‘People Want to Get Back to In Person’; An All-Star Events Panel Lights Up the Path Back

Jess Tyler of cannabis-niched MJBiz spoke about a couple that “decided to get married at our event this year. We did a whole feature on it, repurposed a lot of it for Valentine’s Day.” Marian Sandberg of Questex said it was “difficult to translate the way we produce our shows to a virtual event.” An all-star events panel at BIMS said that while the world certainly has changed, people’s desire to gather together has not.

A rock concert didn’t exactly break out during our recent Business Information & Media Summit (BIMS) in Orlando, but we got close. In the middle of an insightful panel discussion on events, Sandberg, VP/market leader at LDI, DSE, XLIVE, Questex, asked if “anybody happened to be at Madison Square Garden in New York in June 2021?” It had been closed for over a year, and the Foo Fighters reopened it in grand style.

Then she quoted the lyrics from their song, Times Like These. “’It’s times like these you learn to live again. It’s times like these you give and give again. It’s times like these you learn to love again.’ They took 20 minutes singing it,” she told us. “’All right New York, we’re back!’

“Okay, replicate that on Netflix!” Sandberg said. “You can’t replicate things a certain way. Don’t we all want to be together?”

That sentiment captured the spirit of this all-star events panel—and conference: Yes we can do virtual events, and we’ll continue to do them to some extent, but people want to get back to in person.

“The substantial difference is the yearning to come back together,” said George Yedinak, co-founder and executive vice president, Aging Media. “We’ve rethought a lot of our portfolio [focusing on] what matters most to attendees, supporters and sponsors.”

Here are seven takeaways from this great panel.

Patience is needed. “Things are not going to be the same,” Sandberg said. “Look at how you are delivering things. People may not want to buy [an event registration] a year in advance. Maybe 6 months. We’ll hit our numbers, but it takes more work from the sales team.” “The sponsor and exhibitor sides came back quicker than the attendee side,” said Kerry Smith, divisional president, Access Intelligence. “People are waiting longer to get things approved. Companies are looking harder at everything… It was a nail-biter before and even more of a nail-biter now.”

Marketing has to change. “People are adjusting to their normal lives again,” said Jess Tyler, senior vice president, events and sales, MJBiz, a division of Emerald. “Companies are sending fewer people, forcing audience acquisition teams to find new companies, go deeper. They can’t rely on mass marketing. We have to fight harder for our audience’s dollars. ‘Do I really need to go to that?’ they’re asking… How we’re generating new audience [is huge]. We do a lot of lead tracking, free newsletters, asking ‘how do we get them from that to that?’” Added Smith: “We have invested in a robust audience development department to work with brand leaders and content people. Who do we have? Who don’t we have? How do we find them?”

Virtual can be monetized. “We tried virtual trade show floors, and our audience hated it,” Yedinak recalled. “We rebranded our virtual events to a webinar series. The mind shift has been impactful. Now the webinars are a kind of petri dish for the live events. Our virtual event webinar platform is key to where we’re going next. We’re able to charge fees to our vendor community. So they’re a money maker for us which not everyone can say.” Added Smith: “Virtual created a new pipeline for us, a conduit for people to come to us until we went back in person.”

The events themselves might have to change. “At live events now, people don’t want to be talked at for 2½ days,” Smith said. (Indeed, in our post-BIMS survey, 1½ days seemed just right for most people.) “We’re building white space into programs. Jamming as much content between 8:30 and 4:30 as we can but leaving more time for attendee interaction, especially with first-time people coming. [It’s about] creating beautiful experiences… We might do a talk-show format interview keynote instead of a presentation just to mix things up and make it more digestible.”

There’s no business like “show” business. “A large percentage are coming for the show floor experience,” Tyler said. ”We’re thinking a lot about creating meaningful connections. What is going to drive them to get there? What is it that they can’t get somewhere else?” Added Yedinak: “When we got into events, we wanted people on stage to build relationships. Then we figured out how to make revenue. We look at it as an integrated experience. A balanced attack has been effective for us.”

Be intentional about diversity. “It’s super important,” said Sandberg. “We start with intention. It’s a responsibility. We have a DEI committee, 10 or 12 of us. It creates a safe space for us to ask difficult questions—addressing stuff that needs to go to HR. We can speak sensitively to each other. But we have to take it to the next step. We’re partnering with universities to get with people at that level and make our company more diverse. The bigger the pool, the better talent you’ll get… We’ve created scholarships to enter different verticals.”

Reach out further. “It’s definitely intentional,” Smith said. “At Access Intelligence, when an HR manager position opened, we went to Black Progress Matters to identify a candidate to fill that role. She’s fantastic. She’s the first person who interacts with the people we’re recruiting. It signals maybe I can fit in with this company. It translates into our events; people are expecting to see diversity reflected in our speakers. The world has expectations now. We need to work hard to reflect what’s going on.” Added Tyler: “We talk about diversity on my team every day, in every conversation of planning.”


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