I'm Michelle Koblenz, a Meeting Manager at the National Business Aviation Association, and these are my thoughts on Re-Eventing the Wheel
The 'Re-Eventing the Wheel' Interview series asks event producers, marketers, and industry experts to share their perspective on how COVID-19 is reshaping the events industry.
Tell me about yourself & your background in the meetings & events industry.
I’ve been working for about 5 years in the meetings & events industry. I started off in an admin role working at a charity organization that did educational events. I worked there for about 1.5 years and then moved to a medical society, where our events focused on people in academia. There, I advanced to managerial level. I’m now at the National Business Aviation Association, where I work on a conference team that puts on in-person and virtual events for Professional Development and trade specific education as well as many other diverse kinds of meetings. I’m taking advantage of this opportunity to find creative ways to work with our team to translate, what would have been 4 conferences already, into virtual programming and how we can work to host more hybrid events in the future.
From your perspective, describe the current state of the meetings & events industry.
I know everyone keeps saying we’re in unprecedented time and this industry is giving us the push we all needed to rethink events. In the past when people talked about virtual conferences and hybrid events, it was just another thing to worry about. This isn’t even statistically true but we thought if we did things virtually, then people wouldn’t come in person. These times have shown that virtual events can be exciting, are received well, can be sold to members, and also that it’s just necessary. You can’t always see people in person. This has been the kick we all needed to think about how people can still meet and how events can meet their goals when we can’t meet in person.
There’s this sense of “well now we need to figure out how to do this online” but it’s not like virtual events haven't been there - they’ve always been there. Virtual events already existed and people were using them - it’s just much more widespread now. The state of the industry has changed and people are expecting virtual content. We’re planning that we’re going to host hybrid events moving forward. Virtual events have such great success - it’s not a second choice, it’s just something different to share with people.
How has COVID-19 impacted your planning process & strategy?
Moving forward, we are now planning for emergency procedures to be essential and are figuring out how to make sure people stay safe. We’re going to have to focus more on making contingency plans even if there’s nothing there in theory to need it. It’s about always having a “plan b'' in ways we didn’t used to. This is different from a “rain location” and that kind of standard is going to extend into other aspects of meeting planning. The industry is hurting jobwise and a lot of peers are losing their jobs; it’s a lot of pressure to be seen as “essential” while simultaneously not having as many people as you would usually have working with you on a team. Whether I agree with that change or not, it’s the reality.
What technologies do you see emerging from this?
Part of it is a learning process. I think there’s a lot of technology already out there but I wasn’t focused on it before so I don’t even know what’s out there. I am learning about new things everyday. With virtual events, there’s going to be interesting growth in how people engage and connect in the virtual space. That’s what I'm hearing from attendees and in the million articles I’ve read online. They miss that person-to-person networking connection and people say you can’t get that virtually. I disagree; I think we’re innovative enough to find a solution to that. Chat features are going to become more widely used - how can we have people discussing ideas and conversing virtually beyond just message boards and to the moderator? With virtual content, people don’t want to tune in to a specific time to watch something - “on-the-go” content is going to become more widespread. People want to plan their scheduling for the week and want to consume the programming we put out but don’t necessarily want to tune in at that time. Customization is going to be happening more and more. In databases, people move away from customization but I think the uniqueness needs to be there for our attendee base. If virtual events could have the twists and turns that TV shows and movies do, people will sit down for hours to watch it.
If you had a technology wish list, what would it be?
A system we could use across our diverse range of events: conventions, education events, committee meetings, all of it. It would have the functionality and needs for each one: concurrent sessions, breakout rooms, attendees be able to talk to each other and to the host putting it on, ability for people to get in touch with suppliers and vice versa but without it feeling like ads or annoyance.
For the backend, having someone available for support from a technical backend standpoint. Even though we have more patience when technology doesn’t work, it’s still so annoying. The ability to be branded - and not just for sponsorship. A platform with a uniformed branded look. The ability to store content. The capability to obtain statistics if people are looking at content and engaging with it. The ideal technology is a one-stop shop and it would be a service that we can use a wide variety of things to mix and match according to our event needs.
Additionally, I’d like a true partner. And I don’t mean someone just providing me instructions on how to upload content. I want a partner that will talk and work with me to enhance experiences as much as possible for my attendees.
What are some pros and cons to virtual events over in-person events and conferences?
Cons: not having face-to-face connection and interaction with other people in person. Talking to someone on video chat is not the same as being in the same room as them. That’s an invaluable thing you get at live events. You can feel the energy of others in the room and feel like you’re there with them in the room. It’s also difficult to watch demonstrations. The “touch aspect” of meetings can’t really be done virtually.
