This blog is a result of Level Up CXO - an invitation-only, peer-to-peer discussion forum for C-Level leadership in the events industry. The group met this month to discuss the challenges of running events during a pandemic and what they’re doing to serve stakeholders, replace revenue and keep their communities intact. It’s safe to say there’s a lot of experimentation going on.
Challenges and Solutions There’s no doubt among exhibition and conference leaders that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19, has hit the industry hard. While a handful of in-person exhibitions have emerged in Asia, face-to-face meetings in North America are on furlough for the foreseeable future, which looks like late fall.
It’s hard to plan events with so many unknowns. Even if venues manage to deliver sterile, virus-free meeting spaces, hotels, airlines, corporate travel policies, local government and participants all have to fall in line for events to have a chance. Most leaders are looking at multiple scenarios, go/no go plans and virtual options.
Some organizations that have launched virtual events report a mixed bag of outcomes and technology hiccups attributed to a lack of internal experience and short lead times. Others, primarily larger groups with more internal resources, are extending the pre-planning runway and calling in favors from more established event-service providers.
Despite the cultural challenge of converting staff from in-person event logisticians to virtual event strategists, virtual events have become a significant focus and frustration for organizers. Those hoping to replicate the casual networking of live events or showcase exhibitors and sponsors in the absence of a physical environment are struggling.
But the struggle has also led to innovation. One organization identified three principal reasons why its constituents attend its live event. It then developed three separate virtual products, that it delivered at different times in different virtual form factors. It invited attendees to participate in the components that were of greatest interest to them.
Replacing lost in-person event revenue is troublesome for some but not all organizations. Some with valuable content (medical events, for example) have doubled down on their virtual event revenue goals. Others that facilitate rare interactions (paid attendees with corporate CEOs, for instance) are finding virtual success but experimenting with multiple pricing tiers.
Strategy Considerations Event strategy is becoming more complex. Planning live events with the understanding that they may not come to fruition requires a more robust contingency plan. One option is to plan events as hybrids from the beginning to either have a strong, planned virtual component or revert to an all-virtual format if or when they have to cancel the in-person event.
Extending the value of an online footprint is also an essential strategic concern. Options include offering access to both the live and archived versions of a broadcast, facilitating buyer-seller matchmaking before and after virtual events and launching 365 online marketplaces to provide exhibitors and sponsors with a way to reach customers and prospects year-round.
Organizers will have to make other strategic decisions, including their short-term (all-virtual events) vs. long-term strategy (hybrid events), what to include in the live virtual broadcast vs. on-demand and how to differentiate virtual-event content from in-person content. Associations may also have to design member content, as well as content for community members at large.
Virtual event organizers have to think outside the (virtual) platform. To give and get the most value from the virtual event, they may consider integrating software from third-party, independent software vendors with virtual event platforms. Some of the add-ons could include registration, AI matchmaking, facial recognition, analytics or other functionality.
Level Up CXO Peer Exchange - staying positive during difficult times.
The Future For Now As with all massive transformations, there will be winners and losers. Organizations that were disadvantaged before the pandemic may be in a weaker position today while healthy organizers—even those medium and small-sized—are likely to fare better. Live events (at least at the beginning of the recovery) will post lower in-person attendance but could break records with remote attendees—especially international visitors.
There is also a danger in being too successful with some aspects of in-person events. Virtual events can potentially be more efficient and cost-effective in helping exhibitors capture leads. If that becomes true, it will be more difficult for in-person event organizers to convince exhibitors to invest in all the physical trappings of in-person events.
It may be an understatement to say that no one knows how the industry will fare, what combination of in-person and virtual event components and properties will be a success or what kind of innovation will emerge to save the day. So far, organizations are living to fight another day—most with an odd mix of fear and enthusiasm.