The GCA, by necessity, was among the first, if not THE first in our industry to “pivot” from a live event to a virtual one, and it is now seen as a leader in offering meaningful digital content, not just to our association members, but to all members of the greeting card community.
When the virus forced the GCA to cancel Noted in San Francisco in May—heartbreaking to cancel in light of all the work by volunteers and the investment by the GCA, but an easy decision from a health and safety standpoint—my first reaction was to mope. But support for Noted, and its unique concept of uplifting the entire greeting card community–including makers, retailers, sales reps, printers, and designers—was so strong that we knew we could not just do nothing. I was skeptical about the technology, but John Smyth of A Smyth Co made me a believer, and we pulled together a three-part virtual event in a matter of weeks.
We were super committed to hosting that event on May 1, which was supposed to be our opening day for Noted in San Francisco. We had a Pitch Program, with nine makers each pitching their line in five minutes to a panel of independent and key retailers, just as we had planned to do in San Francisco, as well as the Noted @ Noted Awards program recognizing outstanding new card designs, and an educational panel on how makers and exhibitors were responding to COVID. Nearly 300 makers, retailers, and sales reps participated. It was not just a success; it was a huge shot in the arm to all of us who had been stuck at home for six weeks at that point. Seeing everyone, hearing the support, was just so inspiring!
Not long after Virtual Noted it became clear that we needed to look at virtual versions of all of our normal programs this year, including the LOUIE Awards and our annual Workshop and Retreat. The result of these efforts is already clear: we are going to end up engaging with more makers, more retailers, and more sales reps, inspiring more community in our industry, than we would have with only live programs. Access is easier and cheaper for all involved. I am not saying the future is all virtual, but I am saying that future events need to have a virtual component for exactly that reason: more members of the community can be involved.
What we were able to accomplish with this year’s LOUIE Awards well illustrates how a live event can become even more successful as a virtual one. The judging for this year’s LOUIEs, the highest honor in our industry, was completed in February, just before everything shut down. The winners were selected. They deserved to be not just recognized, but honored, and an email announcement of the winners was not going to cut it. Easier said than done, of course, but thanks to Mary Beth Sibert of American Greetings, her amazing vision and organization, and her committee of volunteers who made the first-ever virtual LOUIEs so successful!
It was a challenge to make sure that all members of our community knew how to participate. We needed all to be comfortable signing in to watch. And not just signing in, but participating, as we saw with all the #LouieWatchParty events, held by makers and retailers alike, and downloads of our special LOUIE cocktail to make at home. Special thanks to IMC (Atlanta Market), as their effort to ensure that their retailers were encouraged to “attend” really helped drive the retailer audience. That retailer audience was by far the biggest the LOUIE event has ever had, again speaking to cheaper and easier access. More retailers than ever now know the value of a LOUIE—and know who the LOUIE winners are! We do hope to return to a live event next year. But there will certainly be a virtual component to ensure that all makers and retailers who want to participate can do so from anywhere.
I cannot close without mentioning how proud I am of the GCA’s initial response to the ongoing, needed discussions about social justice, and the role that our industry and our association can play. GCA leadership thought action was more important than words. Our industry lacks, and could benefit from, diversity. Period. Fortunately, the Pitch Program was an already built natural fit. We very quickly got sponsors to cover the cost of nine Black makers, and a strong retailer Pitch Recipient panel. Support from retailers was strong, and the number who attended gratifying. In the short term, we hope the event will lead to sales for the nine featured makers—sales they would not have had without the event—providing a more diverse offering at retail. Longer term, we hope that seeing more diverse designs at retail will inspire more Black makers to bring their designs to market. Importantly we moved 50% of all registration funds collected from retailers watching event into a scholarship to offset exhibit costs for a Maker of Color to exhibit at Noted 2021.
As I said way back in January, the future of the GCA is bright; I now have to add that it is as bright in the virtual world as it is in the real one, and not just in the COVID-economy. Future Noted events will certainly include live and virtual components, as that increases participation by makers, retailers, and sales reps alike. That sounds like a community builder to me, and that’s what the GCA is all about: building the greeting card community.
George White, GCA President