gear are often best experienced firsthand, and many returning guests at GearFest look forward to the unparalleled richness of in-person interaction.

“We have folks who post in motorhomes, trailers, and tents, enjoy free camping on-site and just hang out for the two days,” Bailey explains.

So how will Sweetwater translate the vivacity of a live experience into a virtual one without compromising value? That’s what Bailey refers to as “the $64-million question.”

Beyond the obvious challenges, he says event organizers have had to adapt on a short timeline. They made the decision to move the event online at the end of April and had to notify all participating parties. It was no small feat, but they were able to do it, thanks to a strategic approach.

“We've divided the event up into a few different kinds of components,” Bailey explains. “For example, one big draw of the event is the sales aspect. We have some of the best prices that we have all year, and some exclusive buys and some really exciting deals that you can only get at GearFest.”

GearFest attracts attendees from across the country and around the world to Fort Wayne.

Bailey says the DealsZone portion of the online conference will simulate that in-person shopping experience. Sweetwater started posted deals on June 11, and there will be more exclusive offers posted Friday and Saturday.

“We’re reserving the best of the best deals for the two-day event,” Bailey says.

Normally, guests leave the weekend with shiny new equipment, and vendor interaction is part of the allure, since many vendors are on-site to explain the intricacies of their products. Translating that into a virtual experience has required some creativity on the part of Bailey’s team, but they've found a solution.

“We've asked the vendors to provide videos, talking about their products,” he says. “Even though it’s a one-way affair this time, at least customers will get to see the latest and greatest products that these companies have.”

Providing vendors with an effective avenue to market products adds value to their GearFest experience, too, since many other summer expos have been canceled this year, Bailey notes. While the pandemic makes interacting with consumers more complicated in some ways, sales are not suffering in the music industry during COVID-19. In April, Sweetwater reported record sales, as more musicians took to the craft during quarantine. If trends continue, GearFest could enjoy robust sales this year, too.

Beyond the retail aspect of the event, Bailey says there is also the educational component. All of the workshops and seminars that would traditionally be held at Sweetwater’s sprawling campus off US-30 will be live-streamed from the facility, complemented with a mixture of live and pre-recorded calls by world-class music industry professionals.

The live aspect of the event is important to GearFest organizers, as to simulate the feeling of being in the same room as the speakers, Bailey explains.

“Whenever possible, we've procured the artists, engineers, producers, and panels live,” he says. “We've also procured video content from some other huge names.”

A concert at the Sweetwater Pavilion during GearFest.

According to Bailey, unprecedented times are improving GearFest’s events in some ways, too, encouraging speakers to get innovative with their content.

“Many of these artists were on quarantine and got very, very creative with booth videos,” he says. “It’s pretty cool. Some of them who were the most impacted by COVID-19 were the most creative.”

GearFest educational sessions will be live-streamed both days, beginning at 10 a.m. EST.

Bailey anticipates that they’ll have enough content to last until at least 6 p.m. Technically speaking, he says there are a lot of moving parts to the process, but he feels confident in his team’s ability to execute.

“From doing live-streamed events in the past, we know how to get the event out to the world,” he says. “The problem was, how do we get all of this content in here and then get it back out to the world? So, we had to set up an entire video production facility in our theater to do this. Our theater team has become de facto broadcast engineers, in a way.”

Similarly, he says Sweetwater's entire IT team will be on staff this weekend to ensure the event goes smoothly for all speakers, vendors, and attendees. In fact, they're creating an operations center specifically for GearFest Online, which will allow them to monitor traffic and respond quickly, if needed.

While some aspects of the event can be measured or quantified, Bailey says not everything about GearFest can be reduced to metrics. Success ultimately goes deeper than the surface level. He hopes that GearFest attendees feel pleasantly surprised by the new format for this longtime summer favorite.

“We want people to enjoy it to walk away from it going, ‘That was an incredible experience, and one that you could only get at Sweetwater,’” he says.

This Special Report was made possible by Sweetwater.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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