The Rome Floyd Chamber has used its Business Expo to showcase the diversity of the business community for years.

As the 2020 event, set for Nov. 5, draws near, the chamber is busy making plans for a virtual expo in case the COVID-19 outbreak prevents the in-person event at the Forum River Center from taking place.

Thomas Kislat, director of membership and entrepreneurial development, said the day of the show was moved from a Friday to a Thursday because he is expecting even more participation from vendors this year.

“We know you’ve got to expect the unexpected now. Things can change any day,” Kislat said. “We know how important our flagship event is and we owe it to our members not to postpone or cancel the event — so Plan B is to do an online version of it.”

For the time being, Kislat said he is planning to hold a live expo and a virtual expo at the same time.

Braden Keith, principal at Romega Digital, is consulting with Kislat and the chamber in the development of a virtual expo.

Keith told members of the Small Business Action Committee this week that he is excited to take on the project. He praised President & CEO Jeanne Krueger, and the rest of the chamber administrative team, as forward-thinking regarding the use of technology to promote local small businesses.

“You’re probably aware of Shop Chamber, which has been vital to getting businesses online,” Keith said, referring to a marketing campaign. “Now here they are, thinking ahead again.”

The business expo has always been a major event for networking, giving small business owners and managers a chance to get better acquainted with their peers across the community.

“I know everyone looks forward to this time every year but, in this day and age, it’s completely up in the air as to how that might be expected,” Keith said. “Your chamber is preparing for all possibilities.”

In a normal year, the business expo would have between 100 and 120 businesses come together in the Forum to show off their products and capabilities. This year, Romega Digital has been asked to help find a way to transfer that physical face-to-face contact into a more virtual realm.

Keith explained that the challenges are real and the timeline is tight but he is confident that his staff, working with chamber staff, can pull it off.

“I love the chamber, I love this downtown, I love all your businesses so much. I want this to be as successful online as it would be in person,” Keith said.

Kislat said that an advantage to having a virtual presence is that it goes beyond highlighting to Romans the goods and services available in Rome. It will showcase Rome business to the rest of the country and anyone else around the world.

As far as what online visitors might see, Keith said the image of 100 businesses all gathered under one roof remains an important aspect of the imagery.

As a visitor zooms in, Keith said, he would expect to be able to show off any particular business’s logo and emulate being right there inside an expo booth with the employee.

“Within this booth, we’re going to provide access to your business,” Keith said. “It’s kind of hard to send people home with a swag bag, but I’m sure you’ve got some marketing materials that you’d want to provide.”

He’s also seeking to create an online calendar that would allow visitors online to schedule an appointment to talk with a business owner via Zoom, Google Hangouts or whatever tool a specific business is comfortable using.

The Shop Chamber initiative is already going strong, providing small business members a portal to sell their merchandise without having to develop their own website.

Any chamber member can join the campaign and sell their products through the chamber site online.

“We’re begging for more vendors to come on to the platform,” Keith said. “It’s almost like an Amazon for Rome. So, as we’re building out the Shop Chamber platform, as we’re getting closer to expo, if you’re a Shop Chamber vendor we’re going to link directly from the expo site to the Shop Chamber page.”

Keith said he and the chamber are both making significant investments in technology to help other small businesses in the county.

Krueger said the success of the business expo is critical because it helps the chamber fund its Shop Rome campaign, which steps up its activity during the holiday season.

“The expo has always been a great event and we want to continue on with that, but to be able to do this (virtual) element is huge for us,” Krueger said. “We want to do it in person but we want to give people both options, whatever their comfort level might be.”

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