Anyone who’s planning a conference, trade show or other large event knows all too well that in-person isn’t realistic until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. Recent virus spikes in many states, public health warnings, reopening rollbacks and ongoing fears of crowds and tight spaces are forcing cancellations of face-to-face events.
A June MarTech Today survey of 300 marketers showed in-person events are a nonstarter for at least the remainder of this year. Sixty-nine percent of marketers said that without a vaccine, they would only attend virtual events through 2020.
Marketers, event planners and organizations are primarily shifting to virtual environments for the foreseeable future. Others are hoping for in-person events but are making contingency plans. That often means planning three versions of an event – in-person, virtual or a hybrid approach.
“We won’t see a significant comeback until a vaccine is widely available or there’s some kind of rapid cure,” says Lauren Cramer, chief event planner at Turn-Key Events in Boston. “It will be all virtual for the rest of this year and probably a big chunk of next year.”
Part of the problem is that no one knows if there’s a “safe” number of in-person participants, says Billy Boughey, president of Elevate Experiences in Norcross, Georgia. “Is it 10 people? 50? 100? Should it be zero?”
“I don’t think I’ll be planning any large events – say, over 100 people – in person for at least the next three months, if not more,” says Chantelle Attarian, events manager at the Durst Organization, a commercial and residential real estate company in New York City.
One of the largest trade shows in the U.S. – PACK EXPO International – is scheduled Nov. 8-11 at Chicago’s McCormick Place. Organizers are planning an in-person event with virtual components and will switch to an all-virtual format if need be, based on input from state and city officials. They’ll announce a final decision in August.
VerityStream, a provider credentialing software company based in Louisville, Colorado, holds several small in-person regional user group meetings for customers each year, along with a large in-person national user group conference. The company canceled the regional meetings and moved the national conference online based on feedback from customer surveys.
“We pulled the best of our regional and national meetings and are committed to providing that much-needed content virtually,” says Andrea Schmitz, VerityStream’s director, client marketing.
Customers told the company they couldn’t commit to a multiday or single full-day virtual event and preferred bite-size pieces of content. In response, VerityStream scheduled the national conference July 29-Nov. 20. Each week, the company will livestream a two-hour session.
The conference is free, and customers can register for as few or as many sessions as they want. Curated content will include customer spotlights and success stories, software tips and tricks and industry-related topics.
“We hold virtual town halls and a pretty rigorous webinar program, but our regional meetings and national conference have always been face to face,” Schmitz says. “We think it will be well received.”
The Durst Organization also pivoted to virtual earlier this year. The company began offering live, interactive classes and events for its luxury apartment residents in March. Topics range from cooking and art to mixology and floral arranging. The company has also provided magic shows and other virtual activities for kids.
“We’ll be virtual through at least August,” Attarian says. “Depending on [public health] guidance and the restrictions that are in place then, we’ll decide how to move forward. We’re certainly not looking to be the first company to plan an in-person event in New York.”
Recreating an In-Person Experience
One of the challenges of virtual events is replicating the experiences of in-person events. It can be difficult to connect with people without face-to-face interaction. VerityStream customers are enthusiastic about being in the same meeting space with like-minded people, sharing tips, ideas and challenges, and socializing.
“The most important thing for us is to make sure that we’re creating avenues for people to connect with each other,” Schmitz says.
VerityStream is using an event app to that has network features, including messaging and a social wall, where participants can post updates, photos and other content. The company is planning trivia games and other activities, as well as live question-and-answer sessions, to enhance engagement. Other conferences use a combination of these, along with polls, giveaways, prizes, breakout rooms and music between sessions to drive participation.
“In some ways, you get more participation virtually than you would at an in-person event because people can be shy,” Cramer says. “When you’re in an audience with 500 other people, you might be afraid to raise your hand and ask a question. Online, you don’t have that issue.”
The Durst Organization found that sending participants kits before its online cooking and other classes improves participation and engagement, Attarian says. For cooking classes, the kits contain the recipes and ingredients for the meals the chef will teach them how to make. Participants follow along with the chef during each class and show their progress to one another. They can also ask questions along the way and enjoy their meals together afterward.
For the mixology classes, participants could select the kind of cocktails they preferred – salty or sweet – and then received kits that contained the ingredients based on their selections.
“Sending them physical kits shows you’re invested in them, and they’re more likely to participate when they can leave with something they’ve made,” Attarian says.
Cramer suggested companies send virtual conference and event participants promotional items beforehand, such as pens, mugs and other company-branded items that they’d normally hand out in person.
Another challenge of a virtual format is that it typically doesn’t produce the same amount of revenue as an in-person event. People don’t want to pay as much for the experience when they’re watching from home on their computers or from their desks at work.
“There’s a perception of much more value when you attend a live event,” Boughey says. “When you’re at home, it’s like, ‘I created the environment. My kids are running around and I’m wearing my headphones. How do I make this work?’”
Cramer believes companies did themselves an injustice early on by making virtual events free because they panicked. COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn made businesses worry about losing participation and revenue.
