How Is COVID-19 Transforming the Events Landscape?

Author: Michelle Russell       


The COVID-19 pandemic, and the rush to pivot to digital events because of it, are changing how the industry thinks about virtual and live events.

She knows it’s odd, but Beth Surmont, CAE, CMP, director of experience design at marketing, strategy, and experience agency 360 Live Media, feels hopeful about the business events industry — and not just in the future, but right now. That’s because, according to 360 Live Media founder and CEO Don Neal, they’ve been very busy working with clients on their digital event strategies — essentially “launching a whole new virtual hybrid agency.” Convene spoke with them both via Zoom on March 24 about how they are helping clients think through their events during the pandemic crisis.

Organizations have five options in front of them, Neal said:

  • Cancel your event and start fresh in 2021;
  • Reschedule/postpone and keep all elements as planned;
  • Reschedule/postpone “and contemplate a smaller, exclusively live experience — some portion or fraction of what you originally contemplated;”
  • Go all-virtual, replacing your live event;
  • Do a live/virtual hybrid.

Don Neal

Rather than just jumping to the conclusion of “we need to go virtual,” event organizers need to go through a set of criteria to figure out their best option, Neal said. Then they need to figure out how to communicate the change in plans, allaying concerns “and trying to protect as much of your exhibit and sponsor revenue and audience as you can. And then there’s the practical thing: How do we do this — either the live-virtual option or purely virtual option?”

Much of that decision depends on each organization’s capabilities, resources, and competence. “There’s a Dreamforce-level virtual experience,” he said, referring to software company Salesforce’s annual event. “There’s probably an intermediate level, and then there’s ‘Let’s just do the best we can this year given our restraints.’”

When thinking through the goals for a digital event, Neal said it’s useful to use the same “four dimensions” construct he applies to live events: How are you addressing your participants’ physical, physiological, emotional, and intellectual needs? With virtual events, you especially want to deal with the emotional — to create a more interactive and engaging experience because “the emotional connection with another human being” is the missing ingredient from most virtual experiences, Neal said. And then there’s the intellectual aspect, he said: “How do you ensure people learn once you have those other conditions in place?”

Practical Considerations

In addition, event organizers need to consider what Neal calls “the six Rs”: reach, retention, relevance, reputation, revenue, and ROI.

For reach, are you just going after the audience you had for the face-to-face event or are you going to expand to new audiences? Can you now go global? Holding an online event opens the opportunity for organizers to think differently about their targeting strategy, Neal said.

In terms of retention, how do you keep the audience that was going to come to the live event and entice them to come to the virtual, while you’re expanding the audience? How do you make it individually relevant to all these different cohorts? As far as reputation, how do you ensure this event creates a bridge to your 2021 live event so your reputation is preserved? “Because if you do something that’s sort of half-baked,” Neal said, “my concern is once you stop going to the movies, and watching Netflix all the time, it’s hard to get you back into the movie theater.”

That’s one of the things that Neal said they are talking to clients about — preserving the magic of a live event, and not making the virtual event an alternative or equal substitute. The advent of Netflix has “forced movie theaters to have reclining seats, and a bar, and food service, and no more tickets.” By the same token, he said, virtual events should serve to make the live events better. “That’s something,” he said, “we think is going to happen.”

Regarding revenue, the questions that need to be asked, he said, include whether you expect the virtual to yield the same as the in-person event. Do you expect to charge a different admission price or ticket price for the virtual? And then the return on investment: “A lot of our clients are just happy to break even this year, given all the contractual issues they’re grappling with,” Neal said. “So, if we can get them to a breakeven on the virtual event, they’ve preserved their audience, and they have a bridge to the next year.”

Beth Surmont

‘The Light-Bulb Moment for Me’

“It’s a really interesting time to be in events, and I’m someone who loves events and the way that people come together,” said Surmont, who has recently written a “Best Practices for Virtual Event Experience Design” blog post. “Yes, today everything’s a little bit crazy, but people still are going to want to get together, and connect with their communities, and talk to each other in a couple of months. And there’s no reason why we can’t provide these great experiences for them online.”

As someone who has been working on virtual events for eight years, Surmont said, “the light-bulb moment” for her was realizing that there are many similarities between live and virtual events in terms of design. “We always talk about experience design as not just lights, bells and whistles, and fog machines, but it’s the layers of intention that you put around an event,” she said. “If anything, a virtual event has to be that much more intentional, because you have to draw people into the community, and draw people into the experience.”

Surmont said that she had reviewed 22 tools for virtual events most recently — a frustrating exercise. “There isn’t an all-in-one platform that I would feel comfortable recommending,” she said. “There’s no off-the-shelf, ‘Here you go. Here’s your great virtual experience’ product. There are large platform tools that incorporate a lot of different things, but I am finding their end-user experience to not be something that I would like to recommend.” She has gone the route of recommending that clients “stitch together” a few platforms to achieve their objectives.

