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Eight Characteristics of a Successful COVID-era Event

As event organizers, we’ve had nearly two years of experience dealing with COVID. We’ve dealt with the postponements, cancellations, and (with mixed results) the re-opening of face-to-face events. This hard-earned experience can be applied to our upcoming COVID-era events.
 
I have been asked to develop a list of the essential qualities needed to overcome the current challenges and thrive in the future. In no particular order they are:
 
1.   Closeness with attendee audience
The best events anticipate attendee needs in terms of content, format, speakers, and networking opportunities. How have they achieved this? The organizers are either part of the community they serve or they have invested in understanding that community and remaining current. These events have recaptured the excitement associated with learning and meeting with others with similar interests and offerings. Another test is whether your attendees know you are and whether they like you.
 
2.   Great negotiation skills
The COVID era requires you to go to the mat with hotels and convention centers regarding current and future event contracts. If you have existing pre-COVID agreements, you have some leverage. If not, you’ll need to determine the loyalty of your hotel and convention center partners. You will need to assess the long game for your company and ensure your business and legal teams can deliver the flexibility necessary to manage your future risk.
 
3.   Digital options for exhibitors
Do you have a digital strategy for your face-to-face exhibitors that complements your events, enabling you to offer leads to key customers as your in-person events return to full health? For event companies to thrive, they must not put all their eggs in one basket.
 
4.   Resilient event team
You and your team have gone through hell in the last two years. Ensure that everyone at your company cares enough to do the work needed to regain success and, if necessary, either reassign or jettison those who are just along for the ride. Nurture those relationships that may have gone without attention. Re-engage with people outside the company to spark excitement about the promise of re-energized shows.
 
5.   Great salespeople
Do your exhibitors trust your sales staff? Will they take sales calls? How well can your sales team position bad news and do the best for your event and your customers? The key to surviving COVID is having competent salespeople who can drive revenue both in good times and bad, rather than order takers who fold when times get tough.
 
6.   Great product
What are the nature and goal of your events? If you don’t know, you’re in trouble. Start by refreshing your mission statement to ensure it matches the show you are producing. Does your event team know what’s new and exciting in the market? Is that information incorporated in the event and its messaging? Are you trying anything new with the event format? Is your event worth 10x the amount that attendees are being asked to pay? Aspire to make your event a ‘must attend,’ a club to which only 5% of all events belong.
 
7.   Great marketing
You segment your lists and know the characteristics of your best attendee/visitors. You have the analytics to see the trends, supported by databases that are frequently cleaned, updated, and expanded. More importantly, you know your attendees personally.
 
Your messaging is engaging, tailored to the audience, and exciting, rather than trite. You offer valuable content that adds to your targets’ understanding of the market. Thus, you attract event attendees vs. engaging in marketing that pesters prospects. Your pricing policies further guide them to act in their best interest.
 
Your marketing staff is trained on the latest tools and supporting tactics – both analytic and communications – that can deliver the kind of scalable marketing necessary to capture attention and motivate prospects to respond and register for your event.
 
8.   A watchful eye on ROI when making decisions.
With costs increasing, make sure that every expense has a connection to revenue. Can you afford to hire the $8K cartoonist for your event? Look at how much you are charging to exhibit or attend and evaluate whether it’s too much or too little. Create new revenue streams by adding programs that are worthy of additional fees: workshops, certification programs, golf outings, etc. Sharpen your pencil regarding costs and get creative regarding programs.
 
You may have other attributes of success that I have not mentioned here. If so, feel free to let me know. Use this list as a guide and you’ll find it becomes easier to create and execute successful events.
 
As always, I wish you good luck as we all navigate 2022.

Can Your Event Marketing Team Avert COVID-Driven Attendance Disasters?

For most event marketers, the answer is no. Having been trained ’by the book,’ they tend to struggle with responding to negative results in a timely, proper way. Too often, they persist with plans that are not working or, as the event looms ever closer, they become paralyzed with fear.

