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‘It’s Up to Us to Foster This New Reality’; Events Are Back on With Audiences Top of Mind

KC Crain, president and CEO of Crain Communications, told my colleague Matt Kinsman last week that “we will have our first in-person event in July, and this fall we will have in-person events all over the world. There will be different aspects to our events such as live streaming, and we will see a hybrid model for a while yet.” Co-location, series of content, more creative virtual offerings, and, of course, hybrid are all in the air, as many people—though still not all—appear ready to return.

There are still many variables to consider as we all decide when, where and how to plan our in-person events. In a survey we conducted in May, 60% of our AM&P Network respondents said they would be comfortable attending in-person events this fall—with the proper safety protocols in place. Of the 40% who said either “no” or “it’s too early to say,” 65% of those said 2022 sounds more realistic to them.

As for when their own organization has scheduled an in-person event, 31% said this summer and 33% said this fall. The two biggest factors driving their own attendance of an in-person event—by a fairly wide margin—are “content mix” and “travel budget” with “networking” and “not having to travel” next. Just over 40% said they would prefer a smaller regional event to a larger one, but the same percentage said it didn’t matter. And 44% said their organizations have not yet issued a policy on attending in-person events.

Here are some other event trends I’ve seen:

Virtual has its virtues. “If people didn’t figure out a way to enhance their digital business during the pandemic, then shame on them,” said Crain. “The pandemic 100% accelerated our digital strategy, namely in the data and analytics around our audiences, which we will continue to push in 2021.” While the company plans to do only a fraction of the 900 virtual events they hosted in 2020, Crain did say that “we will continue to see virtual events where the topic and the market make sense.” Added Peter O’Neil, CEO of ASIS International: “The pandemic made the world an even smaller place and global engagement has increased. Now it’s up to us to continue to foster this new reality through our programming and international engagement strategies, and focus on what truly makes us more successful.”

Co-locating. Associations Now reported that the Audio Engineering Society (AES) and National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) will co-locate for a conference in October in Las Vegas, something they also did in 2017. Previously, it “enabled us to exponentially increase attendance and expand the show floor—a win-win for our attendees and exhibitors,” said Chris Brown, NAB EVP of conventions and business operations. Now it’s a show in strength. Adds Graham Kirk, director of sales and marketing at AES: “…we made the decision that it was vital that we be present again in some form.” Adds Jeff Calore, portfolio director, event services, at SmithBucklin: “There’s certainly more activity around co-location, particularly groups that bring synergies and are additive to one another in terms of content, audience reach, and buyer segments that one single event was delivering before.”

Communicate often with your venues. “Hotels are in the middle of trying to align their service levels correctly, and planners have every right to dive deeply into that during contract negotiations,” said Kaaren Hamilton, VP of global sales for Red Lion Hotels, in a recent virtual session run by Meeting Professionals International. Added Teresa White, senior director of global sales for Wyndham Hotels & Resorts: “Planners should not assume anything—ask questions that you might never have asked before about how staff levels, social-distancing rules, and other factors will affect the room-set changeover process, the food-and-beverage delivery process, and other meeting elements.”

Plan now. You can see from our survey that a majority of organizations are returning to in-person events soon. That means a mass run on event venues. In our recent webinar, both Kelly Helfman, commercial president, Informa Markets Fashion, and Desiree Hanson, EVP, Clarion Events, said that if you are planning events for the fall or winter of 2021—or even 2022—get space now!

Hybrid takes center stage. While the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening will still have its in-person event in Vienna this month, attendance from outside Europe will, of course, be down. Organizations will have to start experimenting with hybrid events—for this, maybe add a 5-minute Vienna travel video or a raffle for a trip next year or special dialogues with in-person exhibitors. If content mix is still the biggest draw for people and travel is not in everyone’s comfort zone or budgets yet, then a creative virtual option to your in-person event should be included. In a new survey, “2021 and Beyond,” by Factum Global, an international consultancy, a majority (55%) of C-suite leaders say they experienced increased participation in their activities internationally. Can’t let that slip away.

