Steve Menzie was preparing to host the popular Sport Card Expo in Mississauga, Ontario for the 30th year when the pandemic hit.

As COVID-19 continued to spread, it became apparent to Menzie that his spring show in June 2020 wasn’t going to happen. And it wasn’t just the Sport Card Expo — which is the second largest trading card show in North America behind the National Sports Collectors Convention — that wasn’t going to happen. It was every other show in the world. That’s a shame as the trading card industry was just starting to explode.

One idea that popped into Menzie’s mind was to have the show go virtual. With help, Menzie figured out the logistics and realized his concept was going to work.

“My number one stakeholders are always my dealers, and that’s who I reached out to first,” said Menzie, who is the president of the Sport Card Expo, buying the show in 2015. “In designing a virtual event, my number one priority was to have a platform on which dealers could buy and sell. Everyone’s got Zoom and FaceTime and everything else, so there’s lots of ways to connect. But I needed something that would actually serve as a commerce platform, but also to be able to leverage the connection that is such a big part of it.”

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Menzie felt it was important for the hobby to have a virtual show. It’s what collectors and dealers needed during the dark days of the pandemic.

“With the hobby doing what it’s done during the pandemic, everyone is just starved for content. But they’re also starved for more buying and selling opportunities,” Menzie said.

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The June 2020 show — which was the first card show in the hobby to go virtual — went so well and was so well received by dealers and collectors that Menzie repeated the same formula for his November show.

The shows received rave reviews from dealers and collectors.

“Overall, it was very positive,” Menzie said. “Some have said, ‘You know what, I didn’t actually sell that much at the show. But I got some new clients and I’ve sold a bunch since.’ Some guys did super.”

When Calgary native Jeremy Lee heard about the virtual show, he was excited. He had set up a dealer booth for the previous 15 years at the Sport Card Expo.

“I thought, ‘Hey, it’s better than nothing,’” said Lee, who runs a successful YouTube channel under the name Sports Cards Live. “Let’s make the best of it, see how it goes and let’s support the initiative. I thought it was important for the hobby.”

The Sport Card Expo, which started in 1991, will have its third installment of the virtual show coming up on June 19-20. Menzie is anticipating it being the expo’s largest show ever. The regularly scheduled November show will be back in person.

HOW IT WORKS

During the first 29 years of the Sport Card Expo, dealers always flocked to the International Centre in Mississauga, Ontario and collectors followed suit. Numbers were solid.

When the show went virtual, Menzie didn’t know what to expect from either dealers or collectors. What happened turned out great.

Both virtual shows in 2020 had about 50 dealers from around North America: split about 60-70 percent Canadians and 30-40 percent Americans.

“What I’m seeing more of and frankly what we’re focusing more of this year is trying to get a lot more of the individual guys — breakers, collectors, who have a significant enough budget that want to buy and sell,” Menzie said.

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Having a good mix of Canadian and American dealers meant the show wasn’t going to be heavily Canadian dealers who traditionally sell mostly hockey cards.

“My regular show is like 80 percent hockey, so I do kind of fight that with some people, but it’s not been the case on the [virtual show],” Menzie said. “I intentionally promote it that way and I publicize basketball, football and other content elements. It hasn’t been an issue at this point.”

A screen shot from the 2020 virtual Sport Card Expo.

2020 Sport Card Expo. 

There were roughly 10,000 collectors combined for the two virtual shows in 2020 — the November show having slightly fewer attendees. Canadians and Americans accounted for 95 percent of the attendees, with the rest logging on from the United Kingdom and Australia.

“The great thing about virtual is you can track a ton of metrics,” Menzie said. “So, we can track how many people spent how much time in each booth. It’s really, really good.”

The virtual show is run through the platform Hopin, which is similar to Zoom.

Menzie wanted to make sure the expo featured as many elements as a regular, in-person show, including: a main stage; an expo hall, where the dealer booths are located; breakout rooms; and networking features with one-on-one access for chats.

“When you come into the event, there is an event chat, so literally everybody can see what goes on in the event chat,” Menzie said. “I have the ability to, obviously, control that and say, ‘OK, in a half an hour on the main stage, Emmitt Smith’s going to be talking with the folks from Collectable,’ whatever the thing is. But a lot of people will come into [the chat] and say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for or who’s got Jordan rookies or who’s got this?’”

Collectors can go into the expo hall and see a list of dealers who are attending the show. Attendees can then go to a specific dealer booth and check out what a dealer is selling, chat with the dealer or just be a virtual fly on the wall, listening to others chat.

In each dealers’ booth, a dealer has the capability to link its eBay store, company website and social media pages to attract further traffic.

