How to Build an Event Crystal Ball

The best way to predict the future is to pay attention and be prepared for the “what if?”

Author: Beth Surmont       

Crystal ball

Planners don’t need a crystal ball to predict the future; they can combine their experience with strategic thinking to better prepare themselves for the future.

beth surmont

“We know that the only certain thing is uncertainty.” — Beth Surmont

When will we see the next pandemic? How will in-person attendance rates compare to digital next year? How will trade shows change in the next five years? If I had a crystal ball, these are the questions I’d be hoping it would answer.

Well, great news! We can set ourselves up to be our own predictors of the future. We’re planners. We use our experience to solve problems in real time and we have a stock of tips and tools to help us make decisions quickly. Because the thing that non-event professionals didn’t understand about these past two years is that there have always been crises at events. Something always goes wrong. We’ve just been really good about fixing them before anyone else became aware of them.

We can combine our experience with strategic thinking to better prepare ourselves for the future. To plan is to anticipate — to think about what could happen and how we would respond, and to shift to strategic thinking, studying the available information to help prepare for what could happen. Here’s how to get started:

  • Start seeking information — not just event-related articles and trends but look for adjacent industries that can be models. I’ve been studying retail trends, behavioral science, and subscription services to understand how patterns and people’s behaviors have changed during the pandemic.
  • Ask “So What for Events?” when you’re consuming news. Here are some examples.
    • Some experts predict we might move to a four-day workweek. So what? This could mean that events need to move to a Friday—Sunday pattern if people aren’t able to attend during the week. It could mean that people get used to highly efficient workdays and no longer tolerate wasted time in general sessions.
    • There are continually increasing regulations around sustainability. So what? It could mean that an attendee will need to submit the anticipated carbon footprint of the event to get corporate approval to travel to an event.
    • According to the United Nations, by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. So what? Will megacities be the new tier-one destinations? How will we make it easy for attendees to navigate complex environments? Or do rural destinations become more popular because they offer an escape?
    • Women ages 25 to 34 who live in high-income nations are more likely to have a degree. So what? This could mean an increase in women at events and therefore a greater demand for childcare accommodations and parent-friendly event policies. Perhaps more robust digital extensions will be required. And certainly more gender equity and diversity in your panels and speaker roster.
  • Be more analytical — by pairing your collected information with your available data to make something you can act on. What are your attendance trends for different sectors? What are your digital consumption access metrics, times of day, and completion rates? These help you to anticipate where your customer needs might be changing.
  • Remove obstacles ahead of time — prepare to shift to meet where your customers’ needs are going. What’s standing in the way? What would slow you down from delivering? Clear those roadblocks now and build systems to support your nimbleness.

Sounds great, you say, but I’m busy. How do I fit this in with everything else I’m doing?

Here’s the thing: You can’t wait. The rate of change is rapidly accelerating. Some experts say that in 20 years, we will experience a year of change in just three months. The whirlwind of the past two years isn’t the exception, it is becoming the rule.

It starts with a simple shift in your mindset. You can also start creating opportunities for scenario planning — a good teambuilding activity. Pick one Friday of the month, buy some donuts, and play out a scenario together. Create a situation and ask, “So What?” and then come up with details (i.e., communication, insurance, backup plans).

If you are writing goals for your team, assign each member to run one of these workshops. It checks a lot of boxes — leadership, presentation skills, session design — to level everyone up.

Preparing for the future isn’t about saying with certainty that “this is what is going to happen,” but about being primed for the “what if?” — which we planners have always been good at. We know that the only certain thing is uncertainty, and the best way to succeed is to anticipate it.

Beth Surmont, CAE, CMP, is vice president of event strategy and design at 360 Live Media, a marketing, strategy, and experience agency.