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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.”


Crain Communications Emerges from the Pandemic Focused on Subscriptions and On the Hunt for M&A

KC Crain

Last November, KC Crain became president and CEO of Crain Communications, representing the third generation of leadership at the 105-year-old, family-owned publisher, whose brands include Advertising Age, Crain’s Chicago Business and Modern Healthcare.

AMPLIFY caught up with KC to talk about his vision for the company, such as changing revenue streams (including digital and print subscriptions, which for the first time will exceed print advertising revenue for Crain this year) and a desire to expand into new markets through acquisition.

AMPLIFY: KC, how has Crain responded to the crisis over the past year and how has that positioned the company as we start to come out of the pandemic?

KC Crain: Like everybody else, the biggest fire was our events business. In a typical year we do about 200 events across all our brands and as it became a reality that we would be canceling all our events for the year, we made a massive pivot. We did over 900 virtual events over the last year and kept about half of our overall events revenue but the margins increased significantly. On the digital side, we had to get smarter about the analytics around our audiences and we paid a lot of attention to our audience strategy. We saw some nice increases in paid digital audience.

AMPLIFY: You’ve mentioned that audience strategy is the key to Crain’s future—can you expand?

KC: When we look at this business, it’s always been based on audience—your events audience, your digital audience, your print audience. We’re trying to get as smart as we can about who is engaging with our brands and on what platforms. We doubled down on our journalism. After 105 years, journalism is integral to our strategy, but now more than ever, it’s fundamental. If you have good journalism that people can’t get anywhere else, then they’re going to have to subscribe.  We’ve put in place a great team, we got smart about the analytics around our audience and their consumption habits and we’ve seen a huge lift.

AMPLIFY: As part of Crain’s prioritization on audience, you made a major hire in Veebha Mehta, who ran audience and marketing at Financial Times, Pearson and Cengage. What is her role with Crain?

KC: We had to look at how we were marketing to consumers and for the first time we have a global CMO in Veebha, whose main focus is our audiences. She’s a great hire and put together job functions we haven’t had in the company before.

AMPLIFY: What’s the revenue mix today for Crain?

KC: For the first time, our audience revenue—print and digital subscriptions—in 2021 will be greater than our print advertising revenue. Our revenue mix really changed from trade print advertising and event revenue to digital and audience revenue and the margins were significantly better. We saw a huge improvement in our first quarter numbers and I think we’ll see that trend continue. We’re up 50 percent year-over-year in our digital business coming out of the pandemic. As we’re focused on audience, digital, data, and custom, those business lines will continue to grow.

AMPLIFY: How does Crain look at the relationship between media and events as events start to come back?

KC: If people didn’t figure out a way to enhance their digital business during the pandemic, then shame on them. The pandemic 100 percent accelerated our digital strategy, namely in the data and analytics around our audiences, which we will continue to push in 2021. Coming out of 2020, nobody knew what 2021 would be like. We originally budgeted for zero in-person events but 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 I think we will see a hybrid model for a while yet. We have no interest in running 900 virtual events again; it’s not sustainable. But as we move forward, we will continue to see virtual events where the topic and the market make sense.

AMPLIFY: KC, you are the third generation of leadership for Crain. What’s your vision for the company?

KC: We’ve got the business to where we are 100 percent focused on growth and we’re looking at verticals outside our traditional businesses. When you think about Crain, you might think about healthcare, automotive, marketing and manufacturing, our city brands. We made an acquisition in 2019 in the genomics space—life sciences are a new market for us. You’re going to see us make acquisitions that are adjacencies to our current business but then we will also get pretty focused on growth markets as well. We are in the market and looking at deals weekly. This is an exciting time; there’s a ton of opportunity in our space.

AMPLIFY: What are you excited about?

KC: Our audience strategy. I’m so fired up. We’re a 105-year-old company and we’ve never been so analytical. We’ve got great team members doing things to grow the business and for the first time in a while, we’re having fun. We’ve put ourselves in position to take advantage of these market opportunities out there. We’ve got wonderful traditional brands, great legacy markets and we’re looking to grow into new markets.