Few sectors have been hit harder by Covid 19 than the events industry. Yet, what became clear from two sessions held during FIPP World Congress 2020 is that a new business model is emerging.
“Things will never be the same again,” said keynote speaker and Sterling Woods CEO Rob Ristagno in his introduction to What Next For Events? “Event businesses that can’t experiment with new models will be left behind. Copying and pasting what worked in person doesn’t work online. Just like it was said that the iPad would save the magazine industry, online platforms can’t be a silver bullet for the event world.”
Of course, the next 12 months are going to be challenging. But instead of waiting for exhibition halls to open again, companies that can adapt to this environment will not only be successful but will do so with bigger audiences than ever before.
What are delegates missing?
Mike Hay, President, Ringier Trade Media, Hong Kong, focused on the lack of networking. This is so often where the important business gets done at a conference and where you get moments of serendipity between delegates.
He explained that “when we hold virtual events in China we have a WeChat channel that runs in parallel and they can communicate in public or create private chat rooms, which has worked well.
“There is a lot of interactivity between the speakers and delegates. So they’re getting almost the same experience. The problem is getting the sponsors and delegates to interact.”
Amy Thompson is Vice President of the Fitness Group, Pocket Outdoor Media, USA. She said “I participated in an event last week where everyone had their LinkedIn and social handles, so you could easily connect with someone and people were requesting invites.
Another challenge is trying to get the level of engagement one would expect from an event held at a major indoor venue. Amy added that for a recent all-day virtual event, “61 per cent stayed on the platform for 30 mins to two hours, and 41 per cent was one to 10 hours. We would like to see a bigger return.”
Making a production
Taking big-budget physical events online means matching the expectations of delegates who will assume that the organisers can deliver high production values. “Think about how you transition a play from a theatre to TV,” said Adrian Newton, who is Events Director, New Scientist, UK. “We use an outside production company because we know our audience expects video, animation, a really engaging experience and cutting seamlessly between speakers.
“A lot of our presentations are pre-recorded but can seamlessly segue into a live Q&A with the same lighting. One thing it does allow is the chance to rectify mistakes. In a way that can be a bit scary. Our production company used ‘deep fake’ to fix a mistake to the point where the person who made that mistake couldn’t see where they’d made the change!’
Simone Broadhurst is the MD of sustainable events company Incisive Media. She added, “We’re looking at building studios and having events broadcast from studios. The next development from that is having a live audience. People with a TV production background could be in demand to deliver the quality of production that clients and delegates expect.”
Embarking on a new journey
“Some of our partners have been with us for 38 years, so there was a lot of grace extended,” said Amy on transitioning from physical to virtual. “You’re no longer limited by distance, but then 35 per cent of (fitness) business will not reopen, 70 per cent of employees are laid off or furloughed. So how can we manage expectations and get sponsors?
We’ve been spending a lot of time in follow-ups with partners. We’re becoming a thought leader, teaching them how our best booths and sponsors and suppliers performed, and saying ‘maybe next time you could do this’ so everyone has better expectations next time collectively.”
According to Adrian “testing is key. All businesses have been through a process of adapt, stabilise, grow. We’re still in the adapt phase. We’re fortunate in that businesses are willing to go on that journey through with us. There is still an expectation of quality, but there is give and take because we’re having to manage this once in generation situation.”
The future is Hybrid
While Simone said that Incisive Media won’t consider staging live events until June 2021, she added that “the real growth area is hybrid events. Most sponsors have been very supportive and enjoyed learning along the way. Some just want live (events), but I think they’re missing out.
“We’ve got our ‘Women in Tech’ festival that was a live event. As a digital event, we’ve expanded out to a global audience. But you have to invest in data, brand engagement and content that appeals to a global audience.
“Our job is to work with sponsors on the next phase, which will be hybrid events. I definitely think virtual is here to stay, and some events won’t go back into a live environment. And I certainly feel even when live audiences go back there will also be a virtual option.”
This requires a new pricing model. As Mike explained, “I’m anticipating doing virtual events right throughout 2021. In China, physical events are back in business. But they are hybrid events, adding a virtual audience, and I’ve been impressed with the results. We’re getting more virtual delegates attending than those on site. This creates a challenge in terms of a pricing model for sponsors, They’re paying to attend a physical event – the virtual was an add-on, an insurance if people didn’t turn up. Three times as many people as turning up and we’re having to think about our pricing structure for that.
He added, “We said we’ll discount by 20 per cent for a virtual event. But over time we’ve seen the results for virtual was far beyond my expectation. Hybrid events are adding even more delegates.”
Adrian added that “We started off by doing research. For virtual, it’s around 25-33 per cent of the physical. But I would expect to see an upward trajectory in pricing.”
FIPP INSIGHT REPORT
Virtual events: How to thrive in the new normal
Nobody is under any illusion that the industry will go back to what it was. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. And the panellists ultimately struck an optimistic tone about the future.
Amy acknowledged that there is an army of talented people out there with experience who are looking for work, with strong track records in delivering commercially successful events. For anyone entering this space as a virtual or hybrid event organiser, Adrian’s advice is to have “a good database and a good network of speakers who can deliver serious content. The tech is there.”
And as Simone concluded, “I think long term actually we’ll have a much better business, a more diverse business, and a more sustainable business going forward.”