LET'S GET STRATEGIC
Events and Event Planning in a Post-Pandemic World
by Linda Pophal
COVID-19 had a massive impact on many aspects of business life, and events were certainly one of them. SXSW was one of the first events to announce its cancellation at the beginning of the pandemic and, of course, virtually all others followed suit. Live events have been re-emerging, but event planners are approaching the process differently from how they have in the past. Splash’s “2023 Events Outlook Report” (its third annual report) indicates that “33% of event marketers are creating frequent, repeatable everyday events, in contrast with flagship events, like tradeshows and larger conferences.” Only 13% of the companies surveyed indicated that they’re focused on those large event types this year. Why? It’s a combination of economic concerns, changing business buyer behaviors, and fewer resources. The report notes that “81% of event professionals would host more events if they had the right tools and technology to streamline their systems and have more effective measurement and data management.”
HOW EVENTS HAVE CHANGED
Before the pandemic, “it was almost frowned upon to provide a virtual option for your in-person conference,” says Stephanie Roulic, founder and lead organizer of Startup Boston. The goal was to drive as much in-person attendance as possible, she explains. Her 2017, 2018, and 2019 Startup Boston Week events were in person only, with no option to attend virtually or to watch post-event recordings. COVID, of course, changed that way of thinking. Roulic’s 2020 and 2021 events were only virtual, and now, she states, hybrid events—where both attendees and speakers have the option to join either virtually or in person—are here to stay. That’s what she did for her 2022 event.
During the pandemic, workplaces were forced to be more accommodating to employees’ individual work-from-home experiences, says Melissa Park, a global event producer who runs Melissa Park Events. Initially, that led to a decline in quality, she notes. “I saw the standard of virtual events slip across the board and for a brief period, a ‘it’s the best we can do’ approach became acceptable.” That didn’t last, though, Park says, as digital fatigue set in. “For the most part, companies now understand that their virtual event needs to be as thoughtful as their in-person.” Her mantra is “Do it well, or don’t do it at all.”
Both digital fatigue and the recognition that today’s technology offers new and improving options for interactions online are driving changes in delivery methods and how and where interactions are taking place. Doug Binder is an expert in event design and production and has staged corporate events and campaigns around the world. He’s senior creative director with InVision Communications and the author of Gather: The Business of Coming Together. Events today are very different, says Binder. They are “no longer a place where people naturally gather in person in one place and time.” He agrees that virtual and hybrid events are here to stay; moving forward, “there should always be a role for a virtual component.”
The pandemic, says Binder, forced people to “give up vital connections and sensorial input”—the reasons we gather. But, he adds, “most hosts never lost sight of the purpose behind B2B events: brand and product immersion, adult learning and training, customer and community care.” During the pandemic, Binder notes, host companies realized equal or greater ROI and productivity while reducing travel and entertainment time and costs. In addition, he says, “some attendees are still willing to forego days of travel for various reasons including family commitments, expense, hassles, and health concerns.”
Because of that loss of connection, some companies are taking an entirely in-person approach to events, according to Park. “Right now, I’m seeing several industry leaders delivering in-person only with no virtual component on offer,” she says. “It’s a bold move, but one that obviously aligns with their organization and events’ mission and goals.” Park explains, “Incorporating a virtual option enables you to reach a much wider audience.” She states that she sees virtual events as a marketing tool to help companies connect with more people than they could with in-person events alone.
“We’re leaning on experiential event marketing,” says Emily Ketchen, CMO and VP of the Intelligent Devices Group (IDG) at Lenovo. Having navigated from in-person to fully virtual and now hybrid event experiences, she says, “we must consider new factors like meaningful engagement, scale and accessibility, sustainability, and overall ROI impact.” It’s important “to lead and participate in the wave of digital transformation to ensure your event marketing is data-informed and modernized to meet the customer where they are both online and offline.”
INNOVATION IN VIRTUAL EVENTS
Valerie Bihet is founder and CEO of VIBE, an agency based in Miami that produces in-person, virtual, hybrid, and metaverse events. “We used to be so focused on in-person that the event industry lagged behind when it came to the digital evolution,” Bihet shares. “COVID forced us to move forward and embrace it in a way that other industries like automotive and consumer products already had done.” There’s more to offer now, she says—including in-person, hybrid, virtual, and her personal digital favorite, the metaverse.
During the pandemic, planners gained experience with different formats and new technologies. At Lenovo, Ketchen says, “we piloted new virtual launch and event experiences, from simple video calls and demos with press to much more sophisticated, immersive, interactive, virtual gallery experiences.” Success with these events, she states, has required the following:
- Emotive, real-world customer examples illustrated with beautifully produced, visually engaging content
- Energetic and dynamic speakers who can bounce off of each other in the moment to create a feeling of spontaneity and authenticity that enhances the appeal of those in-person experiences
- Interactivity such as live virtual comments, chats, and Likes
- Relationship-building and follow-ups after the event, making the event part of a continuous customer decision journey rather than a one-and-done touchpoint
One of the challenges with hybrid events, Bihet says, has been communication between in-person and virtual attendees. It’s getting better as technology evolves, she notes. Bihet also sees the metaverse as offering new opportunities for greater engagement. “It’s new. It’s evolving. It’s customizable and it allows me to bring something very different to my clients,” she says. Delivering something different is important, Bihet adds. Just as live events tend to change location from year to year to offer a different experience, the same is true of virtual events: “The hybrid, or fully metaverse, needs to continually evolve and have new things we can bring to our audience.”
If event planners learned anything from the pandemic experience, it’s this: Be flexible. At InVision, Binder says, “Picture a sliding bar between an in-person on one side and a [person attending virtually] on the other. Everything in between is some measure of hybrid. We flex in order to deliver the right combination of the two attendee experiences, based on our clients’ changing needs.” As his team creates content, agendas, and marketing programs, “we must consider how the content will impact the two audiences, and how we flex to ensure both get a premium experience.” Even though it would be nice if the same content could be designed and delivered for both audiences, Binder says that hasn’t worked out: “Virtual and in-person experiences are just too different.”
Moving forward, Bihet recommends that event planners do the following:
- Continue to educate yourself.
- Stay involved with hybrid and virtual options so you have a more robust offering.
- Pay attention to what’s happening in other markets and industries that could affect your business or your target clientele.
- Form partnerships with other small businesses that could complement your services.
Above all, notes Bihet, keep your audience front and center as you’re planning events and considering the various options available to you. Now, more than ever, Binder says, it’s important to value attendees’ time: “No matter the venue—[in-person], virtual, or hybrid—be ready to compete with all manner of personal and professional alternatives to win their commitment, attention, and loyalty.”