I'm Peter Schmidt, Director of Global Accounts at NHS Global Events, 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 have been with NHS Global Events for 7 years now. We’re a full-service sourcing, meeting management and technology consulting company headquartered in Skokie, IL with various satellite offices throughout the US. Our portfolio of about 80 customer accounts allows us to negotiate about 500 contracts a year in addition to about 100 onsite, meeting management engagements in a normal year. Our latest adoption into our book of services is the virtual engagement where we support our customer’s virtual conference needs from content development through marketing and technology consultations all the way to run of show management and day of event execution.
From your perspective, describe the current state of the meetings & events industry.
It’s really rough right now; the industry is in complete survival mode. As you know, large meetings, events and conventions have ceased to exist and are currently being re-designed, re-evaluated for their ROI or simply canceled for the temporary time frame it will take until a vaccine is broadly available. Until then most of the activity in this arena will take place in the virtual space which is a very different experience over an in-person event. Organizations relying on income via commissions and project fees for services are slowly moving their focus to niche services like virtual engagement and association management to stay in business.
How has COVID-19 impacted your planning process & strategy?
Our focus is on future opportunities. We successfully created a virtual broadcast: the “State of the Industry: Las Vegas” where we hosted three leaders within the Las Vegas hospitality industry as panelists. At one point we counted over 1,000 online attendees during this live event. It was an update on the recovery in the city since Las Vegas is arguably the epicenter and “Wall Street” of the hotel industry. And while the format and end result was highly appealing, we have yet to identify an opportunity to provide this service to other DMOs and businesses. In most cases their funds have been re-allocated or completely frozen and teams reduced nationwide. We obviously continue to educate our customers on the solutions we offer, however, money is tight right now for a lot of businesses. The group market segment is still lagging way behind due to the risk of infection and spread of COVID-19. Hybrid options continue to be most discussed and we support our customer base directly with planning and executing their events that way for now while booking their conferences in 2022 and beyond.
What technologies do you see emerging from this?
Web conferencing is the big one, of course. Platforms for recorded videos and live content is another one. There are, meanwhile, rather affordable options out there for small budgets, which is helpful. I personally love products that draw you in and provide the appearance of being at an in-person conference. Presenting the attendee with the “look and feel” of walking into an actual convention center enhances the sense of commitment to remain at the event unlike a SaaS-platform where you have to click in and out of the experience. Products that have clean and diverse back end reporting options are also sought after.
What’s truly amazing is the advancement of the chat feature. Implementing a chat live stream to a video/meeting/breakout has become a key to attendee engagement.. Additionally, having multiple layers of chat options, i.e. 1-on-1, small group chat, can truly enhance the virtual experience depending always on the goal and framework of the program
If you had a technology wish list, what would it be?
Outside of the fast creation, release and distribution of a C19 vaccine, my current wish list would include a virtual event experience as close to an in-person event as possible. If there is any way to make the virtual experience (e.g., navigation, chat, activities, emotions, side conversations, F&B experiences, entertainment, etc.) as close to what a live, in-person convention would have, then that would be my dream product. The event duration itself would have to shrink because no one wants to go online 3 days in a row. If there is a way to transition from one general session to another that really creates the energy and vibe of what you would get at an in-person conference, that would be awesome. Content is king, especially for a virtual setting, and has to be crisp and delivered in a way that’s 20 minutes or less and captivating. I would wish for a solution that is highly engaging from the attendee side, the presenter side, and the conference organizer side.
What are some pros and cons to virtual events over in-person events and conferences?
We all like to get on an airplane and go to a conference. There is a sizzle of what is to come; it’s all about getting out there and creating meaningful conversation while advancing my business goals. Those interactions, emotions and experiences are irreplaceable. I would say that a big advantage of virtual events is the data collection; there’s just so much more to capture due to clicks and it all being online already. Another challenge on the virtual events side is the need for bite sized content combined with crisp and engaging delivery. Where there seems to be more “room” for longer key notes and transitions during in person events, the virtual experience has to be planned out to the minute/second in order to maintain high attendance. Virtual events seem to require more monitoring versus a live event (e.g., dropping links to other parts of the conference, preparing questions for Q&A, etc). Virtual events should cost the same as in-person events but cost to the attendee has proven to be overall less for a virtual event even though cost to the organizer is not necessarily less; between recordings, live feed, technology platforms and enhancements, help desks, etc. Sponsorship money is harder to come by - sponsors and exhibitors count on in person connections and conversation where online forums will never be able to achieve that kind of exposure and success. And there is the technology itself which could break down and create unexpected interruptions to an event, which makes it come off unprofessional and unprepared.