 

Then what happens? Senior staff must get involved and muster the resources needed to salvage the situation. Given the surging and receding of the different COVID variants, your professional reputation and the value of your brand depend on your marketing staff’s ability to attract a crowd to your events. That remains true irrespective of the outside factors that make it difficult to do. 

 

How can you equip your staff to be successful? Here are my six keys:

1.  Ensure that you hire people who can pivot or are capable of learning how to do so. If it’s the latter, make sure there’s a plan to train them.

2.  Have at least one marketing staff member who has got the creativity – and the dispensation – to change course as needed.

3.  Require that your entire marketing staff is plugged into the market your event serves. They need to have the right connections with whom they can brainstorm new approaches or adjust tactics as needed. The “right” connections include your prospective attendees, as they can provide a true sense of their needs and how those needs could be addressed by your event.

4. Insist that the entire marketing staff is up to date on the latest tools and techniques, making the necessary investment in the training needed to achieve this. That is, when you are not fighting fires.

5. Have a marketing plan with milestones and metrics so you can analyze results and take appropriate action if the established targets (e.g., attendee registrations, page views, email opens, and click-throughs, etc.) are not being hit.

6. Ensure that every event marketing budget has a ‘Plan B’ allocation, representing the money that only gets spent if things are going wrong. 

 

The New Normal for successful event marketers requires the agility, boldness, and absence of fear that can handle the turbulence that COVID has thrown at us. And there’s no end in sight to that turbulence. 

 

Given that, will you do what’s needed to prepare and provision your marketing staff to succeed?



Are “Bad” Events a Necessary Evil, Given the Times We’re In?

Hotels and convention centers are getting smarter. During 2020 and 2021, the terms of pre-COVID agreements governed most event operations, allowing organizers to cancel events with few repercussions. The event venues had little recourse to recover their financial losses, given the force majeure provisions that were part of most agreements. But having been burnt by those pre-COVID provisions, the venues have adjusted to the new reality. Though they once bore the risk, now we do.
 
We can’t entirely control attendee wariness about traveling to our events. The best we can do is make operations as safe as possible with masking and vaccination policies, message that, and then hope that previous attendees now will generate a level of registrations that is acceptable to exhibitors. But what if attendees are slow to return to our upcoming events? Should we be running poorly attended shows? Can we afford to? Can we afford not to?
 
Can we afford the prospective impact of badly attended events on our reputations? Can we absorb the financial losses should cancellations incur large hotel/convention center penalties? Can we live to fight another day, or will we go out of business?
 
Part of the situation is self-inflicted. Show organizers rarely pay much attention to attendees as we do with our exhibitors, an irony given our dependence upon attendees. We have no show without attendees. Knowing how our attendees think and act, given the everchanging unknowns of today’s environment, is central to staging an event with some degree of confidence as we await a return to normality vs. dealing with the angst and worry of wondering whether an event will have passable attendance until things get better. Of course, understanding exhibitors is a big help, too.
 
Can we afford not to have the pulse of our attendees’ plans, needs, and behavior in these very unsettled times? Our shows are now depending on it.

How To Exceed Attendee Projections During COVID: A Case Study

Since September, I have been touting an event that has managed to do the impossible in these times of COVID: exceed attendee number projections. The event, focused on small magazine publishers, is Super Niche. In existence for more than 15 years, Super Niche was purchased a few years ago by a friend of mine, Ryan Dohrn. A number of people have requested that I write about Super Niche, so I reached out to Ryan and he graciously agreed to share the ‘secret sauce’. Here’s what he had to say:
 
Warwick Davies (WD): What were the principal reasons you decided to purchase Super Niche?
Ryan Dohrn (RD):I did not want to see this event go away after seeing two other national events fold. The post-event feedback was always so good that I knew I could keep it rolling forward. Also, the virtual event during COVID had over 900 in attendance. I could just tell that people wanted to attend really bad. As a speaker at the event for 15 years, I knew that the event had a loyal following. In addition, I knew that the event email database was clean and engaged.
 
