Is the Events Business Doomed?

We have heard that there will always be a need for face-to-face events. I believe that this is indeed true. But the question is whether that truth will sustain all of us for the next 9-12 months, which is the length of time that recent projections estimate it will take for our F2F events to become viable again.
It’s quite possible that 50% of the current events business will be gone as of April 1, 2021. Here are the factors that could lead to that dire reality:

1)  Lack of focus-on the attendee

Amongst all the news, I’ve heard very little concern expressed about what the visitors/attendees want, with the lone exception of a recent Freeman webinar that included a survey of key attendees across industry sectors. Yes – having industry-wide COVID-19 cleaning standards is important. But what’s more important is knowing what your prospective attendees will want from your future events, both from an analytic and gut feeling perspective.

2)  Too much optimism

Other than the recent Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes column, there’s been very little written (publicly) about the reality out there. Many events will never return and for those that do, it may be another year before people are willing to get on planes to attend them. We’ve depended on the same ways to make money for too long, equating ‘biggest as best.’ The events business has been ready for a shock to its business model for some time and it’s time for us to adjust immediately or fall by the wayside.

3)  Not in control of destiny- government bans, company edicts

Unfortunately, since each state/municipality gets to pick their safety protocols (which often include a 14-day quarantine for returning travelers, as well as other stringent measures), in many cases our fortunes are not in our own hands. Additionally, motivated both by safety guidelines and an effort to save money, companies have issued travel bans that prevent even those interested in attending from doing so. Other than lobbying those who have the power to change these edicts, we’re not in control of our destiny in terms of securing the requisite permissions to attend.

4)   Companies not equipped to go virtual

Although I am guessing that many event organizers are learning new digital event skills, most event companies are digital immigrants (rather than natives.) They are in the process of learning by doing, and in some cases, they are failing and their products not up to scratch relative to the F2F versions. While we’ve heard pleas to ‘take off our face-to-face event producer hat’, many of us either won’t or can’t do so. Also, without a strong commitment to exclusive content that attendees can’t get elsewhere or replicating the ‘networking’ of in-person events, I don’t see many event organizers achieving long term success with virtual events alone. The pandemic has exposed the ‘all eggs in one basket’ approach to be extremely naïve.

5)   Will you run out of money?

Most of us have undergone extreme cost-cutting, including the layoff or furlough of long-term employees. Although we have been able to retain past paid F2F revenues, our new revenues generated are a fraction of the numbers in the past.  We still have many fixed – and variable – costs that are hard to reduce in the short term. Can we make the accounting work through another year of waiting for the return to normalcy?

7)  What are we doing for those laid off?

It saddens me to see that although many of us have fallen by the wayside, despite some individual efforts there’s been no unified effort to help those who have lost their jobs. Can’t we develop some type of coalition to offer free resources (e.g. association memberships, etc.) to help?

1)  Save your cash

You need a 3/6/12 month view of your business that includes a plan to survive the next 12 months. This means paring down your expenses to the minimum and doing your utmost to retain the revenues from canceled events, including being a ‘collections hound’ for what has yet to be paid.

2) Focus on lots of high margin products

You have now some experience building new products to replace the ones you are not able to run. You should know which products can generate revenues that are at least five times their cost and should have the discipline to run very few with a gross margin of less than 80%. If you don’t know how to do this, hire a consultant to help.

3) Hire digital experts

All your digital products should have the same care and quality as face-to-face events. Either make sure your staff is on the fast track to get the necessary skills or hire outside experts until you have the expertise.

4) Get granular and personal with your attendee data

If you don’t know who your attendees/customers are at a marketing persona level, then shame on you. Attendee knowledge/ignorance will probably be the main factor in your success or failure. Get on the fast track to figure this out (analytics software, consultants, surveys, pick up the phone) before you find out that no one wants to attend your event again. A lot of good help is available. One example can be found here.

5) Look to regional events for relaunches and assume long-distance travelers will not come for the next 12 months

For those of us courageous enough or unlucky enough to have face-to-face events in the next 12 months, expect that you will need to rely more heavily on getting people who won’t plan to stay in hotels or get on planes. Adjust your marketing tactics accordingly. Make sure that the forecasted attendance is going to be enough to bring back the exhibitors so you can mitigate any losses or at least tread water.

6)  If you have a choice, pick the right venues

Look for locations to which attendees can drive. That includes New York, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta.  And include smaller cities that are in the middle of large population areas. Let’s make it as easy for people to attend. 

7)    Learn to try new business models- before you need them

The pandemic has taken us all by surprise. It’s also shaken the cobwebs from our creative brains. Let’s look to the next thing beyond digital now and incorporate it so we can plan to thrive when the next ‘shock’ happens.

Let’s get real here. Over the next 12 months, we’re going to be challenged like never before and many of the reasons are not our fault. That doesn’t matter. We’ve got to do what we can, manage the factors we can control, and make the best of it. We also need to reach out more to others and include them in our planning. And finally, we need leadership to help knit together our efforts to help.

I am committed to this business; if I can help you, give me a call.

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