On February 24, Fixation hosted a virtual roundtable—The State of the Events Industry and Where We Go from Here—for a group of industry leaders and event organizers and marketers. Our goal was simple—we wanted to bring a group of clients and colleagues together to discuss critical event industry topics and tackle challenges and considerations faced since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

2020 brought the world (as we know it) to a screeching halt and few industries were hit harder than the events industry. But a silver lining of the global pandemic, unquestionably, is the creativity that has come out of it.

We have seen many of our clients and others in the association world pivot and move forward offering digital events of various sizes for their audiences. (We’re hopeful that our clients will be able to host in-person events beginning later this year. Many are forging ahead with those plans now.) Looking at these new virtual events, we noticed that “success” has looked different for each of them, so we wanted to find out what has worked for our industry colleagues so far. We were interested in lessons learned, insight into outcomes and, of course, where we go from here.

Our attendees came ready to participate. We appreciated their willingness to share their wins and their struggles. Many thanks to our partners and friends at Bear Analytics for hosting the virtual event data session. Here are the key takeaways from our four breakout sessions.

Virtual Event Data

Disruption is still the theme for events in 2021 as there is still a lot to be determined in terms of in-person meetings. The financial aspect remains uncertain and it feels like too much has changed to go back to the way things were.

It’s no surprise, virtual events are packed with data. In 2020, virtual events opened doors to new audiences who otherwise wouldn’t been able to attend—which is exciting. But show organizers still need to attract the right individuals to satisfy exhibitors and sponsors.

The team at Bear noticed several trends in 2020:

  • Event reach is greater than ever (international, younger employees)—there’s a diversification of people to reach. Gen Z is coming into their careers. Virtual appeals to those with no travel budget.

  • Conversion timelines are meaningfully changed. Virtual attendees are waiting until the last minute to register and, with no pricing pressure from airlines/hotels, timelines are no longer based on making travel plans or deadlines.

  • Exhibitor ROI for virtual is a challenge. This will be the data opportunity in 2021 into 2022. Provide transparent engagement reports back to exhibitors.

  • Unfortunately, the future of meetings and shows is still very much to be determined. The biggest brands are moving into a hybrid model for their events. And one of the biggest challenges in 2021 is figuring out a way to showcase products/events all year long.

Hybrid Events

Hybrid events have been around for over 10 years. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was the first government agency to host a hybrid event back in 2011.

As event organizers plan for this year, many will add hybrid elements to their live events. But there are still a lot of unknowns in the planning and execution of these types of gatherings.

In this session, our attendees wanted to hear from their peers about their plans for hybrid events. Were their organizations planning a fully virtual element, or just adding a virtual element to the in-person event? What content would be part of the virtual element? And how would they effectively promote both the live and virtual elements of their event?

Here is what we learned:

  • Many of our participants want to focus first on promoting their in-person events. Most noted planning to announce the virtual option later in the promotion cycle.

  • The group felt it was important to continue to have very targeted messaging for their attendees. Once the hybrid element has been announced, attendees need to have clear expectations for what is part of the virtual offering and what isn’t.

  • Many were still debating the best way to price their event. Should the price to attend be the same for both in person and virtual? Would charging the same for both make it easier for attendees to pivot to hybrid if necessary?
  • Our participants have data and analytics from their 2020 virtual events, and they will be using these to better guide their 2021 gatherings.

  • And finally, no matter what the industry, the experience of an in-person event is impossible to replace. 

Campaign Cycles

With virtual events taking over the landscape, the number one question clients ask is about campaign spend and timing as well as differentiating marketing strategies for virtual, hybrid and live events.

Marketing a virtual event is much different than a live event. The campaign cycles are shorter and, in our experience, the spend is often much less. Over the last year, we have developed benchmarks as we go along. For instance, for one of our clients, the breakpoint would usually be five weeks out for 50% registrations. With virtual events, we are now seeing that break point a few days before or even the day of the event! If this is your first virtual rodeo, new benchmarks won’t be established for several iterations of an event. And the time between decision to attend and conversion could be weeks apart.

We have found you still need to set aside spend for the awareness factor and this should carry through to all touchpoints. Shows have had to rebrand different hybrid/virtual identities. Don’t assume your attendees just need a few weeks to commit.

Some of the key takeaways from this session include:

  • Attendees lead busy lives. Make sure they know when your event is so they can commit the time and attention that is needed. Provide a calendar invite to trigger 24 hours before for event, or for your prospects, set something up so the invite triggers before any registration deadlines.

  • Make sure to align your expectations for the event with your attendees’ expectations. Attendee time commitments can be hard. We can’t assume attendees will spend all day on your virtual show floor, but we need to get attendees to invest a reasonable amount of time during the event. We’ve seen hit-or-miss success with virtual education and networking. What can we do to help exhibitors and attendees get the leads and insights they need and make them want to come back next time? What if the opportunity to buy/sell was extended and there was a way to keep your audiences engaged all year long?

  • With shorter campaign lead times and smaller spend available, our clients have seen success focusing on email and digital campaigns. The sweet spot for building awareness for these shorter campaigns begins about 6-8 weeks prior to the event. We have found it is important to have some ads running at a lower spend to build awareness early in the campaign and to save the big dollars for the weeks leading up to the event when people are more ready to commit. In some cases, where a client’s digital platforms will be open after the show ends, we have recommended a post-show digital and email campaign as traffic to these platforms remains steady.

  • After the event, be sure to remind your attendees that content is still open on your event platform. Our clients have been surprised just how busy their platforms are after the event is over. Be sure to add post-show emails to your email calendar and consider a separate digital campaign to push people to content they should revisit or may have missed during the live event.

Live Events: Decision-Making, Safety and Experience

All eyes are on associations planning live events for this year. There are many key considerations for going live, and here is what we learned during this session:

  • Many states continue to have travel restrictions and caps on how many people can gather in one place at a time. Participants in our session cited a reduction of registration goals and budgets from 20-45%.

  • Our attendees wished there were a “template” for how live events will work in a post-COVID world. One of our clients is really looking forward to seeing how World of Concrete and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona go.

  • If you build it, will they come? Surveying is a “box you have to check” but really isn’t informing decisions at this point. Everyone is saying they want to come, but will they?

  • With registration caps constantly changing (and different in all cities), how do you measure who can really attend? And if the caps are so strict, is it worth it? Can business really get done?

  • Some live events have happened, but those have been outside in parking lots, and on a much smaller scale, in cities that are more relaxed in their pandemic policies. But can this model be sustained?

  • How do you ensure attendee safety and health on site? Liability has come front and center, multi-step reminders and checks are necessary. Temperature checks, vaccine passports, and onsite COVID-19 testing are all things event organizers need to consider.

  • In terms of marketing a live event, our pre-COVID strategies for showing packed session rooms and exhibit halls has been exchanged for photos not showing crowds, focusing more on products and one-on-one conversations. Try some more research-based messaging on the invaluable nature of in-person exploration of products and ideas.

  • When it comes to generating revenue, everyone needs a win! Registration pricing is all over the place—some staying the same as pre-COVID rates, some trying to justify the increase based on the reduction in pricing in 2020 when events moved to virtual. Take a careful look at what your industry/audience will bear and balance the need for revenue with the need for a successful turnout when you go live.

Thanks again to our participants. We hope to be able to do this again later this year to hear more about your successes and lessons learned in 2021.

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