“When someone clicks on your booth — depending on how you have it set up, I’ve had some dealers that only want to have a video or slideshow show. They don’t want to be physically in the room, but most people do want to have personal interactions,” Menzie said. “So, you click on a booth, it opens up an image of the guy in his store or in his home, wherever he’s set up. You can have up to eight people on the screen with you in your booth and you can be chatting live, you can be chatting by text. And then, let’s say you and I are talking and you want to buy my Mantle rookie, we can go into either a private chat or a private video conference, if we want to get into price and details and all that kind of stuff.”

Dealers and collectors interact during the virtual 2020 Sports Card Expo.

The 2020 virtual Sport Card Expo. 

Lee, who has been a collector for 40 years, said it’s important for dealers to pay attention to customers in their booths and not be engaging in other activities during the show.

“At a virtual show, it’s important that number one you are present, so the camera is on your face, your body — instead of what a lot of these vendors did was you’d go into booth and their camera would basically be pointed at a white board that would just have some prices listed and some items,” said Lee, who in June 2020 had his best expo ever as far as revenue goes. “A lot of people came and went really quick.”

Brian Wentz, owner of BMW Sportscards in Madison, Wis., only sets up a booth at two shows annually — both being the Sport Card Expo. He set up at both virtual shows in 2020 and enjoyed himself.

He enjoyed the fact that at regular shows he can only interact with one or two customers at once. In the virtual setting, he could talk to a dozen people at a time and also type messages to other collectors at the same time.

“You can actually potentially do a lot more business by doing it that way,” Wentz said. “Now I’m not recommending that because I don’t know if it’s good in terms of actual face-to-face purchases, if I’m buying something from someone in a collection. But I can get that information and in the future what I can do is meet them once this thing opens up.”

Lee, who sells just singles at card shows, said dealers who have an organized inventory at a show is also a plus.

Lee was extremely prepared for shows in 2020, unlike some other dealers who didn’t know the best means to be a business owner in a virtual setting.

“The way the virtual is laid out you have your air quote booth and it’s like you’re livestreaming,” Lee said. “People come into the booth and they can either request to come on stage with you — meaning everyone else can see them, too, and people can watch us talk — or you’ll just see the eyeball count, how many viewers you have. So, whenever I would see that eyeball number change — meaning people were coming and going — I would say to the camera, ‘Hey, if you just got here, welcome to the booth. My name is Jeremy. There’s a link pinned to the top of my chat. If you click on that link, it will take you to my Dropbox and all my cards are scanned, they’re grouped into folders by sport and the price is in the file name. So, let me know if there’s anything you’re interested in.’

“I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to sell cards, you need to show people your price. That’s your initial offer and if they want to counter, they can counter.”

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After having the two virtual shows last year, Menzie was able to see what aspects worked well and others that didn’t, and he tweaked the show for later this month.

One aspect Menzie has added to the expo is called SLAB-FEST. It allows dealers and collectors to show off their slabs in a high-profile setting. Each SLAB-FEST session is a paid three-minute slot where a person is able to display their slabs on the main stage or in a breakout room. Dealers and collectors at the show can tune into each session and see what a person is selling. The person who shows their cards can then get contacted by any dealer or collector to inquire about purchase.

“We’re taking a problem that initially happened and hopefully turning it into an opportunity that benefits everybody,” Menzie said. “It’s the perfect platform to be able to do it.”

There are different packages and price ranges for dealers who want to take part in the Sport Card Expo virtual show. Booths start at $229 (American) and $299 (Canadian) — which includes one SLAB-FEST session.

Collectors are able to sign up for the show for free. Additionally, there are VIP ticket packages available.

“In November, for $25 you could get a $10 eBay coupon and you got a couple of expo-exclusive rookie cards that Upper Deck provided — limited edition cards,” Menzie said. “I sold out of those.”

For more information on the show — which will be June 19-20 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. EST — log onto sportcardexpo.com/ve/ or contact Menzie at sales@sportcardexpo.com or 1-888-466-7116.

Wentz, the dealer in Wisconsin, believes virtual shows could be effective in the future.

“It is interesting, Steve is perfectly situated now to really build this into a larger event simply by bringing in a lot of people that never would have showed up before he took over the show,” Wentz said. “I bet you half the people that go to the virtual expo wouldn’t have gone to the regular expo if they didn’t know about this virtual expo first.”

But Lee sees the future of virtual shows a little bleaker. He has really changed his mind in the last six months when the pandemic died down and everything started to open back up around the country.

“All during the past year, I thought these were going to be here to stay because they’re so convenient,” Lee said. “I think there is a place for them for vendors that don’t travel to physical shows. However, I’m starting to think that now that we’re having a taste of shows coming back, especially in the U.S., and Steve’s planning a physical expo for November, I don’t know that [virtual shows] are going to continue as well as they would if the pandemic was a permanent way of life.”

Either way the virtual setting has worked well for the Sport Card Expo. Only time will tell if virtual shows are here to stay.

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