Pros: education/content on YOUR schedule. You can be anywhere in the world and tune in - that level of flexibility is great. It’s typically more cost effective for the attendee and the planner. Coming from somebody who is on the younger side, it’s still a battle to get funding to be able to go to professional development events - or frankly any event where it costs money to go. With virtual, there’s only one cost; you don’t need to worry about flights, hotels or food. With hybrid events, you can be free from distraction. I’ve done events in Vegas and we’ve seen people who leave in the middle of the afternoon because they want to change and get ready for fun stuff in the evening. In-person feels like funding a social activity but funding a virtual event feels like education.
How do you see this affecting the attendee experience? The sponsor/advertiser experience?
In the coming year or so, some things are going to have to go. We’re looking at our schedule for upcoming conferences and it’s tough because we can’t do something unless we can safely do it… and we can’t safely do it until we have a vaccine. In some ways, attendees will lose some aspects of things moving forward that they maybe valued really highly. For example, we’re not going to see packed rooms again. There’s something exciting about a crowded room that only has standing room left but those days are gone for now. On the flip side, this is going to be an opportunity for creativity that attendees can really benefit from. We’re working to figure out how attendees can still make meaningful connections and we’re rethinking how to get people interacting. Attendees will benefit from this creativity about getting in touch with each other. This is a time when we evaluate what’s really important: you really think about “do I value this activity over this activity?” and folks are determining what they’re going to attend. Questions like “Is this worth the funds?” or “ Is this worth me being around people?” are being asked more and more.
For sponsors and advertisers, I think it keeps going back to the need to be creative and what they’re looking to get out of their sponsorships and ads. Advertising can transfer a bit more easily - you still have ads. They can have videos and their name listed as the supporter. We need to evaluate more closely what the partnership does for them and how can we still accommodate that with different restrictions?
How do you see the day-of-event operations changing?
Great question. For virtual, that’s just a brand new thing entirely for me. I think that for the near future, and the next several months moving into 2021, there’s going to be a lot of “before the event starts, we have to do a lot of XYZ things” that pertain to the people attending, and not the event itself. For example, is everyone healthy? When people say “buffets won’t exist” and “lines won’t exist” and “we’ll never have theater seating” that’s not true. People will bottleneck - it will just be for different things, like temperature checks.
When do you think in-person events will start up again?
There needs to be a vaccine. I know it’s extreme but I have loved ones that I care for and I'm not going to risk getting them sick over a conference. There’s greater value in keeping them safe and I think many people would agree with that sentiment. That being said, the state of the world literally changes every day and we might find out we don’t have a vaccine for 5 years. If that’s the case, there will be a different solution. I believe there will be live events sometime in 2021 but I can’t say exactly when that is.
How do you see travel impacting this?
Travel consideration is a huge one. I’m a big traveler and this has been the longest I've gone without traveling. People like me who like going to events - I'm itching to go on a trip whether it’s for work or personal. I weigh those health considerations higher than being in my one-bedroom apartment. People are already traveling! I think it’s going to span a spectrum - once people start traveling, it will expand and be a domino effect - this idea of “they went and it was fine” will permeate. When thinking about the long term, there are things that will be forever different. There will be people who will always wear a mask on a plane even if they have a vaccine. There are some things, little things, that will always be different. For example, I think moving forward I won't have someone come in and clean my room when staying at a hotel as frequently. I think people will always carry around hand sanitizer; usually only moms have that but now everyone will!
How do you see the events industry evolving from this?
We are going to be hosting more hybrid events. Virtual events won’t be considered the “lesser of the two” when it comes to event planners anymore. Contracting is already a completely different world - people will be preparing for a lot more scenarios. I’m worried event professionals are going to be asked to tell the future - should we host the meeting this month or this month? Meeting planners and event professionals are going to be asked “so do you think we should be doing this?” or “What’s the world going to look like?” whether it’s pandemic related or people going on strike. In the past, we could be like “we didn’t know this was going to happen” and now that’s not going to be an excuse anymore because we have the precedent and it’s happening more frequently.
What opportunities do you see emerging from this new landscape?
I don’t think it’s ever going to go back to the way events were done before. It’s been a shock to our system and every second of my day is thinking about “what if I have COVID?”. Every action now has an added layer of thought to it and this pandemic has had such a crazy and intense adjustment to our lives. It hasn’t just affected my work life but my everything life. I can’t fathom a world where people forget that and pretend it didn’t happen. I don’t think people will go back to the way things were.
I think there’s more opportunity and I think people are expecting us to have answers but there’s also more acceptance of “I need to look into that further” or “I need to research it a bit more before making a decision”. Being wrong is more accepted now than it was before. People are just trying their best - we’re being more creative and we’re trying new things. Sure, sometimes you fail, but you always learn. There’s an opportunity now for people to explore their creativity when before it was put on the backburner.
The "Re-Eventing the Wheel" Interview series asks event producers, marketers, and industry experts to share their perspective on how COVID-19 is reshaping the events industry. Have someone you'd like to see featured or some ideas on questions we should ask? Please email Nicole.