I'm Chris Cherkis, founder of Cherkis Consulting, 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.
Currently, due to COVID, I’m running my own consulting business. I’ve worked in the Association sector for the last 7 years working with non-profit trade organizations on a number of conferences and seminars ranging in size and scope from small committee meetings of 30 and others scaled from 125 attendees to tradeshows of up to 3,000. Our largest annual tradeshow consisted of over 20,000 attendees and over 1,100 exhibiting companies.
From your perspective, how would you describe the current state of the meetings & events industry.
It’s going through a change; we keep hearing the buzzwords “reinvent” or “pivot”. It’s all very fluid and unknown and we’re all in a state of reassessing where things are in the industry. Events have taken a huge hit. The industry is resilient and it will come back but it’s a bit unknown right now due to the unclear regulations in place from local and relevant authorities for meetings and events for various group sizes.
How has COVID-19 impacted your planning process & strategy?
It’s taken a different lens in terms of finding a way to navigate the unknown. You have to consider things that you’ve never had to consider before. Are we going totally virtual? Should we do a hybrid? What's the short-term strategy? What's the long-term strategy? I wouldn’t expect things to go back to the norm, or at least the old norm, until there’s a vaccine and to be honest, it's probably more likely to be sometime after that because there’s a sense of fear and responsibilities for organizers. A part of that is probably based on the attendee: when do they feel comfortable traveling? Companies are being careful - there are a lot of travel restrictions. The strategy needs to look at what the process used to be and how to translate the old way into a new way. Events are becoming way more digital and focused on engagement. Events could feel more like a webinar or a movie; you either sit and watch it or you don’t. Everyone's wondering how to keep people active on their computer screens.
Organizations need to find a way to engage their members and attendees inside and outside the event. Many organizations have publications they used to send to a corporate address - how do you get the materials to their personal address that is comfortable and within GDPR regulation - how do you collect these addresses? ? Web Conferencing makes you feel like you're constantly being watched. Think about it: we’re being “watched” on Zoom. We need to allow people to individually break out into one-on-one events. Do we go back to the AOL chatroom model? People need to find each other based on location or interest, which frankly, would lead to better engagement than an in-person tradeshow. You hope you run into someone in a space with thousands of people. I believe virtual solutions may provide more efficient networking that can seem more personal -- not all data bot-tech driven and without the hunt around a convention center or ballroom foyer. Getting the mail is one of the most exciting parts of my day now because I'm not connecting to a screen. I think keeping engagement by sending something that is tangible that will become an area of focus.
What technologies do you see emerging from this?
The webinar technology has exploded; Zoom being one of the newest, easiest, most accessible leaders but also with Google and Facebook following close behind with rooms or digital classrooms. I believe any new technology is going to be focused around accessibility - just click and go, no download required. Additionally, there will be new technology driven out of safety and sanitation with health checks/monitoring at live events. A big question remains when it comes to infrastructure as well. When it comes to hotels/convention centers: even if people attend an in-person event, will they be willing to travel or stay in the hotel block? I think the sales technique is going to be more than just square footage; we'll need to consider destinations and facilities that may include / have in place additional health and sanitation equipment and practices, something that could be costly for an event producer to bring in themselves.
If you had a technology wishlist, what would it be?
The biggest thing I’m hearing/seeing/wanting is that virtual event technology has to be customized and I'm not just talking about Zoom backgrounds or brand colors. We're looking for the opportunity to build out something that checks all the boxes. If the sky's the limit and budget didn’t matter, I'd say the more customization, the better. That being said, if you’re trying to build something as individual and unique as your in-person event, then you need to translate that into the digital world and you can’t just do that out-of-the- box. Finding a platform or technology service that is not unique to you takes away from the personalization that events are known for. As virtual becomes more and more the current norm, people are going to be attending many different events and if elements of every conference looks the same because we're all using the same SaaS platform, then how do you up your game? Of course, as with many items in planning, it’s a budget battle. What are the most important areas to invest in? Overall, customization, live chat/networking, engagement and education are the huge components. How do you deliver that content? Is it live or pre-recorded? I think both.
There are SO many companies that offer virtual solutions and ultimately they’re probably working off of a similar platform. Not all platforms are created equal; not every virtual event partner offers the same features. It’s important to know what the limitations are and understand if they are taking an existing tool or platform and building off of it. There’s only so many foundations out there and it’s what people can DO with the foundation/platform that makes them stand out. With so many to choose from, it can be overwhelming. I believe at times we as planners hit a roadblock (budget, time, etc) and go with an ‘off the shelf’ option that will ‘work’ but may not offer all the features we truly want in a customized solution.
What are some pros and cons to virtual events over in-person events and conferences?
- How event managers can reevaluate their funds: you can change where funding is coming from since you're no longer paying rental fees or food and bev minimums anymore so how can you reallocate funds to a digital experience?
- Accessibility is greater: even pre-covid, travel restrictions or rigid schedules didn’t allow people to attend events even if they wanted to. There's a new level of connectivity that’s going to be there with virtual events.
- Data: with tech, you can see pageviews, clicks, and user paths -- the possibilities are almost endless. When you look for ROI on a virtual event, there’s more data that’s true and easy to report and less up to anecdotal evidence. This is going to be important for exhibitors/sponsors overall
- Shelf life: Virtual events, their content and framework can live on for an infinite amount of time. Once the initial investment is made (in some platforms) updates and enhancements can be added over time. We should consider virtual as an extension of engagement; not a one and done.
