Re-Imagining IMTS for a Digital Audience

Episode 99

September 1, 2020

While some manufacturing organizations are reeling from trade show and conference cancellations, others are finding new ways to connect exhibitors, peers, and prospects. This week on The Kula Ring, Michelle Edmonson, Senior Director, Exhibitions Operations and Marketing at The Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT), talks about transforming The International Manufacturing Technology Show’s (IMTS) 6-day, in-person trade show into a 7-month virtual destination. She talks about bringing new content to the IMTS audience, including live broadcasts, and why the IMTS created a digital platform instead of a virtual trade show booth.

Re-Imagining IMTS for a Digital Audience Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how are you doing, mate? 

Carman Pirie: I’m doing well. Doing well. And look, I’m excited for today’s show because we get to have a fascinating guest that’s going to tell us all about what’s next for The International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in this strange year of COVID. I know that a lot of our listeners are interested to know, and have certainly been a part of IMTS over the years, so I’m excited for today’s guest. 

Jeff White: Yeah. It’s a big show, and it’s interesting to see how they are adapting it to this new post-trade show world that we’re in. 

Carman Pirie: Indeed, indeed. Is it an interim world? Is it a post-world? And who knows where it’s all going. We’ll save that for another day. But let’s introduce today’s guest. 

Jeff White: Indeed, so joining us today is Michelle Edmonson. Michelle is the Senior Director, Exhibitions Operations and Marketing at AMT, The Association for Manufacturing Technology, who produces the IMTS show. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Michelle. 

Michelle Edmonson: Thank you guys. I’m so happy to be here. 

Carman Pirie: Well, it’s a pleasure to have you join us, and to bring us an overview of what’s to come under the IMTS brand. But before we get into that, Michelle, why don’t you give us a little bit of your background and tell us about what you do at AMT for the benefit of our listeners?

Michelle Edmonson: Sure. As you said, my name’s Michelle Edmonson. I have actually been working on the IMTS show for 24 years, so my first IMTS was 1996, where I was there as a vendor contractor. I worked on registration. I worked there for nine years and then came over to AMT 16 years ago, in 2004. Since then, I’ve been in operations my whole career at AMT and took on marketing during the last cycle, so about three and a half years ago. I pretty much have my hand in every piece and part of IMTS, and am very fortunate to work with a great bunch of people that make it worthwhile. 

Jeff White: Anybody who’s ever been involved in events knows that things go wrong, and things go sideways, but nobody saw this sideways, you know? You’re always kind of like, “Oh, some stuff’s gonna happen and it’s not gonna be perfect, and we’ll have to deal with crazy speakers or booth demands or whatever.” But man, even in 24 years, you probably weren’t prepared for where this was going. 

Michelle Edmonson: Yeah. Nope. I’ve never seen anything like it, to be honest with you. A little bit of history as to how this came down in March. We started the… You know, we’re fine. Our show’s in September. We got lots of time, but we are gonna have to make some changes, so our marketing team pivoted to focus on the supply chain. Our operations team pivoted to focus on safety, and health, and what we’re gonna do, and how we’re gonna have an in-person event of 130-plus thousand people. What is that gonna look like and how are we going to manage and make sure it’s streamlined but safe for everyone? We were kind of going through many scenarios of, “Well, we could do this, but we might not do this.” We’ve been pivoting and challenging, and then on June 8th, we actually cancelled the event for the betterment of the industry. 

But that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have the responsibility. We need to bring the audience the ability to connect with exhibitors, connect with their peers, solve their challenges, see new products, and understand what’s happening in the industry. We couldn’t just take a year off, if you will, and expect the audience to still rely on us to be their challenge solvers. 

Carman Pirie: Michelle, I really think that in some ways, your journey on this mirrors a lot of that of the marketers that depend on the show. They probably went through a similar kind of thought process initially. 

Jeff White: Denial. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, should I just say it? Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, you know? And so, you get that for a while, and then all of a sudden that slow realization that, “Hold on a second. This isn’t gonna happen.” 