WD: Why did you decide to re-launch Super Niche and put it in a location where most of the attendees would have fly to it to get there?
RD: I took all of the past event attendee data and created a heat map to determine where most of the past attendees lived. Then I looked back at past attendance to determine which areas of the country tended to draw a pretty good crowd. Then, I looked in detail at where these attendees will potentially be flying from and which city would be easiest for most past attendees to fly out of. All data led to Denver and Chicago. The Windy City was out due to COVID restrictions. Denver was open for business and the psychological idea of the mountains, fresh air, and wide-open spaces was a marketing theme I could sell.
 
WD: What were the key reasons you exceeded your targeted attendance and sponsor participation in 2021 when on average most events are seeing a 65% decrease in attendance?
RD: I was very careful about the promotions, the location, the content, and the pricing. All the promotions had to be specific to reducing the cost of travel to get people there. The location had to feature wide-open spaces and a marketable idea around not being trapped inside of a hotel. Then, on the pricing, I had to avoid the typical model of the later you register the more you pay. We did a flat-rate pricing that never changed. In addition to that, and probably one of the most important pieces of the puzzle, was excellent content and wonderful experiences. To continue to play off the idea of wide-open spaces, we rented the Denver Broncos stadium for our attendees. There is absolutely no way that our crowd could’ve felt cramped inside the stadium built for 75,000. They had a blast. We also set a standard of excellence for creating experiences at the event.
 
WD: What is your opinion of being part of the community you serve?
RD: I find that one of the secrets of success is not to be an event producer but to be a participant in the community that you serve. That is really the only true way that you can give people what they want. It is very evident to me when someone is just an event producer and not a part of the community they serve. There is a significant mismatch in the alignment of content, events, and other details that I need to make an event a success. If time does not allow you to be a producer that’s also involved in the community, you really need to do your research. I would highly recommend an attendee advisory board that can guide you. Without them, the event could potentially be a mismatch or even worse a failure.
 
WD: What are the characteristics of your audience?
RD: Our audience for the Super Niche Media event tends to span all age groups from 30 to 65. They share a common passion for the media business. They also share a common passion for wanting to have a good time and also wanting to learn. When you can combine fun and learning, you have a winning scenario.
  
WD: What is your advice to event organizers struggling to get attendance?
RD:I find my attendee advisory board and my sponsorship advisory boards are two critical components to my success. In addition to that, I do a ton of surveys! When I say a ton, I mean a ton! I also look very carefully at the feedback I received from the event. This feedback is critical to our operations moving forward. To really get the most out of the feedback from an event you need to do the feedback in real-time and get information while it’s fresh in your attendee’s minds. Then, you have to have a thick skin and understand that you can’t please everyone.
 
WD: What have you learned in 2021 which will help you make your events stronger?
RD: My biggest learning moment was to see the true benefit of adding diversity to my speaker lineups at the event. One of the biggest compliments I received from an attendee was that they truly noticed that there were more women and minorities speaking at the conference this year than ever before. The other learning moment was to locate my event show office in the center of all the action. All too often I see event producers hide the show office in the back hallway away from everything that’s going on. Our goal was to create a place where every attendee knew they could come at any moment of time and ask for help or get a question answered. The final thing I learned in 2021 was that marketing is everything. Creating a robust marketing program using programmatic advertising to target people wherever they are online was a very important part of our success.
 

As you can tell from my interview and the success of Super Niche, Ryan has become an instant industry leader by knowing, anticipating, and becoming an authentic part of his industry. Hats off to him. Hopefully, the rest of us can adopt a similar approach, one that will bring our own events out of the dark.

Good luck with your own!