How do you see this affecting the attendee experience? The sponsor/advertiser experience?
For Sponsors/Advertisers, there are much more limited amounts of options to create exposure. You can mention a sponsor 100 times throughout a program but they’re there one second and gone to the next. It is a huge challenge to the meeting organizer to get that to stick.
We currently see 3 different attendee experiences being designed: 1. Live and in-person 2. Virtual Conference Program 3. Hybrid events which is the combination of the first two: There is a livestream provided for the virtual audience in addition to the live, in-person program for the attendees that dared to travel.. Best experiences would be the first two options on all sides. A hybrid solution needs to be designed with both audiences in mind. I mentioned before that virtual attendees will most likely not follow a 3 day conference on screen while in-person attendees want to have that time to network, learn and continue the conversation and are truly invested in the event. However, offering a hybrid solution engages potentially a much larger audience. There’s now an opportunity to push out your brand message to an audience you wouldn’t otherwise have at an in-person event and a much larger group can carry your brand forward. Definitely something worthwhile to consider for the right program and sponsors.
How do you see the day-of-event operations changing?
I don’t think anyone has this answer just yet. Hotels and convention centers are “playing” with set up options to assure physical distancing, sanitation stations and staffed buffets versus self serve. Again, these measures all make sense right now, but I am convinced that as soon as it is safe again to travel and meet (vaccine) we will all go back to the ways we met pre-COVID. I don’t think the business model of a conference is going to change. It’s been decades in the making of how to host a successful conference, check all the boxes, hire the right ppl and please all stakeholders, attendees, sponsors and exhibitors. What I could see change for good might be the presence of more hand sanitizer, a heightened awareness of cleanliness standards in hotels, venues and convention centers and hopefully less crowded airplanes as well as airports.
When do you think in-person events will start up again?
I’m going to be ready to meet in-person again once there’s a vaccine that’s broadly distributed and available to everybody. The fact that any additional infection could mean a death to someone in our family makes any risk to potential exposure unacceptable to me.
How do you see travel impacting this?
Lifting travel restrictions will not change things if there’s still no vaccine in my opinion. There are measures being taken by the airline industry which will hopefully remain once a vaccine is in place. However, I have a feeling it may not be sustainable for that business model. All travel businesses need to work together and continue to figure out how to do this right. In the past decade, the sole focus was on revenue and how to squeeze out more of a healthy demand market. Hopefully now that things are truly dire, this industry takes advantage of an opportunity to do things right again and focus more on the partnership aspects so prevalent and important to this business.
How do you see the events industry evolving from this?
My attitude is that this is just one year out of our lives and we’re going to go back to doing things the way we have done things before, pre-COVID. The events industry has been evolving constantly with the basics remaining consistent and operating a certain way. Events are the platforms to exchange ideas, content, best practices and to get to know one another for business and personal advancements. Putting any restrictions on the way we meet will have an adverse effect on the ripples of ideas, inventions, and movements that directly result from said events. We are currently witnessing that nothing will come even close to the in-person experience a conference provides. Our online tools are bandaids to simply get us through this current outbreak. As mentioned earlier, partnerships need to get re-defined and returned to the actual meaning. I truly see an opportunity here for this industry (and all others, too) to take responsibility and share risks as well as rewards equally.
What opportunities do you see emerging from this new landscape?
The supplier to planner relationship has an opportunity to grow into a more equal share of responsibilities and expectations. Conversations need to include shared risk and more flexibility. While hotels and venues might still return to a focus on revenues, an organization will make a decision in favor of the most flexible hotel partner to host their event at. The role of third parties will evolve to a more comprehensive negotiation process in creating balanced agreements on behalf of their customers. The virtual engagement I believe is here to stay and will get tightened up. The simple opportunity of that broader reach (globally even) is a huge opportunity for certain events. Biggest opportunity I see for this industry is to move the decision making to the ppl who are actually in contact with the customer crafting the actual partnership. The pre-COVID environment had, at times, a hostile and very disconnected tendency. We all are currently learning how important it is to meet and be in touch person to person and looking into eyes, not cameras or monitors. This is our chance to move close together and take full control of how to move forward in a business partnership situation for all involved to be a part of the success story in the end.
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.