Written by Piet van Niekerk and Pierre de Villiers. After a ruinous, Covid-blighted year, event organisers are looking to bounce back strongly in 2021 having taken on board some valuable lessons.
The effectiveness of social distancing in battling Covid-19 has made 2020 a disastrous year for hosting live events. In March, a strong revenue stream for publishers dried up almost overnight, forcing organisers to create online experiences that satisfied delegates and sponsors. While the arrival of vaccines has brought the return of live events one step closer, it’s clear things will never go back to the way they were and that a fresh, hybrid approach will be needed to survive the new conference landscape.
“Event businesses that can’t try new things and discover new models will unfortunately be left behind,” says Rob Ristagno, Founder and CEO of consultant firm, Sterling Woods Group. “Most business have experimented with some sort of virtual or hybrid model over the last six months – some things have worked, some things haven’t.
“One common thread I hear all the time is that copying and pasting what worked in person to an online platform doesn’t really yield the results we want. Just like the iPad didn’t singlehandedly save the magazine industry, online events can’t be the single silver bullet that rescues us in the event world – they are part of the solution.”
Creating a captive audience
While businesses in most parts of the world wait for the green light to add physical conferences to their strategies again, they are making the most of digital events.
One of the biggest challenges they face is keeping delegates glued to their computer screens. With online conferences unable to match the theatrics of presenting during a live event surrounded by a crowd, it’s crucial to make digital events as engrossing as possible, says Adrian Newton, Events Director at New Scientist in the UK, which runs a wide range of events – from evening lectures to a four-day festival attracting 40,000 people.
“The more events are digital with a person talking in the living room the more you have to think about audience engagement,” he explains. “It’s almost like transitioning a play from a theatre to a TV production. We work with an outside production house for all our events because we know that our audience really expects animations, videos – a really engaging experience where we are cutting between the speakers as well as the interaction for the questions.
“The other option is bundling in extra components with what delegates are purchasing from us – be they explainer diagrams, key articles or links to other talks they can see. We now need to think that we are not just competing with other formats people go to but competing with the time they are sitting at home watching their favourite series on Netflix. If we are not raising the production bar to the same audiovisual experience we are going to struggle.”
For New Scientist one of the ways to raise the bar is splicing together pre-recorded and live footage. “If the actual presentation part is pre-recorded we have the opportunity to edit and change it,” he says. “It then seamlessly segways to the host and the presenter doing a live Q&A, which is recorded at the same time of day so the lighting looks the same. I think most of the audience don’t realise it.”
If events are indeed more like TV shows now than stage productions, the speakers are the stars and have to start acting accordingly.
“We have to train our speakers how to do it right,” says Mike Hay, President of Ringier Trade Media in Hong Kong, which runs 40 events every year focusing on new technology and industrial applications across China and Southeast Asia. “You can get away with a lot of mistakes – fumbling your words or missing lines – when you are doing it in person and you can get over it. Online you only have one chance.
“And some speakers are very reluctant to be up on the screen, so we insist that when you are presenting, you have to allow for people to see your face while they can also see your presentation. If you don’t do that, delegates are not that engaged because they like to see people.”
The importance of networking
While online events can recreate some of the buzz of a live conference with good content and production values, it is, for now, still coming up short in one crucial aspect.
“The thing that is missing the most on the virtual experience is networking,” says Hay. “The networking was an extremely important part of the experience of our events – also as a way to meet the suppliers because our conferences had a mini expo with 60 to 70 exhibitors on display. With the virtual events, something is missing.”
To try and remedy the situation, Ringier has turned to WeChat. “When we hold our virtual events in China there is a WeChat channel that runs parallel to other platforms,” says Hay. “Delegates who have joined, join a WeChat group and then they can create their own private chatrooms. We find there is a lot of interactivity between delegates and speakers. Where it is lacking is bringing the sponsors and the delegates together – getting them to interact.
According to Hay, Ringier is in the process of taking sponsor-delegate relationships “to the next level”.
