Video Produced by Justin Hearn
For Tracy Schuster, the past 18 months have been a wild ride.
As the construction software company’s senior events manager, Schuster is among those primarily responsible for planning the Bluebeam Extreme Conference (XCON), Bluebeam’s annual user conference which, in a normal year, attracts roughly 1,000 industry professionals from all over the world.
The multi-day affair, which in recent years was held in such bustling cities as Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., typically features a menu of insightful keynote sessions and presentations, along with plenty of opportunity for attendees to network, eat and frolic amid the local scenery.
However, the past 18 months have been anything but normal. The COVID-19 pandemic upended the world in March 2020, as precautionary lockdowns brought any possibility for large, in-person gatherings and events to a screeching halt.
Schuster and the rest of the Bluebeam events team quickly went from a year of planning for another successful in-person XCON – to be held in San Diego near the end of 2020 – to a postponed gathering in June 2021, to a brilliantly executed series of virtual events once the postponed XCON was ultimately nixed due to COVID-19’s persistent spread.
Now, Schuster and team are about to debut XCON Anywhere, an entirely virtual, two-day user conference taking place on 28-29 September 2021. Registration is now open.
The event, Schuster said, will be Bluebeam’s first entirely virtual conference, and it will be an experience unlike any other, with most of what makes an in-person XCON valuable and enjoyable for attendees intact, along with some fun surprises thrown in.
‘Something that I actually love about event production is you have a chance to plan for possibility’, Schuster said. ‘And I think that was never truer than when we were trying to plan for a 2020 (and ultimately 2021) XCON. As we looked at each step we took, we had to be thinking about not just what would happen at the date that we set for the actual event, but what might change along the way and what we would need to do to adapt.’
The thrill of event production
Schuster’s ability to pivot in the face of uncertainty is something she’s prepared for her entire professional career. The fast-moving thrill of event production, in fact, is why she got into the field in the first place.
After graduating from the University of California, San Diego, in 2006, Schuster jumped right into the events business, working for a nonprofit and endurance events clients – like the Los Angeles Marathon – and then as an internal events producer for a hospital. Her love for the profession quickly became apparent.
‘The thing about events that really struck me was they are very fast-moving and they are very exciting’, Schuster said. ‘And you have the chance to sort of make a difference in person, and you see that happening in front of you. So, for me, as I started to learn more about events, I realised that my personality was really well-suited to the way that events are planned, produced and then executed.’
Schuster joined Bluebeam as an experiential marketing specialist in 2016, and since then she’s marched upward as her event management and production skills grew and her experience producing in-person XCON events flourished.
Planning an in-person XCON event, Schuster said, is typically an 18-month journey, with venue shopping and initial prospecting happening prior to the current-year event taking place. People who experience XCON are there for only two or three days, but for Schuster and the Bluebeam events team, that experience requires a year and a half of painstaking work to make a reality.
Everything from speaker and presentation selection to the food served throughout the event is carefully considered. No detail is glossed over without vigilant inspection.
Just as Bluebeam Revu aims to make every seemingly minuscule detail of a construction document stand out for its ultimate importance to the final building’s value, so do Schuster and her team in their quest to make every XCON event the best possible experience for customers.
‘When you’re looking at planning something like XCON, I’m talking with teams from everywhere from tech support to our product team to our sales teams and everyone in marketing to make sure that we’re all leveraging the same focus and goals 18 months out’, Schuster said. ‘And then every time we’re moving into the planning phases, we’re ticking off critical elements and making sure we’ve secured everything we need to make sure we’re on track and moving forward.’
Planning for 2021’s version of XCON has brought Schuster an entirely new challenge.
Rather than playing the wait-and-see game regarding the pandemic’s path, Bluebeam early on decided the fall 2021 XCON would not be held in person but be entirely virtual. Although this removed many of the pressures of producing an in-person event, it created a new set of questions and obstacles to ensure that the virtual XCON would provide the same level of experience.
‘Everything we knew and believed about the event to be true was essentially wiped off the table’, Schuster said. ‘That gave us a great opportunity to step back and think about planning in a new way.’
Schuster and team set out on a discovery mission. How do you deliver event content in a virtual environment? How do you provide a great event experience without the usual tools at your disposal? ‘It was really fun to work with the team and determine where we could make changes and where we could take a left turn’, Schuster said, ‘where we would have gone right and come up with something engaging and exciting.’
The result of that discovery is XCON Anywhere, a completely virtual, online experience.
But instead of trying to re-create the in-person XCON online, Schuster said the team decided to treat XCON Anywhere as a new experience in and of itself. ‘One of the biggest things is we’re encouraging people to think about XCON Anywhere as somewhat of a departure from the in-person experience they’ve had with us in the past.’
Attendees can still expect an inspiring and informative range of presentations on the latest innovations happening in the construction industry, from collaborative constructability reviews to elevating the preconstruction process to eliminating time-consuming tasks through automation. They can anticipate expert tips and tricks on ways to make their work more efficient (and fun) with Bluebeam Revu, Studio Sessions and Studio Projects. They can also expect plenty of unstructured time, albeit virtual, where networking with fellow attendees and informally interacting with speakers will be encouraged.
‘The one main difference that we thought about with this particular event planning from a virtual perspective vs. in person was we know that people are very tired of connecting in boxes’, Schuster said, referring to the video-conferencing fatigue people are feeling after 18 months of fully remote work. ‘That has been our reality, and we have made the most of it, but we know there’s a space to do something a little different – so we’re trying to pepper in different experiences and make sure that we’re still giving everyone a very impactful opportunity to connect.’
XCON Anywhere, like an in-person XCON, will also feature the Bluebeam Extreme Awards, which will span ten categories and recognise the innovators shaping the future of the construction industry. Previous winners have represented projects from AECOM, Skanska, Sundt, Turner, Zachary, Gensler and more than a dozen other leading construction firms.
To discover what else XCON Anywhere will entail – well, you’ll have to register and attend to find out.
After the year she’s had, Schuster is both anxious and excited for XCON Anywhere to finally happen. As any events professional can relate, not being able to experience the fun and excitement of interacting with people in person has been a drag for Schuster. She misses being able to interact with customers, being onsite coordinating last-minute event production challenges and experiencing all the senses that come with being at a live event. Schuster is hopeful that XCON 2022 will return as a fully in-person event.
Still, Schuster also said the past year has brought with it many new experiences and lessons that she’s taken to heart – and applied to the planning and production of XCON Anywhere. ‘I think the past year was a shared challenge for everyone in shifting the way that we work, the way we connect, the way we engage with one another’, Schuster said. ‘And I truly think that one of the things that I really learned from it was it actually doesn’t matter if you’re in person or you’re connecting virtually. If you’re having an opportunity to talk with people and learn from them, that’s going to be a huge plus no matter where you’re at.’