Does Your Events Organization Need a Post-COVID Check-Up?

1)     Are you closer to your customers than you were in 2019?

2)     Are you closer to your staff than you were in 2019?

3)     Is your sales team firing on all cylinders?

4)     Have you raised prices, justified only by inflation?

5)     Are your customers still getting value for their money?

6)     Have you recently lost business for reasons that remain unknown?

7)     Are all of your ‘eggs’ in the events basket?

We all can breathe a sigh of relief. We’re still here; COVID didn’t kill us! We hear from CEIR and others that attendance is returning to pre-COVID levels. We can be optimistic. But though we’re through the COVID trough, are other challenges looming ahead that should temper that enthusiasm? Unfortunately, I think the answer is “yes.”

Let me address the seven questions above.

1) How well do you know your current customers?

Having known your customers in 2019 doesn’t mean you know them now. The Great Resignation/Retirement means that many of your current customers are different from those of several years ago. They are younger and likely less experienced, requiring new relationships to be cultivated with you. Despite their corporate affiliations and business cards, the relationships with your attendees represent personal connections with the people, not companies. You can’t have a relationship with a company. And they are people, not numbers. All the statistical analysis gained from looking at spreadsheets to understand attendee behavior will not help you understand the underlying relationships that drive decisions that people make. Whether you ‘know’ your customers will mean the difference between success and failure, particularly when travel and training budgets are cut.

2) Are all of your staff on board?

COVID burned out a lot of event staff. Event personnel had to perform more tasks with fewer resources, learn new skills (e.g., virtual events, etc.), and operate in an environment where the survival of their companies was uncertain at times. Event company leaders were also challenged during these highly stressful times to treat staff with the requisite respect and courtesy. My guess is not leaders succeeded and, as a result, some event staff may not be giving their all since now some may be demoralized. My suggestion to counter this is to perform 1-on-1’s with your staff to see where they stand, and handle any lingering issues.. You want everyone to be on board should business take another plunge or changes in direction be required.

3) Are your sales team firing on all cylinders?

Next to having a great event, your sales staff are your most important resource. Are they happy with their ability to make a fortune selling your event (see my article here if you don’t know what I’m talking about)? If your sales staff are unhappy, they may be looking for another opportunity and leave you in the lurch, since they are rare and golden. Are you about to find yourself without key sales people? Sit down with each, and straighten out any unhappiness. On a positive side, be on the lookout for unhappy sales people who you can poach.

4) Are inflation-based price increases smart?

Every business dealing with higher costs must decide whether to pass them on to customers or absorb those costs and accept the lowered profits that result. For event companies, the worst budget culprits are food and beverage costs, drayage, additional facility costs, etc. Given that customers are returning to events in greater numbers, can managers successfully raise prices solely to recoup their increased internal costs? Or, if you assume increased attendance for your event, is that volume enough to accept the potential hit on profit-per-customer that holding the line on prices will entail? What if your event is a borderline decision for a customer based upon the costs they will incur to attend? Can you risk losing them due to a very tangible price increase that is attributed to a rather nebulous [to the customer] justification referencing increased costs?

5) Are your customers still getting value equivalent to 2019?

The interesting aspect of this topic is that your customer has insight into this answer, but you often do not. How dangerous is that? Do you know what goals your customers have, beyond the networking and education opportunities provided to attendees or the “more than X,000 attendees” (a proxy for business leads) sought by exhibitors? As I mentioned in this article, you should know this information for 10-20% of your exhibitors and a significantly greater percentage of your attendees.

6) If losing business, do you know why?

As I recently explained to a colleague, when you encounter a problem for which you’re responsible, it’s heartening to know that you have the means to address the issue, assuming you know what the problem is. In my mind, the major problems facing event organizers are listed above. Perhaps you can also add 1) keeping major stakeholders on board and 2) presenting the correct event content. Those two are constants regardless of the market and its specific circumstances. For more details about creating the ‘perfect’ show, see this article. The reality is that customer churn is inevitable. However, the lost business can continue to inform your future efforts if you understand the reasons for the loss and can apply that knowledge going forward and reverse the trend. You may not be able to save every situation, but you can learn from the experience and manage its impact on your future.

COVID taught us that we could adapt to problems we didn’t create and survive. Even some of the problems that didn’t appear to be caused by how events were operated (customer budget cuts, travel prohibitions, etc.), nevertheless reflected customer decisions that we could have influenced by things we did or didn’t do (e.g., get the right audience, offer the right networking opportunities or education, etc.). The onus is on event managers to understand the market and the industry they support and anticipate the concerns and proactively respond. Unfortunately, it seems that losing business happens many times faster than acquiring it, so therefore it’s much harder to turn around.

7) Are all your eggs in one [kind of event] basket?

As I have whined continually over the last four years, we’ve had the opportunity to get closer to customers and figure out what products/services we could offer other than in-person events. Hopefully, you have pursued this effort, and not just tried to use something like a virtual event as a placeholder while you waited to return to what you were doing in 2019. Our audiences have changed and moved on. Have you?
The list above is not comprehensive, but perhaps it will kickstart your analysis of where you are, and prove helpful in making any needed adjustments. Now that we have the time, after a horrible four years, doesn’t it make sense to do so?

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