Conference Development


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.

Do You Know Who I Am? A Tradeshow Attendee’s Lament

I am not an ‘analytic’ on a spreadsheet.

I am not merely a name on an email list to be targeted by your marketing.

I receive thousands of emails from you, but none that are personalized to reflect an understanding of who I am.

Though I’ve attended your event many times, I have never interacted with anyone on your staff (other than at the registration desk when I pick up my badge.)

It’s clear that I’m being tracked when browsing the web, as your tradeshow’s ad keeps popping up though I never asked to receive them.

I have sent you an email with feedback, but it was never acknowledged.

I get hundreds of emails from event sponsors with whom I’ve never met nor have an interest in meeting.

I’ve spent thousands of my company’s dollars attending your events.

——————————————————

I am one of thousands of your event’s attendees.

If I never come back, will you know why? Do you care?

I have dollars to spend, both on you and your exhibitors.

Without me, you don’t have an event. If all of us faceless ‘analytics’ stop coming, you’ll be hiding in the event sales and show offices, hoping the exhibitors don’t find you.

Do you know who I am? Do you now care?

There’s No Such Thing as a Hybrid Event

Have you ever heard an attendee say, “I just attended this great hybrid event?” You probably have not. And you never will.
 
Why? Because attendees view an event through the lens of their own experience. Face-to-face attendees don’t care about who’s online at the same show. Their participation in an event is grounded in the face-to-face experience they get. Likewise, online attendees aren’t that interested in who’s attending the event in person – with the possible exception of the speakers and exhibitors. The online attendees are having their own experience, and while they may wonder somewhat about what is happening onsite, it’s only if it relates to their online experience.
 
The term “hybrid” (in terms of events) is a marketing expression employed by technology companies to describe software that allows event organizers to gain efficiencies and expand their reach by delivering content to multiple channels (both in-person and online) simultaneously. But it’s not something which you should use if you plan to present an event to an attendee-they only care about the channel they choose to experience.
 
A “hybrid” event, however, still requires the organizer to create a unique experience for each kind of audience. It’s two projects, with the easy one being the creation of an experience for face-to-face attendees. More difficult, with the requirement for additional, specialized staff with expertise in delivering an online experience, is the virtual event.
 
As you should realize, despite the single term “hybrid”, two different events are happening within the same timeframe, albeit with some similar types of content (aided online by streaming, etc.). But a shared use of content does not change the fact that attendees get a different experience. Why are we projecting otherwise?
 
A further challenge is how exhibitors must organize themselves for a hybrid event. They need two different staffs to support both their onsite and online presence. What does an exhibitor do if they can only staff an onsite booth, yet want to connect with an online audience? Who are the best attendees with whom to connect, those online or onsite? What if an exhibitor can’t manage both effectively in those critical initial stages of prospect engagement?
 
The only way to do a true “hybrid” event is to treat each event uniquely, with each requiring its distinct strategy, staff, and execution plan, and market them to the audience the individual channel is intended to serve. You can use the economies available from shared content between the onsite and online sessions, but the timeframes, engagement expectations, and pricing are going to be different.
 
I might further argue, you should consider doing either an online event or a face-to-face event, but not attempt both in a single effort. Attempting to do both risks creating winners or losers, especially on the exhibitor side. And the style of an event should not be the arbiter of which exhibitor wins or loses – the exhibitor and their offerings should be the determining factors.
 
So, my advice is to tread lightly before embarking on a “hybrid” event and start in the shoes of your attendees to map out the best experience for them.

Has Dealing with Coronavirus Taught Our Event Industry Anything?

The answer is both “yes” and “no”.
 
In terms of “yes”:
 
1)  We have learned to be more agile. If you are reading this – and you didn’t lose your job or your company – then you’ve had to become quicker, bolder, more innovative, and more patient in order to survive. Whether it was developing ideas to retain both exhibitor and attendee money, creating new types of digital events, or deciding to shut down certain events given the market uncertainties or government mandates- we have all gained new skills.
 
2) We’ve learned to work together. An example can be found with organizations such as SISO and Freeman, who’ve become more accessible and resourceful in support of both members and the general event public. They’ve helped champion new standards by delivering advocacy and lobbying that can help the industry with future challenges.
 
In terms of “no”:
 
1)  We have failed to create new business models that can help take the pressure off face-to-face meetings. Virtual events have generally failed as a replacement for face-to-face events, though several tech companies have certainly cashed in. Many attendees comfortable with face-to-face events are weary of digital alternatives and many exhibitors will begin to reduce their digital budgets as face-to-face re-emerges.
 
2) The idea of communities has also failed to gain traction. Most event organizers realize that it’s almost impossible to ‘own’ them. For a community to be a vital ‘engagement watering hole’ within an event they require constant attention and activity. Few event organizers have the interest or skills to sustain that engagement. There’s been no business model emerge that takes the considerable weight of managing communities off the shoulders of event organizers. That suggests that organizers are waiting for face-to-face to come back so that they can continue to operate as they did before – without the encumbrances of managing communities.
 
3)  We’ve failed to get closer to our audiences. Most of the surveys taken during the last 18 months about interest in the return of face-to-face events were surveys of event professionals (who quite obviously wanted their livelihoods to be restored.) But most event professionals operate outside the markets they serve and have little real insight regarding whether our targeted attendees want to – and will – return. Could the decline in face-to-face events during the pandemic be a precursor to their broader decline, since some see event attendance as a corporate boondoggle? Of course, exhibitors want events to return, but can we deliver the quality audiences they have enjoyed in the past? Unfortunately, we just don’t know. We will find out if we can or we can’t, soon enough.
 
