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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.”

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‘Crafted After Deep Listening,’ New Event Models Mix Safety With Audience Needs

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, quite appropriate for the times we’re in and the day after Mother’s Day. So with the mixed success of virtual events, we’re starting to see different models emerge in 2021, from micro-conferences to rock band-like, city-to-city tours to fully hybrid events—though again the hybrid model has many variations.

“For me, the planning process always starts with what the objectives are for an event,” Annette Gregg, SVP of experience for Meeting Professionals International, told Informa’s MeetingsNet. “Some meetings are for straight education, and we know that can be delivered just fine online, as colleges are showing us right now… But when your objectives are something like brand activation, where you want the human senses involved, then in-person is what you have to do.”

But are we ready for that? Everyone is sending out surveys trying to gauge audience temperature, which makes sense. There are still major virtual events scheduled for the latter part of the year like Reuters Next Dec. 1-3 and PR Week’s PRDecoded Oct. 12-14 (Haymarket Media). And when there is an in-person event scheduled such as Luxury Travel Advisor’s Ultra Summit July 25-27 in San Antonio (Questex), there’s a long intro page on the safety precautions they’re taking. And under “Information,” there’s “Agenda,” “Venue” and “Be Safe.”

Here are some event ideas I’ve seen recently:

Micro-conferences.

The Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) has announced a series of micro-conference meet-ups to replace its annual conference originally planned for Nashville in November 2021. “Crafted after deep listening by TAG’s member-led Engagement Committee,” the late-summer local meet-up series is designed to provide deep learning and meaningful connection—“with health and safety in mind”—featuring “hyper-local micro-conferences held in communities across the continental U.S.” No more than 30 people will meet at each hosted location.

For those meet-ups, they asked in an online survey: “In terms of potential places for #TAGreconnect meet-ups, the following cities exist in regions with a concentration of TAG members and/or a fresh location for TAG.” They list 11 of the nation’s biggest cities, from which 5 to 6 will be chosen. And then a line that we’re often seeing: “We need YOUR input to get this show on the road.”

An event tour and hybrid event.

Like a touring rock-and-roll show, Solar Power Events premiered an event series in February called the Smart Energy Market Tour (pictured above). The outside tour spanned one week in Florida and visited four cities, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville. Over the week, nearly 20 exhibitors followed the event and saw over 400 attendees in total. In late April, the tour made three stops in the Carolinas.

“We know that virtual events can’t replace in-person interactions. COVID-19 has forced us to reconsider our event model, to find new ways to host in-person events that facilitate business,” said Stephen Miner, president & CEO, Solar Energy Trade Shows. “We heard from a number of exhibitors who wanted a safe way to meet with potential buyers. They were thrilled when we proposed this format to them and they had a great week in Florida. We’re looking forward to expanding the Market Tours to other states.”

Next up for them is a hybrid event. Knowing that hybrid does not mean just broadcasting your in-person sessions, Solar & Storage Northeast will feature virtual education on June 7-8 and an in-person expo taking place inside and outside of the Westin Boston Waterfront, June 9-10.

Hybrid events.

The Professional Convention Management Association has scheduled EduCon as a hybrid event in Phoenix for July 7-9. Their tagline is “We are better together.” Some content will be livestreamed from the conference while some will be prerecorded presentations followed by live Q&A.

“If you are ready to meet again in person, please join us in Phoenix at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge,” they write. “If you want to explore what a hybrid event looks like from the digital side, we welcome you to participate in that journey.”

While Hybrid Events Are the Clear Destination, Doing Them Well Will Take More Thought

“What makes for a great hybrid event is really finding a kind of the core idea of the multi-screen experience.”
John Capano, SVP of Impact XM

If pivot was the events word for 2020, then hybrid will hopefully be the word for 2021. An overwhelming 78% of those surveyed by Pathable plan to host events with both in-person and virtual components, if in-person gatherings are allowed. What’s more, just 17% of those surveyed planned to host in-person-only events when that’s permitted. But staging a good hybrid event will take some creativity and thought.

I listened to a good podcast from EventBuzz this week between Capano and host Savannah McIntosh of PurplePass. (I love that they include the transcript!) Of course, the tendency of late has been to say that we’ll all be doing hybrid events soon, when in-person events are allowed to take place again.

But Capano contends that hybrid cannot simply mean having your regular in-person conference, and then live-videoing it for folks who can’t attend. A lot of thought has to go into what works for an event that is designed both for in-person and on-screen attendees.

Here are some thoughts from Capano and others who are thinking about the return of in-person events:

Augment the live aspect. “It’s really how do you build an event that’s engaging across all areas, and really leveraging technology in such a way to augment the live aspect,” Capano said. “And so when we talk to our clients a lot, they talk a lot about virtual reality, we actually talked a lot about augmented reality because this idea of hybrid really is augmented reality. It’s let’s take a live event and let’s lay on a digital layer in an augmented way and have everyone have a connected engaging experience.”

Virtual can boost in-person. “It used to be almost everybody you talked to felt like, ‘Well, I don’t want to do a strong virtual event because it’ll cannibalize my [audience],’” said Capano. “And people have now realized that having a great virtual part of your live event is the best way to increase your attendees at your next [in-person] event. [See FOMO.] It becomes the kind of the marketing engine that scalability is the marketing that drives your future attendees.” Adds Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association: “One half will see the event virtually. They will see how safe it is and want to come in-person next year.”

Virtual is still about knowing your audience. “What’s the purpose of your meeting and what are you trying to achieve?” Capano asked. “Then design the technology to fit that. Once that’s done, just ideate the heck and brainstorm the heck for ways to get people more engaged, like shorter content, snackable content, ways for them to interact, ways for them to not only interact with, say, the speakers or the acts, but also other people at the event, adding in gamification to kind of make it fun and interesting and a little bit competitive.

Pack a surprise. “Add in some ‘Easter eggs,’ because that’s something again, that we try to do [to keep virtual people engaged],” Capano said. “What are the cute, little surprise, delight moments, those things are all very possible in the virtual world, you just have to put thought against them, because they’re a little different than they would be like exactly what you might do in a live setting.”

Here are a few ideas from an article in Trade Show News Network this week:

Decisions will need to be made quickly. Virtual events pioneer Pathable predicts that 38% of decision-makers will choose between hybrid, virtual or in-person for their events within the first quarter of the year. Furthermore, about 40% of planners say they will settle on a platform to host their events by March.

Virtual must stay in the conversation. “INVNT Co-founder and CEO Kristina McCoobery is optimistic that brands will return to in-person events, albeit smaller than past levels. But of note is that 2020 opened the door to reaching larger numbers of attendees through virtual events—a fact that won’t be lost on savvy groups. ‘Virtual attendees mustn’t be treated as an afterthought, and their experiences need to be carefully curated in the same way they are for an in-person audience,’ she said.”

Look for more customization. “How do you get attendees to engage more at events? Start by adjusting your event rather than expecting your guests to change their behavior organically, said David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Global Events. ‘By better understanding our event guests, we can design more personalized experiences for their event journey,’ he said. ‘Most importantly, we need to let design dictate event structure and content rather than simply cutting and pasting from previous live event agendas.’”

Get creative with offerings and pricing. McCoobery believes that “we’ll start to see more and more monetized interactive competitions followed by exclusive content offerings to unlock, immersive activities that allow audience members to create their own avatars and explore a space or live gig with others, and tiered payment plans, including VIP packages.” That is a mouthful!