There’s Only Opportunity

I recently had a call with a long-lost friend. This was someone with whom I had not spoken in more than 15 years. He is someone whose career ran parallel with mine in the trade show space until the sameness of the experience prompted him to ‘step off the bus’ and pursue more creative digital projects for individual companies.
 
Our conversation offered a chance to catch up and reminisce about what has happened in the market, as well as discuss what we thought was the future for the trade show business. That business is still relevant to my friend, since event organizers remain among his clients.
 
We discussed the divisive political climate, the impact of COVID, the decline of the USA in the world’s estimation, and what all that means for the event business. What is the message to take away from what’s happened over the last 24 months? There’s been upheaval, the demise of businesses, tremendous pressure on industry participants, reduced revenues, and layoffs. In other words, there’s been lots of misery. Given what’s happened, most have chosen to focus on keeping their heads down and trying to survive. 
 
Yet there’s another way to view what’s happening for those brave enough to raise their heads and see: opportunity.
 
At an event industry meeting in August, rather than commiserate about how bad things were, I managed to upset someone by mentioning that things actually were going great for my business. I asserted that what’s happening actually offers a magnificent opportunity for anyone who’s willing to take it on.
 
My friend who pursues digital projects concurred with my opinion. There’s opportunity available right now if you choose to see it that way. Or you can focus on what’s failed, what’s worked before but is no longer possible, and bemoan what’s been lost.
 
As I have more conversations, I find that industry folks secretly concur. I hope they are spreading the seeds in ways that help to make it happen for all. We all can learn from what’s happened by sharing our insights with each other. After all, we want to be motivated to dig ourselves out of the morass that’s resulted from what has happened.
 
Are you with us? In every disaster, there’s opportunity for those who are open to take the next action and creative enough to find it. Why can’t it be you?

Do Winners Always Win? Thinking This Through Might Be A Necessary Wake Up Call

At a recent industry event a colleague suggested that I shouldn’t worry about the event business, claiming that it would come back as strong as it was before the pandemic. He further stated that the companies that had done well before would do well again, given that “winners always win.”
 
I believe that the winners of the past achieved their success because they jumped on opportunities and executed well, but I’d also assert that the belief that ‘winners always win’ represents a hubris that’s STILL present within our industry despite all that’s happened.
 
Have we not learned anything from the punch in the mouth we’ve received from COVID?
 
Although we’ve survived – and some of us will thrive – the overall lack of innovation that we’ve fostered in this market segment has been a huge disappointment to me and many of us, even given the twenty month opportunity, haven’t much idea of who their future attendees will be. That doesn’t mean that cool things aren’t happening. They are, on a micro-level. In September, I attended an event that EXCEEDED its attendance targets by trying things that cost little, but made a huge impact. And many of the tactics were things that I would have scoffed at, weeks before. This event will be a big deal soon, if only because many will rush to copy its tactics.
 
Of course, our events will return. Of that I am confident. Those who have paid the most attention to the shift in attendee demographics, and the attendees themselves, will be the ones who make the return the quickest and thrive the longest. It will not be those who simply think that they will succeed because they did so before. The winners that always win are those who see the need to change with the times – and do so.

Find Your Future Stars Amongst Today’s Up and Coming Exhibitors – And Turbo Boost Your Revenue

At many of your events you’ll find a number of new companies that are trying to make a significant impact. They have the energy, the interest, and the money to drive that effort. How can you harness their excitement (and their funds) to create an experience that is profitable, both for them and for your event overall?
  • Information – Ensure these companies have all the details they need about your event when they are determining their marketing budgets. Although not every company’s fiscal year coincides with the calendar year, make sure that all the information for your next year’s event(s) is available by the current year’s Labor Day. This will help prospective exhibitors as they conduct their planning meetings for the upcoming year.

  • Access – Make yourself available to prospective exhibitors for discussions about the different ways they can make an impact at your event. Your event is a multi-faceted experience, but your exhibitors may not be aware of all the options available to them or the different packages. And engaging with them directly (vs. just providing published material) may allow you to adjust or offer discounts that increase their overall spend.

