Not every planner has been so lucky. “There are some events that do not translate well into a digital environment,” said Jacquelyn Wells, senior vice president of public relations and marketing firm mdg, which specializes in live and digital events. “Planners of those events seem to be trying just to get by until physical events can reopen.”
Those kind of events — the old-school trade shows — haven’t found their footing in the virtual space. While coronavirus clobbered conferences, conventions, and meetings in 2020, it decimated exhibitions. The $29-billion industry shrank last year by nearly 70 percent, according to AMR International’s 2020 edition of its global exhibition outlook report, Globex.
“I think we’ve all learned and can agree that so-called virtual events don’t work when the sponsors and exhibitors involved aren’t sharing content, but just sitting at booths hoping to chat,” Wells said. “Who’s to say someone doesn’t come up with some amazing software that does the trick, that delivers experiences through artificial intelligence, and is intuitive and user friendly? But for right now, the real question is: Why even try to turn a physical event into a digital one? Why not just figure out what works in digital, and focus on that, until a vaccine [is widely distributed]? Focusing on the things that work well online — and that’s typically customized content — and concentrating on your online audience — which may be quite different from your physical, in-person audience — are what will resonate.”
The steepest challenge has been among planners who had all their eggs in one basket — the in-person event one. “We’ve been advising and educating planners for years on how to extend their live event brand year-round,” said event management expert Mike Muldoon, managing partner at Event Advisory Group, “but most say they don’t have the staff, budget, or motivation to produce anything other than their live events.”
The abrupt halt to live events sent those planners into a tailspin. “The pandemic,” Muldoon said, has been “forcing them to reinvent their events [with many] scrambling to produce something. Unfortunately, they’re throwing strategic planning out the window.”
The irony, Muldoon said, is that most planners’ organizations already possess the assets they need to grow their brands; they just haven’t harnessed them.
“For example, most planners already produce webinars throughout the year, but they’re not continuous with the educational program offered at the live event,” Muldoon said. “Most have online communities, but they don’t leverage the communities by gathering intelligence on what the industry wants to learn or see at the live event. The pandemic has provided planners an opportunity to develop new strategies and produce virtual and hybrid events with the technologies and digital assets at hand.”
Even nearly a year after the pandemic shut down in-person events for the most part, many planners still feel victimized, and remain in “a state of paralysis,” said event consultant Warwick Davies, principal, The Event Mechanic! “People are rushing to attend forums about the ‘value of live events’ because they’re paralyzed and are running around asking ‘What the hell happened?’ From there, it’s easy to begin to see yourself as a victim, cowering because of all the horrible stuff going on,” he said. “But I think now is the time to shine, to say, ‘I’m not a victim, I’m going to power through this.’”
Consumer event producer Eric Udler powered through the pandemic by hosting Super Pet Expo in August at Virginia’s Dulles Expo Center, one of the few large face-to-face events held in the U.S. in 2020. The show went off well enough, even though four of every 10 exhibitors declined to participate (Udler refunded them their booth rents) and attendance was lower than pre-show surveys of pet owners in the region predicted — around 5,000, one-third Udler’s pre-pandemic turnout.
Super Pet Expo came on the heels of Udler being named among Pet Age’s 18 2020 ICON Award winners for leadership in the pet industry, and as a result of producing the pandemic edition of an in-person event, he found himself in another limelight, if only momentarily.
“Everyone wanted to know, ‘What was it like to do a show in the pandemic?’” Udler said. Speaking about how he handled exhibitors, he said: “Not to sound arrogant, but I don’t have any regrets. Not a one. The lesson I learned is a lesson I already knew — to take the high road. I didn’t have to offer [exhibitors] their rent back, but I did, and I got their money back to them quickly. My exhibitors are all small businesses, moms and pops who can’t afford to lose any more money, and I know the goodwill is worth far more than the hit to my bottom line. It felt like a no-brainer.”
To Udler’s point, ethical business practices are key, but they don’t solve for the short-term revenue challenge. Many in the business events industry agree that the biggest challenge this year will be financial. “The priority will be how to survive 2021 with reduced revenues,” said Globex editor Carole Boletti, repeating some of the same conclusions drawn by event organizers who spoke to Convene: “AMR believes [planners] should no longer think of themselves as pure event organizers. Rather, they need to become community catalysts — facilitating business, connections, education, and advocacy.
“Events will no longer be one-off experiences,” she continued in the report. “Looking further ahead, organizers will also need to develop a post-COVID vision that addresses a radically changed market, while developing a strategy to make it happen. It will require some.thing akin to the omni-channel revolution the retail sector has undergone.