The Rise of Digital Events

As face-to-face business events were canceled and postponed during the COVID-19 crisis, many rushed to move their content online. What comes next?

Author: Sherrif Karamat       

Sherrif Karamat

Sherrif Karamat, CAE

Our cover story for the May-June issue of Convene traces how — in record time — we’ve come to take a more strategic approach to virtual events.

My preference is to call them digital events rather than “virtual” events, because “virtual” can be defined as “almost or nearly as described, but not completely.” And as we have come to realize as an industry, a digital event is an actual event. It just takes place in a different channel. We all have had to reshape our business models in warp speed, from live in-person events to those that take place on a screen, but our value proposition is not what has changed; the way we deliver it has.

We think live events will resume in phases in a “living with” COVID-19 world — because we can’t call it a post-COVID world until we have a vaccine or at least an effective treatment for the virus. Once we are past the crisis period — meaning the rates of infection drop significantly and travel restrictions are lifted — it’s expected that the first phase will mean smaller, local and regional events. In fact, in the third of our Recovery Dashboard surveys, in which 1,388 events industry professionals participated, more than half said that small, local events best described the recovery scenario. Smaller events will have to scale by taking an omni-channel approach to reach a wider audience.

The truth is, none of us knows the timing or way in which our industry will recover. VUCA — coined by the U.S. Army in the 1990s to describe the post-Cold War world — was never more apt for the world we’re in: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

And while it’s an understatement to call our current situation disruptive, “disruptive innovation,” which also became part of the business lexicon during the ’90s, seems to apply to digital events. Over the decades, disruptive innovation has been misunderstood to mean breakthrough technologies that make good products better. But Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen introduced the term to describe how products and services become more widely accessible and affordable when we have three things: enabling technology, an innovative business model that targets former non-consumers, and a coherent value network which benefits suppliers, partners, distributors, and customers.

We can’t minimize the suffering and loss of life caused by COVID-19. Nor do we yet know the full impact of its economic damage. But perhaps one day it will be seen as an agent for disruptive innovation, a time when the face-to-face industry fully embraced digital events and it became a value network for all our stakeholders.

Make no mistake: I can’t wait until we meet again in person. At the same time, I’m looking forward to seeing how we get more creative about meeting — and meeting our audiences’ needs in new ways.

Seeking to help provide business events strategists with access to the most reliable sources of information during this crisis, PCMA has created a website page, What Business Events Professionals Need to Know About the COVID-19. The page provides facts, figures, and the latest news about COVID-19 and how our industry is navigating the situation.

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