One of the biggest mistakes I see organizers making right now is that they are reverting to how they used to plan and execute their events and abandoning what the past two years have taught us. Certainly, our stakeholders have been excited to come back to meeting in person this year, but we can’t ignore how we all have changed since 2019. Multiple areas of research have shown how we perceive things differently, how we prioritize differently, and how we see the world differently — the Great Resignation and “quiet quitting” are just two examples of how our experiences during the pandemic made us reevaluate our relationship with work.
Since our audiences have changed, we need to change our events. We can’t continue to operate as if one version of our event serves all the people we seek to attract. Not everyone has the time, budget, or approval to travel to an in-person event every year. Some prefer to consume content online. If we do not make shifts to our event models, then we will miss out on opportunities to expand our reach and increase our retention.
It’s like we were famous for our apple pies, and prior to 2020, we had people line up each year to buy them. The model worked — there was no reason to change until the circumstances of the past 18 months forced us to. We needed new ways to bake, package, and deliver our pies. We couldn’t use some of our usual ingredients, we had to make substitutions and try new recipes. And now, while some people are coming back to buy our traditional apple pies, others want the new versions we created. To go forward and serve our current and potential audiences, we must focus on three key strategies.
- Optimize our current product. What new ingredients have added some flavor? What new efficiencies did we find in assembling the ingredients? Was there a new way to package the pie that saved time or created excitement? For example, many groups recognized that speakers had to be trained to be successful at virtual presentations and took the opportunity to coach presentation skills. Now that we are returning to in-person events, can we still leverage this additional ingredient of speaker coaching to ensure our sessions remain high quality?
- Use the same ingredients in new ways to create new products. In our experimentation, we learned that some people just want to buy a piece of pie, some prefer a tart to a pie, and others want the baked apples without a crust. We can use the same ingredients to create new products that meet the new desires of our audiences. For instance, an in-person presentation can be 60 minutes long while the online version lasts only 20 minutes and includes a five-minute speaker highlight interview. Can we use the same key components in a variety of ways to meet the different needs of hybrid audiences?
- Use what we’ve learned with the current recipe to try new ingredients. We can use the same basic pie recipe and skills but substitute another fruit for the apples and create something fresh. Or we can make a gluten-free crust to give an audience that previously didn’t engage with us access to our offerings. Focus an event on a single issue or problem, add deep-dive Q&A sessions, or do a digital sprint — a time-boxed online interactive program — for your audience to brainstorm solutions to their biggest challenges. You’ll be expanding opportunities to engage with the current audience while creating ways to bring new people in. What are the tweaks we can make to allow us to try new things?
The event organizers who will be successful going forward are the ones who recognize that they shouldn’t throw away the traditional apple pie recipe we all loved — but they also need to make room for experimentation and iteration. Whether you make small changes to the method, substitute a new ingredient, or try something completely new, this is a great time to rethink what you are serving up.
Beth Surmont, CMP, FASAE, CAE, is vice president of event strategy and design for marketing, strategy, and experience agency 360 Live Media.