2020 was a disastrous year for live events. Starting (arguably) with Mobile World Congress in February 2020, more than 90% of live events on the calendar for 2020 were canceled. The fallout from lost revenue and personal financial anxiety needs no documentation.
And while the negatives are plentiful, would it be inappropriate to consider a few of the good things that happened in the events industry during the past year? Indulge us for a few minutes.
- There were flashes of innovation. Please don’t call it a “pivot,” but organizers who had previously ignored the opportunity of virtual events suddenly scrambled to create online experiences for their exhibitors and sponsors. No one was blind to the problems that arose from the inexperience with this media iteration, but the learning curve, although steep, was swift.
- Emancipated from stale meeting formats, exhibitors moved from “the way we’ve always done it” mentality to reviewing strategy and sharpening their goals and objectives. The idea that an exhibit visitor was the same thing as a lead evaporated as new definitions of realistic expectations were formulated. And when exhibitors couldn’t figure out how to achieve an acceptable ROI, they questioned the advisability of the spend attached to ‘attending’ the virtual event.
- The overnight advances in technology and new capabilities for many exhibit suppliers were amazing. New platforms, allowing richer and richer virtual experiences, found their way into frequent use while existing platforms embarked on a continuous improvement path, augmenting features that ranged from security to engagement and gamification.
- The design of virtual events led to a redefining of industry-specific basics such as how long online engagement would or could last, what would be compelling about online offerings and what would not, and how to provide networking opportunities and chats for participants.
As optimism grows for the return of live business gatherings, we’re not abandoning what we learned during 2020, and we’re definitely not praying for a complete return of “the good old days.” While it is impossible to replace face-to-face, the virtual experience has forced us to innovate and has provided us with new tools to expand our audiences. Put simply, the future of events lies in creating a hybrid entity, a blended format of live, online, and on-demand.
Virtual events in 2020 demonstrated that live, face-to-face engagement is critical to exhibitors. Yet, the virtual experience attracted participants who could not be on site for one reason or another. Content delivery was certainly facilitated in the virtual event. From not having to search for a seat at a popular keynote presentation to post-event access to recorded on-demand content–although commercial networking opportunities were (and are, still) lacking–the quality of educational options in the virtual realm was impressive.
2020 certainly pushed us to think beyond business as usual, and that opens up many new opportunities. The balance of channels and formats has shifted, and event formats in 2021 and beyond will be redefined case by case, audience by audience, region by region, and event by event. Long-term, online and on-demand tactics that provide value will become a permanent part of the event landscape, influencing the way we measure success as well as our deliverables, meeting formats, and the objectives, quality, and the ROI of live engagements.
How do we seize the competitive advantage?
By taking a complete view of new event options. This includes not only determining whether you are going to embrace all opportunities available in the hybrid space but also determining how you will develop a strategy that allows you to measure the return on your investment.
By refining your concept of measurement. We can look longingly back to the simple challenges of qualifying face-to-face exhibit visitors to determine whether they are suitable for follow-up. In the hybrid world, we need to determine the quality of the online audience and find ways to track their interests. The creativity of your design team is your only limitation.
By ensuring that collaboration and dialog are part of the pre-show experience. The hybrid experience is new to both organizers and exhibitors. This reality might mean tough negotiation, but your investment needs to pay off. Ask about reports and data available to you so that you can plan a successful engagement. (Click here for our checklist, 21 Questions to Ask Before You Sign That Virtual Event Contract.)
By remembering the basics. Pre-show marketing is not only always a good idea, but in the hybrid world, it is mandatory. Much promotion, if not all, will be done online. Once again, work with show organizers to see what is possible using the designated platform.
By insisting on strategic sponsorships. Sponsorships are essential, but so is your input. A year’s experience in the virtual space has provided you with insights into what works and what doesn’t work. Don’t be content to pick a sponsorship opportunity off a list or repeat the sponsorship you have always chosen; come up with your own suggestions based on a year’s worth of experiences.
By meeting the new expectations of attendees with your space on the exhibit floor. Keep up with industry news; everything is fluid right now. Ask your exhibit partner for help. One day you will read that surfaces need regular and constant sanitation; the next day, that advice will change.
By leaning on the experts. If there is a virtual exhibit floor, you will pay for space on that floor. How will you use it? Discuss that with your exhibit partner when you are talking about the 3-D exhibit you will have on the show floor.
By finding creative ways to blur the lines between on-site and on-line experiences. With a deeper arsenal of technology tools, broader capabilities, and more robust ways to measure, the way we used to think about things has gone the way of the dinosaurs.
By admitting that creating an experience isn’t enough. We must create engagement. We learned that in 2020. No matter the format, we want potential customers to “get” our message in a way that makes them want to hear more and, hopefully, to buy or prescribe our product. The right engagement for the right audience will build brand engagement and brand loyalty and be your first step in seizing the competitive advantage.