  • Advice – Provide guidance to exhibitors on how to position themselves within the context of your event. Gauge their aspirations: do they want to merely have a presence, be competitive, or do they want to dominate.* How they answer will determine what options – and the associated costs – you choose to offer them.
 
If you can start to cultivate the up and comers, it may serve to disrupt the complacency of your bellwether clients, pressuring them to make decisions by key deadlines, if not earlier. Competition from firms with more agile decision-making means that your traditional clients cannot assume the availability of event activities or resources (e.g., booth spaces, speaking slots, event sponsorship opportunities). You’ll have increased the demand for assets that have a limited supply.
 
You also will have an actuality of urgency about making decisions that is more than the words “Buy now before the best booth and options are sold!”
 
I recently managed an event with only 19 available exhibit spots. Once the newer companies started signing up, the pressure grew to the point where a handful of incumbents missed out on exhibit opportunities because the event sold out before they had signed agreements, which they spent weeks sitting on, in some cases. Everyone interested was informed throughout the process that the number of available spaces was shrinking. What a powerful sales message! No one could claim ignorance or complain; yet a handful still missed out.
 
The net impact was that the companies that did miss out took steps to book earlier for the next event, thus creating even greater sales momentum and doing so earlier in the cycle. This means that the events are selling earlier and faster, inspiring even greater exhibitor efforts to contract events further into the future.
 
This activity also has increased the near-term cashflow of the company given that deposits are required in order to reserve a spot in an event. That means exhibitors now are more attentive to sales outreach and your champions within the exhibitor companies are more motivated to overcome the internal barriers associated with getting contracts signed.
 
Of course, if your future sales depend on rebook activities during your events, make sure that what you do with these new companies doesn’t go against current stated policies. My opinion, however, if you want to increase revenue, you must figure out how to leverage the presence of new companies as a catalyst to shake up your “traditional” (i.e., old and tired) ways of getting exhibit revenue.
 
As your event gains visibility with new companies that want to make an impact, you can help those companies and your events by being prepared and ready to do business. Your CFO will thank you.
 
Good luck!
 
* Thanks to Ryan Dohrn on the exhibitor positioning terminology:
https://360adsales.com/about/

Eliminating Distraction: Keeping Your Eye on the Ball When the Chips are Down

One of the things that really has helped me in life is keeping calm when all around is going wrong. This is especially helpful at events where I must solve problems in real time and it’s not always evident that there’s a solution readily available. I have seen a real difference between those times when my response has reflected panic versus those when I remained calm. A panicked reaction is not conducive to a positive result. Frequently your clients depend on you, as the expert, to be the one who is calm and provide the assurance that “Everything will be fine!”

I recently attended a complicated event (i.e. one with lots of moving parts) where the staff was calm and collected on the outside. But on the inside? Probably not so much. Though it’s likely that there were lots of minor things going wrong, you couldn’t tell from either their actions or their demeanor.

One way I have found to master this kind of situation is eliminate the extraneous elements and focus on the goal. In a crisis, you need to be able to appraise the circumstances, receive input from others, and determine an immediate path of action. Peripheral details are distractions; I believe that keeping your focus depends on ridding your mind of the stuff that doesn’t matter.

From Rudyard Kipling’s “If”:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

Learning to Eliminate Distraction is just another skill that will help you rise above your competition.  

Safety and Certainty- Conveying The Right Message so Your Customers Will Return to Your Events

In the last four weeks, I have traveled to two events. Some non-event people thought I was crazy to do so, given the ‘risks’. Notwithstanding the caution that I’ve expressed in some past newsletters, my recent actions reflect how much I want face-to-face events to return – and to do so as soon as possible.

