There is no doubt that the events industry took a beating in the first half of this year with the onslaught of COVID-19. Event organisers and speakers have had to change gears, innovate, and quickly adapt to new realities. In this Altafy Exclusive, we speak to eight members of the global events community to find out how they are coping with this “new normal”, and rethinking their business models to become more nimble and stronger in the coming months.

In December 2019, professional speaker Jerome Joseph was thrilled to see his speaking calendar fully booked till July this year.

However, in February, cancellations started to stream in as the global events industry took a major hit from social distancing measures and restrictions in public gatherings due to COVID-19.

“Clients were calling me and saying, hey, I think we need to postpone. We need to wait and see what happens. And so I said, fine, let’s postpone it to maybe April or May. I’m sure things will get better by then. But it got worse and from that point onwards, every single in-person booking that I had all around the world started to either be postponed or canceled,” says Joseph, who is the CEO of The Brand Theatre Worldwide.

Fifty-six percent of respondents in a recent survey by Global DMC Partners predict that they will operate 25 percent or less of their 2020 live events. Sixty-nine percent plan to go virtual or incorporate virtual aspects.

Thankfully for Joseph, going virtual was not an entirely new venture, as he had been offering such sessions to some of his clients for the past five years. When the restrictions came into play, Joseph and his team decided to go full throttle in this new direction and take their virtual offerings to the next level. “We realised that our clients still had a budget to spend on training and development. We said we need to do more and this meant that we needed to look at a complete transformation of our business. We got on the phone, spoke to clients, and said that we are making sure that everything that we offered could be translated to a virtual platform.”

Breaking old business models

Live events were driven by large audience numbers and organisers are now being pushed to find new ways to get those numbers back, or at least get closer to them.

Some communities are still in lock-down while others have restrictions starting to open up. “For those who are starting to open up, you will find that people are only comfortable to safely and carefully explore their immediate surroundings, and it will take time for them to get on an airplane or walk into a trade show of 3,000 people,” says Greg Crandall, Senior Vice President, Global Activation Team, PICO Group.

Crandall sums up the top challenge facing organisers today: “How can I deliver a large audience today? How do I make people feel part of a community again and how can I create a hybrid experience that is engaging and valuable for online audiences and yet valuable, safe and comfortable for live audiences?”

El Kwang,  Founder and Chief Explorer, Untangled, agrees. “Event planners who understand brand strategies will be able to strike a balance by using a combination of virtual and small face to face events as part of their marketing and sponsorship mix.”

“Event attendees will be highly selective with the events they would consider attending so more attention will be required in developing content that is engaging and unique and sets you apart from the competition,” Kwang adds.

Old financial models have been broken, and many businesses are feeling the strain in their cash flows.“With events not starting to bring in cash flow to the same levels as pre-COVID-19, and many borders closed, we are moving into a traditionally busy period without those baseline events plus the high value end of year events,” observes Deanna Varga, Managing Director and Founder, Mayvin Global.

“Many suppliers in the sector are small business and /or operating on small margins. With events cancelling or postponing, many are operating without cash flow and limited pipeline in sight,” Varga explains. “Will we have the same level and calibre of suppliers on the other side that can provide the same calibre of support to the industry?”

On the positive side, Varga says that the pandemic has encouraged event organisers to rethink how they can add value to their clientele. “This is a positive challenge as it’s making us all re-evaluate how we address the problems of the customer, the event planner, the association or the corporate special events producer. It’s invigorating and frightening simultaneously,” says Varga, whose company focuses on creative revenue generation for the business events, tourism, and arts sectors.

Professional speaker Andy Lopata who used to focus on in-house training programmes, is now moving to a business model centred on mentoring, which can be delivered at a distance. 

“Remote speaking is available and I have been delivering a number of sessions but it’s not at the core of our marketing. I have written a book in lockdown that is designed to position my expertise for mentoring sessions, and am working on a podcast and online learning to accompany them,” says Lopata, who is also the Fellows Director and a Board Member of the Professional Speaking Association of the UK and Ireland.

“In short, I’m finally developing a customer journey that I should have had for years, so I’m hoping to come out of this period with a much more robust and process-driven business,” says Lopata.

According to  Lopata, businesses have started to thrive again. “I have heard of some event companies who have worked out that they can reduce cost substantially by running events online and enjoy increased margins from such events. That discovery may drive the future of the industry more than even social distancing rules.”

 The birth of virtual and hybrid events

Virtual and hybrid have caught on in a big way due to COVID-19, and the past few months have been a period of experimentation as organisers sought the best ways to engage a virtual audience.

A definite plus for both speakers and organisers is the ability of such events to reach out to new and untapped audience markets. “The good thing about virtual events is that anyone can join from all over the world, and I’ve been able to see and connect with people who I normally would not connect with because they are not here to meet in person,” says professional speaker, Cathy Johnson.

“I think the technology will evolve even more over the next 12-18 months to where online events will be much more fun and less costly . The global economy will continue to deteriorate so that companies will look to reduce their meeting and convention costs by doing them online, says Johnson, who is also the president of Asia Professional Speakers Singapore.