Create ongoing events. The idea of a series of content as opposed to a 2-3 day event has taken hold. By doing a spread-out series, one event planner in our webinar said that by the third month this year, “the audience had become larger. And by the time you get to June, the next event is only six months away and not a year.” “Keep the brand alive 365 days” was a common sentiment expressed in a CEIR survey. In the past year, “we’ve developed new products that are here to stay; content we run as a series in our energy sector has done very well for us,” said Hanson. It’s brought Clarion “a new audience. Eighty percent of the people have never been to our [in-person] events. It’s keeping our audiences engaged throughout the year.”


Survey Recommends Regional Events, Safe Designs and Better Hybrid Plans

“Respondents are using more than two dozen event technology platforms—a large portion are using Zoom as one of the components. Some reported deliberately keeping it simple by using a familiar webinar platform, while others reported using as many as five platforms.”
That’s from the business event planners group PCMA’s recently issued COVID-19 Recovery Dashboard Survey. It shows how there’s still no one solution for virtual events yet. So while 61% of the event planner respondents have been satisfied with the platforms they’ve used, most also said that there’s lots of room for improvement.
Finding one platform with the ability to perform all of the functions that planners are looking for was one of the most common reasons given by the 39% who said they were not satisfied with event technology. “There needs to be a virtual event platform that integrates—not links out—to other platforms besides Zoom,” one respondent wrote.
Here are some more conclusions from the survey:
Digital events are okay but… While designing digital experiences still matters, more respondents cited as more important the need to know how to design live experiences for the post-COVID era. One supplier said the new cleaning protocols need to be shouted out more.
More thought needs to be done for hybrid events. While everyone says that hybrid is the future, only one-third of the respondents said that they are seeking broadcasting facilities in their site-selection process.
More customizable platforms. “There’s not enough customizability in the off-the-shelf platform we have,” one planner wrote. “We need better functionality to host multi-session, half-day events with many speakers and panelists. It’s time for a more seamless experience and higher quality. We are now all past the newness and need better solutions.”
Connecting event participants is still a work in progress. “The networking option in tools today is very basic,” wrote one respondent. “We haven’t been able to replace the social aspect of our in-person events in a virtual format. We want match-making technology on a budget.” Rafat Ali, CEO of Skift, is more optimistic on this front. “There is so much left to do on online matchmaking, the biggest aspect of conventions and exhibitions, but it will happen,” he wrote this week. “Much like online/mobile dating was unthinkable until the 2000s and then the matchmaking aspect of it moved completely to digital channels, so could the matchmaking part of the events industry, in fact it would necessarily be lot more efficient that way.” We’ll see.
Think regional. “I think smaller and regional events will make a comeback before larger/national/international events,” wrote one respondent. “We fully expect most of our events to carry a hybrid solution going forward.” SIPA’s virtual chapter meetings have actually been made more interesting by the ability of people outside the region to “attend.” Will be interesting to see how we can capture the energy injection moving forward.
Pricing, pricing, pricing. The cost of virtual platforms “is still driving what is possible,” wrote one respondent. “Good ones are too expensive for my clients so, as such, they agree to accept a poorer virtual event. There are plenty of apps that have web platforms, but streaming isn’t integrated yet… There’s a hole in the market for $6K to $10k solutions.” What’s interesting is that pricing to attend virtual events is also all over the place. ASAE—after starting with a fee to attend—and The Atlantic both made their major annual events free. I saw a big 25% off sale for one publisher’s annual event this week. (It started at around $495.)
Will there be pent-up demand to meet in person post-pandemic? Opinions vary. “Planners are less inclined to think that there will be a pent-up demand for all groups to meet face-to-face, while suppliers are more optimistic.” A new GES survey says that 88% of respondents are open to attending trade shows in person, with 65% demanding some form of mitigation to attend and 23% preferring no mitigation tactics. That sounds a bit overly optimistic. GES’s research… underscores how critical it is to understand the attendee base and their risk perceptions to plan event design and mitigation strategies to attendee needs,” said Wendy Gibson, GES Global CMO.