Michelle Edmonson: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: But what I love is that you guys just didn’t decide to take the year off, but rather said, “You know, we have this responsibility. We need to move forward.” And I mean that, I think there’s a great lesson in that for marketers writ large, and just frankly organizations more broadly to say, “This isn’t about standing still. It’s about making change and doing what we need to do in new ways and adapting.” And so, I’d love to learn more about what you’re doing with the new IMTS. 

Michelle Edmonson: Yeah. No, I’m happy to share. We have a couple things, a couple new ideas that have spawned from this, if you will, and one of them is called IMTS Spark. If you go into right now, you’ll be able to take three paths. One of them will tell you all about IMTS 2022 and we are still planning that, and what’s happening, and the excitement that we’ll have around people coming together in two years. 

And the other two are immediate. One is IMTS Spark, and IMTS Spark is basically a digital destination. It’s a seven-month platform that will last until March 15th of 2021, and visitors will be able to go in right now and start their journey. They’ll be able to see what exhibitors are partaking. They’ll be able to learn and partake in exclusive conferences, and add them to when they register, they create a MySpark Planner, and they’ll be able to add the conferences to their planner. They’ll be able to see a multitude of showcases in various different technologies, from manufacturing technology, to making connections, to industry insights, and innovation shakedown, and so a multitude of pieces and things where they will be able to partake in coffee chats, which is similar to a Zoom call, and it’s networking with your peers. There’ll be certain topics where you can learn from the experts and from your peers, what ideas and ways to solve challenges, and be able to share your ideas with others. 

We’ll also have lunch and learns, where an expert will actually come in and teach you something. And then we’ll have webinars, which is the same. The expert will come in and teach you something and you’ll be able to ask questions and get feedback in different pieces. There are a multitude of topics, from manufacturing technology to business and leadership pieces. You’ll also be able to go in and do some self study, and we’re calling them deep dives. You’ll be able to go in and whether you’re new and a nuance to the industry, or advanced in the industry and you’ve been in it a long time, we still have some things you might want to learn and some challenges you might have. We have lots of different ways that you can go in, ask a question, and then just keep driving deeper until you get the answers you need or want. 

Carman Pirie: Michelle, I think that started on August the 14th is when you kind of unlocked the door-

Michelle Edmonson: Correct. 

Carman Pirie: Is there a key date coming up that we need to be mindful of? 

Michelle Edmonson: Absolutely, so you want to be mindful of September 21st, and September 21st is when all sessions will go live. There will be a schedule of what sessions are active and there’ll be sessions every week from August 21st through March 15th. Then exhibitors will do live demos of their products; you will be able to go in and see the IMTS exhibitors, so if they were an IMTS exhibitor on June 8th when we cancelled, they automatically have a place in Spark. You’ll be able to go in and see what they were gonna bring to IMTS, and all their new products, and they’ll be doing some live demos of their products, and lots of different things going on in Spark. 

Carman Pirie: Very cool. Very cool. 

Jeff White: I think what’s really interesting about this is that you’ve chosen to take… I can’t recall exactly how many days the in-person IMTS show is – 

Michelle Edmonson: It was six. 

Jeff White: Six days, so a relatively long trade show, but you’re stretching that out to seven months. I think it’s really interesting to be able to look at this and say, “Look, we’re not just gonna take a trade show and make a skeuomorphic version of it, where you click around and go into somebody’s booth virtually, which doesn’t really add a lot of value, but instead you’re looking at this and saying, “What can we do to make a valuable connection tool for our manufacturers, our exhibitors, our attendees, that maybe we couldn’t do if we were only doing it in six days in person?” 

Michelle Edmonson: Yes, Jeff, and that was by design. The reason we did that is because we recognize that when you’re in person, you’re all in. That is where you are, you have the time and the energy to partake in the things you need. If you’re not in person, you have other things going on, whether it be at home if you’re working from home, or in the factory. We recognize that and understand that, and so it is almost impossible for someone to take six days straight and be able to encompass what you would at IMTS, so we stretched it out. 

All the sessions that we have will all be recorded, so they’re on demand. They’ll be on demand and people will be able to see them at their convenience, and so our premise is that this is a digital destination that meets you where you are. We recognize that people probably aren’t going to give more than one to two hours at most on a webinar, or a Zoom call, or anything like that. As someone that has Zoom calls literally all day long, I can attest. The human body just does not like that and the human mind doesn’t either. 

