Live, virtual, hybrid, experiential – where are events headed in our new Covid-19 reality? Jonathan Cotton asks the question of marketers looking to leverage new technologies and (forced) trends so to maximise brand exposure and ROI.
It’s tough to be in business in 2020. As Covid-19 causes disruption on a global scale, economies are in turmoil.
For marketers, the pandemic’s assault on certainty is serious, and while most industries have suffered losses, the event industry has been among the hardest hit.
As Kiwis go into isolation, then out, then in again, the industry is proving itself to be nothing if not resilient. As the marketing industry finds its way through the current Covid-19 moment of truth, it has also got one eye on the future. From in-person events calibrated for pandemic conditions, to interactive internet-enhanced, hybrid and virtually-enhanced events, it seems the show will very much be going on.
After all, there’s nothing like meeting face-to-face to get business done. But whether it’s a trade show, workshop, conference, or live launch, in 2020, the next big meet-and-greet now comes with some serious caveats.
With bans on mass gatherings affecting all, the events industry – and of course the country as a whole – has entered a very uncertain moment. The loss in revenue has impacted many, resulting in sweeping layoffs across the industry.
“Covid-19 hit us like a brick,” says Brent Spillane, CEO at XPO Exhibitions, the largest events organiser in New Zealand. “The timing for us was very, very bad.”
Indeed, XPO had just acquired its largest competitor in the market and was in the process of integrating the two very large event-based businesses when the pandemic hit New Zealand shores.
“Pre-Covid-19, we had all of this confidence about the wonderful new year ahead,” says Spillane. “We were going to be running 18 exhibitions, a huge increase for us, but overnight almost, with the cancelling and rescheduling events, we had no choice but to restructure 14 personnel.”
“That was really grueling for us.”
As event calendars are scrubbed clean, there have been substantial job losses across the industry.
“It has been a roller coaster,” says Blair Glubb CEO of events company Uno Loco. “There was probably a week there, where our entire pipeline of business events just disappeared.”
“As it became clear that New Zealand was hitting Lockdown, we lost every single corporate event we were going to produce for the next 12 months.”
And there’s currently no end in sight. With ongoing lockdowns and ever-changing pandemic conditions, how will events companies negotiate this new, unstable normal?
The big pivot
In an uncertain environment, the ability of a business to shift strategies can often spell the difference between survival and annihilation.
In the face of mass-gathering bans, organisers around the world, have been quick to embrace digital and web-based solutions. Despite pandemic conditions, country-wide lockdowns, and a traumatised global economy, prestigious, big-name events still went ahead, such as Apple’s Developers Conference and San Diego Comic-Con, albeit as online-only versions of the traditionally in-person events.
Even Burning Man embraced the virtual pivot, creating a trippy art-themed online “multiverse”, for otherwise disappointed Burners.
“We are optimistic about Burning Man’s future and what The Multiverse will reveal in the year ahead,” goes the organiser’s pitch, describing the move as “a chance to explore new ways of connecting and convening online, deepen our commitment to environmental sustainability…and create new and meaningful pathways for the community to connect and collaborate, especially during the Coronavirus”.
Closer to home, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise and Fonterra both ran virtual events that, while omitting a physical presence, still allowed them to connect with their international audiences.
“None of them could jump on planes, says Glubb, “so being able to take and package the messaging and do it in a virtual format was a logical jump.”
Similarly, with the announcement of the country-wide Lockdown in March, the New Zealand National Fieldays Society set about reimagining the annual national agricultural show. A virtual ‘Fieldays Online’ concept was settled upon, and in partnership with Satellite Media, created in just over 100 days.
According to the New Zealand National Fieldays Society (NZNFS), more than 90,000 digital “attendees” from more than 75 countries visited the almost 300 exhibitors, in the process consuming over 24 hours of Fieldays TV content.
“The analytics show great viewership and engagement with the explosion of international visitors and, locally, a much higher regional spread beyond the traditional Fieldays,” says Peter Nation, CEO NZNFS of the online event’s success.