- Human Connection: in-person events have a buzz about them and you can’t replace that kind of human connection with a computer screen
- Potential financial loss: as an attendee, I think I would have a hard time justifying the cost of attending a virtual event compared to an in-person event. The stigma is so ingrained that you hop on a plane to Vegas and that's just part of the mentality. Employers might be thinking "it's just a computer screen". Some organizations may want to offer virtual at low access barriers but need to consider how the typical revenue that would have come from a live event is offset - are sponsors or others paying more? Perhaps the savings in rental and other areas is enough. If you’re considering asking for the typical attendance fee (priced as it was live) it’s important to educate attendees and provide them with a justification kit. Sure, you might not get lunch and a reception but instead, you get livestreaming from around the world. Oh, and they can access all sessions, not just what worked in their schedule on that particular day of a live event.
How do you see this affecting the attendee experience? The sponsor/advertiser experience?
A lot of attendees have always looked forward to the annual conference as almost a family reunion. Sure, they took classes but they also had dinners and ran into people they haven't seen for a long time. I’m missing travel just in general. As much as I could always call or video chat with someone any hour of the day, any day of the year, I can’t “break bread with them” and that's hard.
For sponsors/advertisers, I think they’ll have a new great opportunity regarding ROI, technology, and tracking. Those are all parts of the puzzle that may make sales a bit easier. Some may say, "It’s an online banner- why is it so expensive?" given that physical materials are no longer part of the pricing but in the digital space, we can now guarantee every attendee has to click on that online banner in order to enter a session. This area in particular is one that’s going to excel. In a virtual setting, there still needs to be some level of interaction that people can engage with people. Maybe it's a video instead of a static banner; it needs to be something that engages you the way a person would bring you in. I'm excited to see how we can bring that level of sensory to a virtual platform.
How do you see the day-of-event operations changing?
When it comes to a live event and the operations to produce it, there’s going to be different allocations of tasks, a change in mindset that may be very different than what you'd normally expect. We're no longer checking on a room set and catering counts; now we're figuring out how to manage digital rooms, platform and serve space considerations. The overall planning and logistics is going to be more detailed and finite but there’s going to be a lot more thought that goes into it - it’s new to so many of us. What previously may have been a bit of onsite autopilot is now stressing about whether your virtual speaker knows how to use their camera. It's not just about prep for the event but it's also about how you may otherwise engage people outside of the event. There's going to be more time that goes into speaker training because it’s a platform they've likely never used before. That technology learning curve needs to be addressed.
There's going to be more that goes into the data prep side as well and looking at how those things translate/transfer, i.e., presentation sizes. There will likely be some reverse technology too; things that used to be delivered digitally may potentially need to be delivered in hard copy, i.e., the agenda. “How to navigate the platform and where to find things” is going to be a new focus from an operational perspective. During an in-person event, when all else fails, look for the signs and follow the mass crowds of people, but what does that mean digitally?
When do you think in-person events will start up again?
Some events are already still proceeding. I think we're probably 2-3 years away for the “normal” standard. There are a lot of baby steps and monitoring what everyone else is doing to figure out how we can collectively learn from others' experience? I think this will largely depend on a widely available vaccine.
How do you see travel impacting this?
Travel is certainly an aspect to any event, pre- or post-COVID. As an attendee, what’s the draw of a destination? Do I want to go to middle-of-nowhere Iowa or do I want to go to New Orleans? Pre-COVID, the agenda looked better because of where the event was located - now, are we going to see a downturn or a bump because of destination? How do you replace that location revenue bump? More attendees might show up because it’s now convenient but I think flight length, nonstop flights, and more remote destinations could be appealing instead of faraway, congested cities.
How do you see the events industry evolving from this?
This is a good opportunity for the events industry to have a fresh slate. While technology has always driven innovation and change (e.g., LED screens and wayfinding), there's a new opportunity for people to relook at how events need to be or should be. Safety and sanitization are going to become a focus now more than ever. The data that comes out of this virtual event experience is going to influence what data we want to collect from live events. Additionally, attendees are going to have a higher level of expectation. In the next one to two years, I wouldn't be shocked if many attendees preferred online events because they could do it at their own pace, they don’t need to travel, and they don’t need to find childcare in order to attend. In the long-run employers may see a cost savings or a level of efficiency with a virtual or hybrid meeting offering.
What opportunities do you see emerging from this new landscape?
I could see a concierge service arising; people might not want to have the interaction with others so someone will organize everything for them. I can see people paying a premium to have access to things, i.e., nonstop flights. The level of accessibility will skyrocket so attendees can access more things than they used to. Perhaps there's a more efficient way that services are dispatched? Buffets are probably gonna go away for a while; is there a level of service/efficiency for plated meals? Everyone can experience everything on the same timeline and there’s no more waiting. There’s a level of personal experience as well as those shared together. People can experience things solo as well as in a group. Lines have always been among the biggest headaches with in-person events; now, there’s no more lines (e.g., lunch, registration, restroom). A potential negative to all of this will likely be around a learning curve for technology so depending on your demographic, some people might have some trouble.
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.