“They were making a lot of things free,” she says. “I don’t think that’s necessary. If you’re providing valuable content that’s going to help someone, why not charge? You were going to charge for a live event.”
Organizations are being creative with pricing strategies for virtual conferences. Cramer signed up for a digital event that asked registrants to choose what they wanted to pay from three options. Cramer picked the middle option and said afterward she would have paid more based on the quality of the speakers.
Companies are also experimenting with early bird sales, flash sales and two-for-one pricing when pivoting to a virtual format. It remains an open question whether people will be willing to pay the same price for an online-only conference as they would for an in-person event.
“I think it depends on the experience they’re offering attendees,” Cramer says.
Hybrid on the Horizon
Cramer and other planners predict that in the near future, we’ll see hybrid events that feature in-person and online participation options, similar to what PACK EXPO International organizers are planning for November. Those who don’t feel safe or don’t want to deal with temperature checks, face coverings and social distancing can stay put and still enjoy event content and networking from their homes or offices.
Participating virtually will also help companies save money on business travel and hotels. Many companies have frozen spending because of the tanking economy, so budgetary concerns could put a damper on face-to-face attendance. Hybrid events are the best of both worlds, giving organizations the greatest flexibility when planning.
Marketers Must Adapt
Marketers must also adapt to fully virtual or hybrid events. They may have less time to promote them as organizers are pivoting quickly to changing circumstances related to COVID-19. Many conferences have been pushed back by months or even into 2021. In addition, marketers must convince prospective participants that an online or hybrid conference is worth attending.
Since many online events cost less or are free, it may take extra time and effort to get people to sign up and participate. Multiple calls to action through direct mail campaigns, banner ads, landing pages, and paid and organic social media campaigns will help drive participation.
“Making the case that virtual is compelling enough to participate in can be challenging,” Valentinsen says.
With hybrid events, organizations must also make attendees feel safe. Promotional content must spell out the safety measures that will be in place, how organizers are working with venues and hotel staff to sanitize and secure meeting spaces, hotel rooms, lounges and restaurants.
Top Tips for Virtual Events
Before organizations pivot to virtual events, they need to think about their goals and what they want attendees to experience, Cramer says. Too often, companies – especially those that haven’t done virtual events – make the mistake of looking at software platforms, apps and equipment first.
“They need to consider the attendees’ journey,” Cramer says. “What is the experience that attendees are going to have from the moment they register until the end of the event? Once you map that out, you can determine what platforms will fit your needs.”
In the switch to virtual, it’s also a good idea to reduce the time for each session. Screen fatigue is real, and people’s attention spans aren’t as strong with virtual as they are with in-person events. If you planned a one-hour keynote, for example, cut it to 30 minutes. Don’t let speakers talk fast to try to compensate for short presentations. They may say they need more time, but participants will zone out.
Event planners who pivoted to online-only programming earlier this year agree that the No. 1 thing companies can do to prepare for virtual events is dry runs from start to finish – and well beforehand to allow time for adjustments. Don’t wait until the last minute or, worse, skip prep altogether.
“If you don’t rehearse, you’re setting yourself up for failure,” Cramer says.
Similarly, plan for additional tech rehearsal time. That includes testing all equipment, making sure the internet bandwidth is sufficient, checking lighting and cameras, ensuring presenters’ and speakers’ equipment is working, and so on.
“That’s where I’ve seen the most failures,” Cramer says. “If you were rehearsed and prepared, you would have had a phone backup that was already connected and all you’d have to do is say, ‘One moment, please,’ put in your earpiece and keep going, versus, ‘Oh, my gosh, I got disconnected.’”
Virtual events call for professional equipment and production. Placing a webcam in a corner and livestreaming won’t cut it. Invest in an online event registration tool, a video conference tool for speakers and webinars, and a livestream tool for real-time activities and to engage participants.
Currently, no single platform will do it all, but that may change soon.
“There’s a lot of room for innovation with virtual events,” Valentinsen says. “In the next six months, I think we’ll start to see some of that.”
Attarian recommends surveying participants after each virtual event to get their feedback and identify areas for improvement. Ensuring that attendees are satisfied and asking for suggestions for tweaks and future topics will help companies create a great experience for future attendees.
In-Person Events Will Return
After enduring forced isolation, webinars and Zoom chats, people will crave the face-to-face engagement of in-person events, Boughey says. Eventually, in-person conferences and events will return, but it’s probably not going to happen before a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available.
“There is such a longing for face-to-face interaction,” he says.
“It’s priceless to have that face-to-face time,” she says. “Right now, however, everybody’s acting out of an abundance of caution and trying to navigate the unknown.”
In closing, Attarian offered advice for planners who may be rethinking their approaches to events: “The reason I’ve been continuing to work as an events manager during this time is because I was agile and I didn’t hold on to the past when things pivoted,” she says. “I embraced change. Use this time to learn a new skill and be open about what it could lead to.”
Now, Over to You
Are virtual events a good substitute for meeting people in person? When will you feel comfortable attending in-person events? Let us know in the comments below.