Carman Pirie: I think the line I’ve heard in politics and political speech giving is the mind can’t absorb what the seat can’t endure. I think that kind of connects with Zoom calls these days. 

Michelle Edmonson: That is a great one. Yes. Exactly. That is the reason we stretched it out to the 15th, and traditionally for the IMTS audience, in March of the odd year is usually when we start promoting and talking about the new event, as well. It’ll go right into the cycle, so it feeds into March 15th, and then we will start talking about IMTS 2022 and get people understanding what they can expect from that. 

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Carman Pirie: And I know that there’s more than just Spark. 

Michelle Edmonson: There is. 

Carman Pirie: Not that it’s not significant in its own right, but what else you have on the go? 

Michelle Edmonson: You read my mind. I was just gonna say. Now, I can’t leave this podcast without talking to you about IMTS Network. We’re really excited about the IMTS Network. What this is, it’s a live broadcast, and it will broadcast what would have been the days of IMTS. If you think about it as the Netflix, if you will, of manufacturing. It’s human stories. It’s where basically technology and human stories meet. And we have many different shows. It’ll launch live. It’ll go live between 8:00 AM central time and 12:00 PM central time. There’ll be a live broadcast with some recorded episodes in there, as well. 

We will repeat that live broadcast basically all day long, so you’ll be able to see it. And then afterwards, you’ll be able to go back and see the recording, as well. But it’s just exciting. We have episodes and series like Profiles in Manufacturing. We’ll take a person, I think we have six of the… and the Profiles of Manufacturing are those icons in the manufacturing industry who have done something extraordinary, and we do kind of a profile on their story. 

Then we have something that’s really fun. It’s called Outside the Shop. We have two seasons of them, and it’s basically anyone in the manufacturing industry that is doing something super cool and super untraditional. Those are really exciting to see what people are doing. We have some Tech Peeks, which is all about technology and the advancements in technology and what’s going on. And then we have Road Tripping with Steve, who’s one of our employees, he kind of reminds me of the Guy Fieri of manufacturing. And that show was very similar to it. He’d drive up to a manufacturing plant, go in, he’s inquisitive, he understands it, he talks all through, kind of picks up pieces and he figures it out. 

We have The Three Economists, so we’ll have some industry outlooks, and what’s going on, and how it’s going in the industry today. We have Manufacturing Explorers—We have Travis Egan and his son, Max, did season one. It was fun, where they went into shops to find out what are the new, cool technologies that are going on. Then we have conversations with anyone in manufacturing, or in the government, or in lots of different pieces and places, that get interviewed. The live portion of this is gonna be positioned almost like the Today Show. We’ll have live from Chicago, and we will have live from D.C. and McLean, where our office is. So, our two co hosts, Peter Eelman and Jules McGuire will be in two locations making this happen, but it’s going to be really exciting, and that’s September 14th through the 18th

Carman Pirie: That’s really cool, and part of me wants to ask you almost as a person trying to pull all that together, just it strikes me that it’s a different kind of muscle to exercise than the previous years at IMTS.  

Michelle Edmonson: Absolutely. 

Carman Pirie: But it must be exciting to bring this new type of content to the audience, as well. 

Michelle Edmonson: You know, it is, and by design, I said before my whole career I’ve been in operations, so that’s what I do when I get overwhelmed because I can do it easily and it brings my confidence back that I can actually do something. When I think about operations and where I come from, by design that’s a problem solver, right? It’s been fun figuring out different ways to solve the challenge, and I feel like anyone, as long as you know what the challenge is, you can find ways to solve them and you can sit and really, as long as you understand the challenge and understand what the audience needs, it’s fun to figure out new ways to solve them. And again, as I said, we have a great team, so I’m really fortunate. We’re really fortunate. 

Carman Pirie: And how has the feedback been so far as people have been hearing of the new format?

Michelle Edmonson: Sure. So far, it has been really positive. We’ve gotten some really positive results and really positive feedback. We have a show committee that actually works on IMTS and helps guide IMTS. It’s a group of exhibitors that help guide us through sometimes policy, but really like, “You know, we think this will work, and this works better.” Then we have a group of… It’s visitors that we talk to, as well, like what are your needs? What do you think? 