‘People Have Been Engaging Online For Years’

Whether you’re using Zoom, GoToMeeting, or ON24 webinar platforms, or Digitell, there are many options for content, Surmont said. “You could even do it for free through YouTube Live. Some have more options than others, but in general, they all have a way to chat, to see a presenter, to share slides, and most of them offer recordings. But it’s the experience and engagement side that people are really struggling with — or not even thinking about, which is what scares me. The No. 1 reason people attend events is to connect with others in their community. Content’s definitely up at the top of the list, but networking beats it every single time.

“But when we are thinking about putting virtual events online, we completely forget about that networking part of it. Everybody who I start out talking to, they’re just focused on the content, like ‘Get those PowerPoints up. Get my speakers recorded.’ We’re losing the attendee engagement.”

When planners say they struggle with that aspect of online events, Surmont reminds them that people have been engaging online for years. “If you think about Facebook, Words with Friends, Draw Something, Call of Duty — there are all these different ways that people meet and interact,” she said. Whereas, “the mental model for a virtual conference or event is, ‘I’m going to look at my screen while I eat my lunch and check my email to the side. I’m going to half-listen, and maybe there’s a question or two, and, oh, I’ll get the handouts afterward.’”

The mental model they should aim for, she said, is “Netflix, plus Facebook, plus online dating —intentionally giving people content that’s specifically curated for them in a comfortable format to consume. So, not 45-minute, single-speaker PowerPoint presentations, but like a show. Keep it moving, make it engaging, chunk the content.”

Surmont sees the online dating or matchmaking aspect as being important for attendees to connect with each other — “I really want to talk to somebody who knows X, Y, and Z,” she said. But it’s also really valuable from a sponsor perspective, “because the virtual experience for partners right now is horrendous. If I’m going to participate as a partner in a virtual trade show, my option usually is I can host a session. My company logo can be at the top of the session. And maybe I can get an email list of people who signed up after that. But if I’m going to do an exhibit-booth-type thing, it’s usually a bunch of logos to click on. You click through on the logo, and it takes you to a virtual booth, and then I have to wait for somebody to interact with me. All of the work is on the attendee side. Unless you really know how to work a show, it’s just hard to figure that out.”

The matchmaking is key, she said, in terms of matching buyers with certain needs to sellers who can fulfill them. That’s the part of a trade-show experience that needs to be replicated online, she said.

The process of thinking through a virtual event is going to improve the way live events will be designed, Surmont predicted. “I think this is going to force us to be better at our content. I’ve taken those models, and put them into my live events, so my run of shows, my minute-by-minute timelines, my, “How do I get this person to talk to this person?” — you have to really think through those things, and then you realize you just apply those best practices or those learnings to your live events.”

When we “come back around and start our next cycle of events,” Surmont said, “one, those events should be killer events. Everybody should be investing in experience. Two, we’re all just going to be so happy to be able to get back together again, where there’s going to be a palpable energy that resonates through the whole country once we’re able to do that. And three, now you can do a virtual event. So you can have your live events still, and extend the reach to this new audience that you’re getting. I’m surprised that I still hear that people are still worried about cannibalizing their live events. I don’t know how to not have that conversation anymore. Like, it’s not going to happen. It’s going to make it better.”

Part of the fear, Neal said is that virtual events are “an existential departure because this is something brand-new. This is like moving from sort of a middle management job to being an entrepreneur overnight. It puts people into this incredibly challenging, stressful environment, and I think that’s why a lot of virtual events haven’t taken off, because of the fear of technology.”

Other Opportunities

Neal thinks that for associations and commercial events that have canceled their events during COVID-19 — formerly competitors in the same industry or profession — there’s an opportunity to explore “having a large kind of co-located ecosystem community event,” he said. “We’re talking to all of our clients about that because they all have competitive events that have canceled. It’s a gesture for the ecosystem they serve.”

Neal said that he has found street performers to be an apt metaphor for the current situation in the events world, “because street performers have to attract an audience, they have to entertain you, they have to keep you there, they have to get you to give them money at the end. It’s an amazing thing. I think what we’re trying to do is replicate the magic of that surprise, and that delight, and that intensity of connection that’s missing, frankly, from a lot of live events. What we’re doing now is trying to bring that magic to the virtual environment, which I think is going to have, potentially, a positive trickle-down effect to the live. I think it’s a renaissance for the events industry.

“Virtual events are disintermediating, by necessity, live events, at least for the time being. There’s very few environments where disintermediation hasn’t made the incumbent better. Retail is better because of Amazon. Hotels are better because of Airbnb. You go down the list of every disrupted industry, when the insurgent comes in, it forces the incumbent to rise to the occasion. So I think, if you view the virtual as the insurgent disruptor, there’s no way that the live event can’t be better. We’re all going to be better because we’ve had to live without the crutch of a physical environment and all the accoutrements that have attracted people. This is going to separate the wheat from the chaff a little bit in terms of who rises to the occasion, and who just hopes to get through this. It’s going to be winners and losers, like in any crisis.”

“It’s odd that I do feel hopeful now,” Surmont said. “I’ve kind of come full circle. This is what the planning community does — we bring people together in meaningful ways to make impact. Now more than ever, that’s what the world needs.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene magazine.

What Events Professionals Need to Know About COVID-19

PCMA has created a COVID-19 resources page to help event professionals find reliable information about the outbreak and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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