Being out of the office has given me the opportunity to observe and ruminate about what prompted my attendance at these two events, despite the “fear porn” about going to events before the end of 2021 that’s been widely circulated. Beyond the inherent ROI of attendance, as well as the value in networking and content, what got me to go? What are the other basic requirements that are a prerequisite for our attendees and sponsors to be able  to return to our events?

The answers are Safety and Certainty.

Huh? What does that mean? Simply put, if an organizer is hosting an event, given all that’s happening in today’s world we would like to think that the organizer has our best interests at heart. That means acknowledging the risks of travel and the possibility that we might be engaged with people at an event who could infect us.
 
In terms of Safety, has the organizer identified all the COVID (and other) risks and done everything to mitigate those risks in a manner that is reasonable in terms of the impact on exhibitors and attendees? Have they communicated those actions as a marketing message that is grounded in facts that are positive, real, and not alarmist?
 
With respect to Certainty, has the event organizer demonstrated their confidence in running the show and that it’s in the best interests for the attendees and exhibitors to attend? Is that confidence evident in a real, grounded – even transparent – advocacy for the event or are they hiding behind opacity that ignores reduced attendee and exhibitor numbers? Are they truthful with their messages? Are they confident in their messaging?
 
If you planning to run a face-to-face event before the end of the year, it’s critical that you both develop strategies that focus on these key elements and make sure that your current and potential customers know about them, too. We’ve got to get back to work, let’s make it easier for our customers to do it too.

What’s the best kind events company to have?

Over the years I‘ve had the opportunity to work with many event companies and that vantage point has allowed me to how companies are organized, what drives their decision making and clues as to why some companies are more successful than others.
 

There are four types of companies:

  • Sales Driven – Motivated by revenues, the sales staff are the stars in these companies. The products may not always be the best, but sales can sell the hell out of them, putting a price tag on every inch of the trade show floor or any digital property. Customer service may come in second or it’s managed by sales to ensure that it’s done right, since the rest of the company is ‘beholden’ to the sales team. Frequently, CARING PROGRAMS (see this link) are a must. The amount of revenue generated often helps subsidize other ventures like riskier launches.
  • Product Driven – They don’t always make money, but the product is first-rate. They lack the application of success or profitability metrics other than those focused on how to make the product more spectacular. Marketing is what makes or breaks this kind of company because if no one knows about the product, the company will go out of business. Customers are usually quite satisfied with the product, but money and opportunities are left on the table. Event owners are seen to be part of the market and not ‘carpetbaggers’.
  • Marketing Driven – Can find every customer in every crack. The product is not always up to snuff and therefore they may run a series of “one and done” events. Every new marketing technique is explored and tried, but if the sales staff isn’t aggressive with their follow-up on leads, the company can fall flat on its face. Usually win lots of event marketing awards.
  • Operations Driven – Everything is done well in terms of the execution of marketing, sales, and service. In terms of the product, there’s not much focus on innovation. The concentration is upon cash cow events, with little to no business development. Business expansion comes via the acquisition of existing events rather than organic growth. Everything executes on time and is carefully crafted and presented. Event owners are frequently prominent members of the market (though not always.) The environment can be quite an assembly line – dominated by production charts and similar tools.
 
In truth, there’s a fifth kind of event company, a superset of the above four that draws on their best attributes. I would it as “profit-driven.”  The top qualities on these companies are:
  • Part of the market-they can ‘talk the talk
  • Dedicated to building first class events which are profitable
  • Have a killer sales team which focuses on nurturing customers for the long term
  • Have a first rate marketing team which can pivot when milestones are missed
  • Execute well
  • Have a business development team which can launch new events quickly
  • Have an eye on the bottom line, but are willing to take some risk
  • Make decisions based upon positive cash flow
  • Do their analysis on current and launch events
  • Have succession planning for the CEO to new hires
  • Can stand in the customer’s shoes
Definitely a ‘wish list’ above, but how do you measure up?
Which kind of event company do you have?