“The complaint is always – we got all these great leads and names bit where’s the business, the transaction. So now we are going to be offering a follow-up service at a premium with sponsors identifying up to 10 key delegates. We will be phoning those delegates and trying to arrange video sessions one-on-one after the event between the buyer and the supplier. That’s the next step – premium value added follow up pricing.”
In the fitness industry, networking is an equally important part of events, prompting Amy Thompson, Vice President of the Fitness Group at Pocket Outdoor Media, whose flagship event runs over four days and features 400 education sessions and a large expo hall with the latest products in the industry, to think outside the box.
“We were able to pull in some happy hours but it had to be done outside our platform,” she says. “It was a little bit clunky but we were able to pull in the networking aspect as well.
“The happy hours were successful in that they were smaller groups and we did get a lot of conversion for those sponsors. But during our expo we didn’t get the same level of engagement that we would get in a live expo. The challenge for us is – how do we get more of that engagement?”
All in this together
With the events industry still in flux, organisers have found that sponsors are more flexible when signing up to conferences. Everyone, after all, is flying blind at the moment.
“With our fitness event, (sponsors) took a risk with us because we didn’t have any proven data or experience with providing a virtual world convention,” says Thompson. “So we’re learning from them and they’re learning from us.
“We have been spending a lot of times in our follow-ups with our partners, becoming a thought leader in this area now that we do have experience. We are telling them how our best booths performed, how our best sponsors and suppliers performed and saying – next time you can consider this because they got a lot of engagement in this booth or this virtual experience whereas you didn’t. We are educating those partners and bringing them along with us so that next time we can all have better expectations.”
For Newton, organisers and sponsors testing the water together has become a key part of events. “Because businesses find themselves in the same transition, they are willing to go on that journey with you,” he says.
“You can be open and honest and say – we’re trying this. And because so many of their traditional markets are closed at the moment – like live events – they are willing to participate and perhaps challenge some of the perceptions they had before.”
Bringing in the experts
The best-laid plans of organisers will, of course, come to nothing if it doesn’t have the technology to back it up – which is why hiring the best tech talent is so crucial.
“We have a partner that has done video production for a number of years so they knew us well,” says Newton. “They do the recording, the production, the technical side. The great thing is they are platform agnostic so whatever platform we use we can chose one they have a licence for or we have a licence for. Buying in that expertise rather than learning that expertise has been a real key learning for us.”
Hay agrees that outside help is vital. “When it comes to the technology, always outsource – that’s their business and they are ahead of the curve,” he points out. “If you try and create it in-house it is going to be out of date by tomorrow. But internally you need people who can interpret that technology and get the most out of it.”
Thompson is also looking to bring in more specialists. “We’ve been leveraging talent on our team that we didn’t even know our team had in video and production,” she says. “Now, when I have an opportunity to fill a position on the events teams, I’ll be looking for someone who has had experience – either live streaming, recording and delivering – or a combination of both.”
The road ahead
While vaccines are the cavalry we’ve all been waiting for, it’s too early to predict when physical events will be possible again. It’s also still unclear what sort of balance organisers will strike between on-site and virtual conferences – with the latter offering several new benefits.
“We are now getting far more of a global audience – the last event we ran we had every continent except Antarctica represented,” says Newton. “We are starting to think that we are going to be running virtual events late into 2021 and temporary needs are turning into permanent needs.”
Hay predicts that virtual conferences will continue to flourish in Southeast Asia long after Covid has been beaten. “Even when travel restrictions are lifted it makes sense to open up markets without sending people there,” he points out. “We are doing hybrid events, adding the virtual audience. I’ve been very impressed by these events – we are getting more virtual delegates attending than we have on site.”
Thompson believes that, although nothing beats the live experience in the fitness sector, change to the structure of events was inevitable. “The disruption that was already happening in terms of delivering fitness in clubs and/or online has now entered our events space. We all know that we have to shift because it is the expectation of the consumer now. Our consumers want to have choices and options and now that we know it’s available, why can’t they always be available?”