Another finding from the recent survey by Global DMC Partners revealed that while many live events are pivoting to virtual this year, virtual is not considered to be a long-term replacement for face-to-face programmes. Live events and hybrid solutions continue to be in high demand, the survey found.

“There will still be a need for in-person interaction in this new normal, but the parameters and surroundings for this interaction will be rethought. I predict that this will usher in a new era of innovative event organising,” says Gemma Edwards, Senior Director, Marketing & Events, Canalys.

Indeed, presenting a virtual event goes beyond sitting in front of your computer screen and holding a discussion via Zoom. Organisers of virtual events now have numerous digital solutions and platform providers to choose from to create a more immersive and engaging experience.

“The truth is that the platform providers only provide the technology, whereas the need is really experience design. These digital technology teams are not skilled in agenda design, content creation, speaker support, gamification of concepts. They’re a platform to park my content on.  So there is going to be a gap that needs to be quickly filled,” says Crandall.

According to Crandall, switching an event format from live to virtual is not a one to one exchange. The digital experience will have to be designed in conjunction with the live experience, and the two are completely different beasts. 

“A live event programming can handle 8 hours a day, for 3-5 days, with sessions 60-90 minutes long. An online audience can only last a couple hours, with 30-40 minutes long,” Crandall says.

“There is a science and an art to this, and everyone is racing to configure a powerful, engaging, professional, experience for the online audience,” he adds.

Saying no to discounts

Pricing has come under scrutiny as event organisers and speakers shift their offerings to virtual platforms. Many clients have been requesting discounts, but are these warranted?

The industry players that Altafy spoke to have been approaching this dilemma in a steadfast manner.

Professional speaker Joseph was quick to move away from offering discounts when he realised that providing a quality virtual experience is even more work than presenting at a live event.

Joseph says that he has been investing in equipment and technology for his virtual studio set-up, and a single presentation involves intense multitasking. “I’m presenting to you right in front of me, and I’ve got three screens, one to one over another mini screen. I need to interact,  type when I need to talk to you, and share screens. Everything happens at the same time. I also have to imagine that you are there with me in person. So the work, in my opinion, is a lot harder, and attendees are getting the same value.”

Johnson agrees. “Clients have asked for discounts but I’m not doing that. I do online coaching, training and speaking, and it takes the same amount of work from me to do it online as in-person.  In some ways it requires more work to do some things online and  in some ways, online can be better.  For example when it comes to training, participants are more likely to be engaged and learning,” she says.

Alternative pricing models or value models are more sustainable in the long term, says Varga.

“Pricing models and negotiation has to be mutually beneficial and viable. Discounting is generally possible when you have high margins (or need to move stock) – which in our sector, we generally don’t.”

However, being a bit generous with your time and effort and supporting an industry peer, could  reap rewards. “I have put on a few panels, both within the professional speaking community and for my clients and wider network. These have been a ‘give’ – something I’ve offered for no fee to help people through this crisis. It’s been interesting that probably a higher proportion of each audience has each followed up with me personally after the events, ” shares Lopata.

Virtual and hybrid events can be profitable, says Crandall. “Brands want access to customers, customers want access to brands.  As long as you’re building experiences that deliver for both parties you have an opportunity to make money.  Just focus on exceptional experience design, deliver powerful content, and be the connector between brands and audiences,” he says.

Making the most of your downtime

The business challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has naturally lowered  the morale of many employees. Forty-three percent of events and hospitality businesses in Australia reported that their company team culture has been affected during this time, according to a recent survey by The Monday Group. Mental health and team motivation were also reported to be key concerns.

At Canalys, constant communication is helping to keep global team building and morale high, shares Edwards. “We are conscious of everyone’s different environments and the impact of mental health on all of our employees. Every week, we ask one Canalys employee to take a video of themselves explaining the biggest challenges they have faced while adjusting to life under lockdown, as well as one new thing they have tried or learned,” she says.

 “From tips about staying productive working from a home office that doubles as a playground, to stories about finding companionship in an automated lawn mower. It’s been wonderful to hear the stories of our colleagues and to gain a perspective into the challenges of their daily lives,” Edwards explains.

Professional speaker Fredrik Haren has been using this period to re-energise and reconnect with his family. “I always take a few months off every year from speaking to be with my family, so I have just used this time as “normal family down time” especially with kids being homeschooled.”

Haren has also been using this downtime to build new content. “I am doing tons of interviews to get a lot of new content, and building relationships with potential clients that I have not worked with before.”

Varga encourages event organisers to upskill, explore and be curious. “Now is the time for them to look outside the sector. Look at the innovation that’s happening in other sectors – how could this be applied to business events or your current model? The gin distilleries are the perfect example, moving to hand sanitiser. I’m not suggesting they change production, but what is the base operation that can be re-purposed or re-aligned? It’s really exciting what might just come out of the other side,” she says.

Keep talking to your customers, know their problems and try using your skillset to create solutions for them, advises Kwang.  “Connect with your associations and local governments so you can make fact-based decisions. If you really love what you do, mentally there is no ‘down time’. Don’t take your talent for granted.  Schedule proper ‘off days’ to maintain focus. Be nimble and ready to move again.”

Crandall concludes, “Now is the time to focus on your own transformation.”    


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