Several other corporate events, such as the CIO Summit, Downstream, New Zealand Minerals Forum and Emissions Workshop, will all be run as ‘digital first’ events over 2020.
So, the capability is there to create satisfying, dare we say profitable, online-only events. But what about life outside Level 4?
To help the industry navigate the new Covid-19 reality, a new voluntary events sector code has been announced, giving organisers a clear outline of what needs to occur to safely deliver events.
While there is no formal accountability (the Code won’t be regulated or legally binding), organisers of events are urged to follow a series of steps to minimise the pandemic risk. Actions include educating attendees before and throughout events on record-keeping expectations, considering ways to guide best practice behaviours through event design, and incorporating record-keeping mechanisms, either through self-selected technology or the recommended NZ COVID TracerApp.
XPO was among the parties that helped create the guidelines.
“We worked with the Ministry of Health and a number of other organisers around getting contact tracing right for consumer shows and consumer events,” says Spillane.
And different types of events require different considerations, says Spillane. Properly managed, trade shows and conferences offer an opportunity to keep New Zealand’s economic comeback on track.
“Business events are very well catered for in that respect,” he says. “Professional trade shows and exhibitions offer probably the most controlled environment to begin an economic recovery in terms of an event class,” he adds.
“Professional attendees are easy to contact trace – they’ve been through a registration process after all – and they’re a disciplined audience because they’re professional attendees coming to be educated about what’s happening in their sectors.”
“It’s not like a rock concert.”
So, what are the next steps for better events? And how can modern tech serve audiences and organisers once congregation restrictions ease?
That would be the ‘hybrid event’, or gatherings that combine in-person, ‘live’ physical events with digital elements – often including virtual guests, streaming content and digital discussions.
“As we’ve been coming out of Lockdown, we’re doing a lot of broadcast work, very much in that hybrid space,” says Glubb. “In fact, I’d say most of what we’re doing at the moment has got a filmed, broadcast or interactive element. Actually, I can think of very few events that we’ve got planned in the next six months where they are pure physical events – almost all of them have got a broadcast element to them.”
The combination of live, ‘in-person’ events, with digital elements such as live streaming and virtual panelists, can be powerful tools for forming connections and increasing reach. After all, virtual participation allows A-list celebrities and world experts to interact with audiences and each other without the expense and time obligation that comes with international travel – an unlikely proposition at the current moment anyway.
Online participation can include everything from Twitter discussion, to chatroom breakout groups, with online audiences joining in-person guests to provide live, in-the-moment feedback.
Of course, smartphone ubiquity lets event attendees participate en masse via custom event-specific mobile applications, offering suggestions, accessing virtual helpdesks and sitemaps, and submitting questions to speakers digitally – instead of passing around a potentially-hazardous microphone.
“There’s an entire event app ecosystem which is really well developed,” says Glubb.
“There’s not much in terms of those interactive live event or broadcast event capability that somebody hasn’t built already, but the trick is to be really clear about what you want and then to find the right capability or platform to deliver that.
“That can be a challenge because there are hundreds, if not thousands of event apps and technologies out there.”
It’s all opportunity, but one with a significant new layer of complexity for those tasked with putting it all together and pulling it all off. In-person guests will still demand a top-notch experience after all, and it’s easy for virtual guests to feel like they’re missing out on something. Making sure both audiences feel satisfied with the experience is crucial.
“You’ve got to think about what your brand does and how you’re going to represent that,” says Helen Wrightson, executive producer (and owner) at The Stream Shop.
“Audiences are sophisticated about these kinds of offerings, so if you’re going to hold people’s attention, you have to produce something that’s of a quality that people are going to actually want
“If you want to impress people you have to have a professional product.”
Return on investment
All that participation uses up a lot of ones and zeros. Whether its data from mobile device users participating in Q+A sessions at the venue or accessing metrics from online audiences, capturing feedback and behavioral information brings significant benefits.