I believe that COVID-19 has been something that we have survived, rather than tried to leverage as a laboratory within which to test new revenue generators and develop new ways to deliver valuable experiences. We haven’t flipped the script.
 
If I were to grade our industry’s performance, I’d give us a B minus. And that’s mainly for remaining employed and able to read this.
 
But have we missed a great opportunity?

Has ‘Quality is the New Quantity’ Become Today’s “The Dog Ate My Homework”?

If estimates are to be believed, though we may be able to run events this year, both attendance and exhibitor participation will be down. Given COVID-19 and responding corporate restrictions, lower numbers and revenues for 2021 events are to be expected.
 
Does that exempt us from trying to understand attendee and exhibitor needs, given we have the handy excuse that attendance will likely be down? No, we still must treat the last 15 months as an opportunity to learn more about our customers.
 
It’s depressing that the expressions “the quantity is down, but the quality is up” or “quality is the new quantity” have made their return – much as they’ve always done during market downturns. Not that they might be appropriate in certain instances. But my reaction is more to those lazy marketers and event strategists who hope they can convince us that the presence of fewer attendees will necessarily be inversely correlated with their quality – that fewer attendees inherently means they are better attendees.
 
Guys and gals, this is tired thinking, and most of your customers will see through it. It’s much the same as you might have said back in the day when your excuse for failing to turn in your homework was that ‘the dog ate it.’
 
Rather than rationalizing a decline in attendance, what you should be doing is reaching out to the attendees and exhibitors who haven’t returned to past events to find out why. Now is the time to better understand your customers and apply that insight to enhance the customer experience and value.
 
We’ve all worked hard to keep things going over the last year. And we’re stressed out with wondering what the future will bring. Unfortunately, the bad times are not quite over, but we shouldn’t be resigned to accept whatever happens. Let’s ensure that we continue to build our competitive advantage during this downtime, with the knowledge that our customers of the future will be pickier than ever.
 
And I hope the dog never eats your homework…

Comfort and Fear – How to use one to get more of the other

In the poem, Sad Cure, Graham Greene wrote that “Comfort and Fear – these two alone make Life / But while the Fear too often stood alone…The Comfort always had been mixed with fear.” *

That sentiment characterizes how many now are living: in fear. And because of that fear, they are allowing themselves to settle with what is most comfortable even when there are opportunities available. I must confess some disappointment that, despite the length of time we’ve had to become acclimated to the pandemic, many have failed to grasp the opportunities that have become obvious.

We’ve drifted down the river – rather than steer our own course – paralyzed by television news and social media and hoping for things to return to how they were in the good old days.

In some ways, my industry has acted differently. It has demonstrated a willingness to come together, with competitors collaborating in the hosting of events. There also have been new national advocacy efforts that I hope will champion the power and business value of events as we head into the future. You could also argue that the speed with which many events switched to virtual mode has proven to be a great learning opportunity for the industry.

All the above were spawned by reaction to the pandemic, rather than intentional efforts to innovate and grasp new opportunities. Despite all the positives that have happened, we’ve still tended to retreat due to the fear of failing, taking comfort in waiting until the situation returns to “normal” when we can again do what we did before.

I guess we’ll find out what the new “normal” is when vaccines take hold, the economy opens, and travel and budgets free up.

But rather than just wait, we still have an opportunity to act now. What do I suggest?

To start, I suggest we use the ‘energy’ of fear harness the opportunities of the future. Part of being able to do that will also demand that you:

1) Be friendly and helpful to others, even if you don’t agree with them- this will build future relationships.

2) Continue to listen to and learn from your customers- this will build loyalty and ideas for new products.

3) Constantly test innovation-this will build the business of the future.

4) Trust yourself and your colleagues that despite fear, your gut is usually right- this will build your business


Because of where we are, I see great opportunities available to us. If I am to learn anything from the Graham Greene poem, it’s to use fear as something that fuels an intention to find the next level of accomplishment.


Enjoy the opportunity to do so.

* “Sad Cure” as cited by Norman Sherry in ‘The Life of Graham Greene: Volume One, 1904-1939’


Will your exhibitors and attendees come back?

Hey, event organizers! I have some bad news for you. You are going to have to re-engage with attendees and exhibitors all over again – as if it were the first time. They have gone 12 to 18 months without your face-to-face events. They may or may not have done some of your virtual events, but they’ve had a vacation from the schlepping involved in physically attending one of your shows.

And there’s no certainty they will return.

You’ll have to prove yourselves to your customers all over again as part of the relaunch of your events. In so doing, your attendees and exhibitors will want to know:

• Will you have the top products at your show?
• Will you have the best content and education available?
• Will the right people to meet be in attendance?
• Will their competitors be there?
• What if they were to skip the event and see how the non-attended event performs?

Rather than just roll out the latest version of your last show, to match the success of your last pre-pandemic event will require you to do more. And here’s the bad news: you probably will not succeed the first time. Your first show may only get a small fraction of the pre-pandemic attendance and exhibitor participation. Will that be sufficient to convince both to come back a second time? Will it be enough for you to take the chance of holding the event and will it be profitable for you to do so? 

The goal of your first post-pandemic effort is to do well enough in terms of exhibitors and attendees that it becomes a pathway to your second event – the one that will be the star. 

Notice that I haven’t even mentioned the challenges found in the CDC’s health and safety requirements, as outlined in a March 12th article in Successful Meetings. My favorite line in the article is “Are there any ways to reduce the number of attendees?” That’s hardly the goal that would typify most traditional event managers. The point is we can’t afford to coast, with a “the past equals the future” attitude in terms of attendance and exhibitor buy-in. 

Your customers have had a lot of time away from your events. Will they feel the need to return? You better develop a plan to ensure they do.