Till we Meet Again (at Conferences)

By  |  March 5, 2021, 3:20 PM  |  Techonomy Exclusive


We are all approaching the one-year anniversary of a world in lockdown. Perhaps you’re commemorating the last time you jumped on a flight, trekked to the office, or attended a large gathering. Now that we think we can see the light at the end of the tunnel (no trains, please), there’s lots of collective soul searching about how we should meet again. That’s especially true for people whose business is to put on large in-person events.

Most notable large live events of this coming spring and summer are being canceled for the second year in a row. Mobile World Congress, E3, SXSW, the Cannes Lions Festival, and Comic-Con are all moving online. Burning Man is on the fence about in-person versus online (which is doing wonders for web traffic).

For those who plan such large-scale gatherings, the talk now is about hybrid events. While these may look different from one another, all will involve a combination of online and physical components. Most meeting pundits, including me, suspect that in-person events will generally become smaller, even as they support a complementary online event. (I have organized events for decades and during the pandemic founded the Virtual Events Group to help conference organizers figure all this stuff out.)

Quickly we’re going to find out that everything from the cadence, to the purpose, to the timing of events IRL vs. events in “URL” will take on different characteristics. The smart communicator will (as they always have) choose the right medium, at the right moment,  for the right message. Gathering once a year in person is memorable. The other 361 or so days will be prime territory for a virtual component. There will be advantages of lower costs, larger crowds, more data and personalization, and an audience that doesn’t feel pressured to get it all done in a fixed amount of time.

If you plan on holding your physical and virtual events simultaneously, you’ll want to think about mundane issues like what the online audience does during your real-time coffee breaks, what’s the equivalent of an after-show party, and you’ll probably want to trim sessions to 15 or 20 minute increments.  Equally as important is to think of your live event as a coming together of the tribe, a tribe you’ve cultivated with virtual events all year long. When they work in synchrony, online and real life should augment, not fight each other.

There’s reason to believe a virtual experience will be necessary. The Innovatis Group found that while 81% of respondents expect to be ready to get on a plane by late 2021, many companies will remain hesitant to allow work-related travel. In fact, more than 49% of companies surveyed currently have an all-out ban on travel, while 47% have cut, frozen or reduced travel budgets for 2021. Who needs the liability, right?

Events companies are also aware that despite smaller crowd sizes, live events are likely to be more expensive to produce. New requirements like added hygiene, contact tracing, booking larger spaces, and insuring contactless interactions for things like registration could require significant investments.

The U.S. and Europe are strikingly different than their non-Western counterparts when it comes to reopening for business. This map from GES, a large events company, makes it clear that we really do live in two different worlds. It shows in green the areas where events with more than 2,000 attendees are already taking place, in yellow where events may occur with strict mitigation measures, and in red where no public events are currently allowed.

One thing the pandemic makes clear is that the events business, like retail, health and finance, is going to need to think “omnichannel”. In the same way that retailers have had to suddenly learn to meld online, physical stores, curbside pickups, home delivery, and more, events must become more multi-modal. 

The 60/40 Rule

Robin Farmanfarmaian, a meeting guru, talks about a blend of 60% content and 40% interactivity as the sorcerer’s potion for virtual meetings. That ratio is on par with most in-person events, if you include dinner, drinks, and chance encounters. In the real world, interactivity happens without clobbering your guests over the head. In the virtual world, if content is king, then interactivity and serendipity are queen and princess. For your virtual events, you’ll want fewer speakers, speaking for a shorter time. 

Stop Apologizing 

“I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to meet in person” is the wrong answer for 2021. Time to stop apologizing. We’ve learned there are real advantages to online events, especially for reaching a larger, more diverse audience. On the other hand, a 2020 Bizzabo report found that 80% of virtual events were free. Free is not a sustainable strategy for most events groups. 

Online event creators need to drink the Kool-Aid. That means crunching numbers, tallying engagements, and building a good story about why your event is a unique proposition for sponsors and attendees alike. For meeting makers, this is going to start with educating the sales team on how to sell a URL event instead of an IRL one. And a “proud sponsor” doesn’t need to be relegated to a banner or backdrop or other sponsor ghetto. The online world is already accustomed to blended, organic experiences. 

Re-skill 

For many companies, the move to virtual events is going to require some serious re-skillingGlobal DMC Partners’ virtual 2021 Trends & Panel Discussion reported that 63% of its community of conference planners said engagement was their top concern surrounding virtual events, followed by budget. But they also expressed a sense of dissatisfaction with managing virtual events, saying that it was not their area of expertise nor their area of interest. That means it’s time to look at your 2021 staff and see who needs to be sent away for re-education. A good boss will figure out who on their existing staff is the best candidate to migrate to digital and start enrolling them in classes like the ones offered by the Virtual Events Institute

I’m going out on a limb here with a few other things for you to consider. 

  1. While a physical event may happen only once a year, now it’s easier and more urgent to build your online meeting community all year long.
  2. Curate, curate, curate. In virtual, think half the speakers in half the time.
  3. Find good networking software so people have a chance to meet, interact and do business. At VEG we’ve used TwineThirtyFriends, and Shindig with some success in with serendipitous meetups. 
  4. Don’t think of a virtual experience like a trade show where you wander from booth to booth. Think instead of creating “experiences”.

Why should you care about what events planners do? Because the pandemic has shown us that we are all planning virtual events now. Whether you are a brand, a product, a talent, whatever — you’re going to be dependent on your virtual meeting skills to do good business.

Robin Raskin is a longtime organizer of physical events as founder of Living in Digital Times. During the pandemic, she founded the Virtual Events Group (known as VEG) to raise the bar for and share knowledge about virtual events. If you’re intrigued by all things virtual events, find her at https://virtualeventsgroup.org.

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