“You’re using platforms that let you see the analytics as you’re running the events, so can see what people are responding to and where the drop-offs are occurring,” says Glubb.
“You can basically see what people like and what they don’t like. When did the most people engage? When did people decide to leave? That’s good data that helps design future experiences.”
And once the party’s over, the challenge is to turn what you’ve captured from your event and extract the most value from it.
With the right planning, hybrid events provide rich opportunities for content creation.
“You have the ability to output a lot of content after an event,” says Wrightson. “The sky’s the limit and it really just depends on how far you take it.”
“Use all of your social media, use eDM marketing, use whatever you’ve got to direct people to the content. It could be a highlights package for the media, but it also doesn’t have to be breaking news. There are often lots of things you can create that are still going to have relevance months later.”
And that ability to generate ongoing value is music to the ears of cash-strapped marketers eager to meet ROI targets. With an economy in disarray, bang for buck is imperative.
“The big theme for everyone at the moment is return on investment and efficiency,” says Glubb. “There is a real focus out there on not spending money unnecessarily or being gratuitous with budgets.”
“But the reach and efficiency [of hybrid events] is really strong. Not only do you have an infinitely, scalable online audience – as well as a studio audience – but then you can create content from that event as well. So, if it’s done right, hybrid events can work very well from both an experience perspective and a return-on-investment perspective.”
“The key is to be clear about what outcomes you want from the start. The delivery mechanism might be a little bit different from what you’re used to with a purely physical event, so one of the key things to be really honest about is what you’re trying to deliver.”
And for organisations watching their carbon footprint, online-only events certainly receive the green tick.
The new normal
Is it time to radically reimagine the event of the future? Maybe, but whatever digital elements are added to the mix, it just might be that in-person, live events won’t be abandoned any time soon – pandemic permitting. There’s certainly an appetite. Recent research from the United States finds 83 percent of people disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic saying they miss attending in-person meetings and conventions. Almost 80 percent say that when the threat of Covid-19 passes they plan to attend “as many or more” live events than before.
“I think that people will always want to meet face-to-face,” says Spillane. “Even looking into the future there’s always going to be value in that.
“Seeing product firsthand, meeting people face-to-face and developing that rapport, that’s how Kiwis are, especially if they’re going to go and purchase some major capext. They really want to kick the tires and meet the supplier and understand the support that’s going to be behind the product.
“And you don’t achieve that as effectively, I believe, exclusively in the online world.”
The effects of Covid-19 are likely to continue for years, with authorities warning that restrictions on mass gatherings will likely be a big part of the new normal.
“What we’re seeing is as an appetite to congregate once again,” says Spillane. “We’ve begun to re-recruit and our numbers are getting closer to what they were. Right now, our main focus is rebuilding confidence in mass gatherings. But Kiwis have always been pretty resilient and I’m hearing some great industry talk and excitement around upcoming events.
“In terms of investment and appetite around the world, the demand for face-to-face trade shows is very high still. So, everyone still sees that it will have a role, and the events industry will eventually return on a global scale.
“But what we’re trying to say now is that people out there really need to support their sector. We’ve been charged with putting on events that are going to help each of these sectors recover, and I think it’s really everyone’s duty to get out there and support the industry.”
Where possible, that’s what people are doing. It seems that not even a contagious global pandemic can quell the demand for genuine human connection.
“If anything, I think people’s desire to meet with each other is probably much greater than it was prior to the Lockdown,” says Glubb. “We’re actually finding that when we’re getting people together in a face-to-face context, the enthusiasm is there.
“We’re getting far less drop off in terms of audience; people aren’t reluctant at all to turn up to something; and they’re more enthusiastic than they were pre-Lockdown, probably for obvious reasons.
“No matter what happens, brands will still need to get their message out,” he says.
“People still need to reach their audiences. But we just need to find an efficient way to do it in a way that is respectful of the environment we’re operating in.”
This article was originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of NZ Marketing. Click here to subscribe.