We’ve kind of bounced ideas off of both of them throughout this whole process to make sure it’s meeting their needs, as well. We opened on August 14th for the journey, and within the first four or five days, we had over 200 people registered. Obviously, many more since then, and so we’ve had very positive feedback for both. People have emailed us wanting to be on Spark, and wanting to be on Network, and how do I get involved, and what can I do? Lots of questions that are coming through. It’s good. It’s really good. It’s good to feel. 

Jeff White: For sure. And as Carman mentioned, this is a different muscle. I mean, you’re effectively creating mini or full-size TV shows for each one of these episodes, each one of these pieces of content, and I’m wondering, how are you going to track the success of this and figure out what resonates, and further, how much of that do you think is going to play into future in-person versions of IMTS? Because I don’t think we’re just gonna shut this kind of thing down when we can get together again in person. How do you think this will end up getting leveraged and how will it change the scope of the IMTS show? 

Michelle Edmonson: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, we’ve talked a lot about what does it mean? What does success look like? We’ve looked at a lot of measures and the way people want to register and are willing to is a better way to say it, willing to register for IMTS. People are not willing to go through that process to register for something they want to get to right away. We’ve kind of altered what the registration process looks like and they only have to fill out key elements and details to get in, and then they’re immediately in. 

We’re calling it the MySpark Planner. During IMTS, we have a MyShow Planner. We’ve looked at how many MyShow Planners were done in the past and then success looks like we have one more? Do we take how many visitors have registered for IMTS and then we take one more? What does success really look like? At the end of the day, what we have landed at is if we can get a certain percentage of both, and so there’s a medium, right? So, there’s an aggregate of how many people have registered for a planner traditionally and gone through that process, and how many people have registered for IMTS and are interested… There’s a middle man, if you will. That’s kind of where we landed and that’s kind of what success looks like. 

Also, what is the audience saying? How often do they come back? Are they excited about the different topics? What are they able to survey, if you will, after each topic, and from that survey, is this the content they want? So, it’s more, and we’re willing to pivot and kind of take in that feedback to create new sessions for the future. So, just because there’s a session in September, if a lot of people like it, doesn’t mean it won’t replay again in October, or even January. Or in January, if there’s a new issue that’s come up in the manufacturing industry, we’ll pivot to make sure we give topics on that. 

Truly listening to the audience and making sure we give them what they need when they need it, so that’s the first part of your question. The second part of your question is what does this look like in the future. I can honestly tell you it really will depend on how this goes. Do I think this will be a replacement for an in-person meeting? I don’t. And I’m pretty biased. Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, in-person meetings are my trade and my thing, but at the end of the day, you see it now, right? Right about now, college campuses are going back, and even kids want to be together. People want to be together and they want to be together when they have a common goal and a common interest. 

I truly do not see this taking the place of in-person meetings. What I do see this as being something that can be added to in-person meetings. What that looks like, I don’t know. I don’t know if it looks like we’ll do this during the week of IMTS, or leading up to IMTS, or after IMTS, or maybe in the odd year. I don’t know, but I can tell you we are absolutely looking at it and talking about it. 

Carman Pirie: It’s an interesting ongoing conversation. I think it remains to be seen just how the notion of trade shows and conferences evolves in post-COVID. And while we theorize about it and pontificate about it, you definitely live it every day, and so it’s encouraging to see the direction that IMTS is taking for this year and I gotta tell you, Michelle, I’m really excited about it. I’m really looking forward to September 14th, when Network goes live, and thank you for sharing these plans with us today. It’s been great to have you on the show. 

Michelle Edmonson: Thank you so much for having me. I’m very much looking forward to sharing all of this with the audience and the community. 

Jeff White: Very cool. Thanks a lot. 

Michelle Edmonson: Have a great day. 

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at That’s

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Michelle Edmonson

Senior Director, Exhibitions Operations and Marketing

Michelle Edmonson is Senior Director, Exhibitions Operations and Marketing at The Association For Manufacturing Technology, a non-profit organization that represents and promotes the US manufacturing technology industry. Michelle brings 25 years of experience working with The International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS). Michelle holds a BA in Human Relations with a Conference Planning Concentration from High Point University.

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

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