What’s next for events in 2021? 1

Goodbye, 2020! On the whole, we won’t miss you. I believe that most event organizations will live to fight another day, even if many of our employees are gone – some of whom for good.

Those who are left have had to sharpen our pencils, often without warning. We’ve had to address circumstances that immediately brought face to face events to a halt and, although there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, we know it’s going to be a long time before we’re as happy as we once were.

It would be a major mistake, however, to fail to learn from this experience, just expecting things to return to normal. They will never be ‘normal’ again. The events business has changed irrevocably.
Here’s what I believe has to happen:

1)  Managers must start to become leaders.
It will require more than just managing things. It will require evolving them, experimenting with them, building them. I turn to the wise Seth Godin, who proclaimed in The Icarus Experiment.”
“Management is almost diametrically opposed to leadership. Management is about generating yesterday’s results, but a little faster or a little more cheaply. We know how to manage the world- we relentlessly seek to cut costs and to limit variation while we exalt strict obedience.
Leadership, though, is a whole other game. No manual, no rulebook, no “ueber leader” to point the finger at when things go wrong. If you ask for the rulebook on how to lead, then you’re secretly wishing to be a manager. Leaders are vulnerable, not controlling and they are taking us to a new place, not the place of cheap, compliant safety.
Do we have the smarts to do this?
2)  Understanding that many of our past attendees will have been laid off or retired.
Many attendee decision-makers of the past have had enough, having either voluntarily retired or been enticed to do so. Many new attendees will be the millennials – who value sustainability, diversity, choice, ease of experience, etc. Many organizers have no idea how to cater to this new audience. Perhaps we even lack knowledge of where to find and entice them.

Will we learn how?
3)  Survivors will become leaders.
If you’re reading this, I am guessing you’re one of the survivors of the face-to-face event calamity of 2020 caused by COVID-19. What is your plan to respond to the next one? There will be a next one (much as COVID was preceded by SARS, MERS, etc.). How you react to the next phase may make or break your career.
4)  Business models will be different.
Neither bolting virtual events onto existing physical ones nor converting to a hybrid model are the (only) solutions. The unfortunate reality of most virtual events is that face to face event customers and exhibitors don’t like them. They are only partially engaging because there is no alternative at the moment. The lesson of the pandemic is that you need to figure out how to build value for your face-to-face audience without doing face-to-face events – until circumstances permit. Your attendees will have had an 15-month break from events before they come back. Will they still need them? Remember, your audience doesn’t need your event to get together.
5)  Work must become smarter.
Note everything that I’ve said to date. In the past this may have meant “spend more time doing stuff.” But now I mean making decisions that will save you time and eliminating things in your business that add no value or revenue.
6)  You won’t take your attendees for granted.
As previously said, your customers have had an 15-month vacation from events. Many will not return because they find that events are too expensive, too time-consuming, lack demonstrable ROI, require difficult travel, etc. Corporate budgets will have been cut and, as a result, some events will be eliminated.

Will you be able to bear this? How well do you know your attendees? Can you anticipate their needs given what’s happened to the market (and what’s happened to them individually)? What risks will your attendees be willing to take to attend your event? Is the value of your event greater than the risk?
Going forward means recognizing that margins will be reduced. We’ll have to do more with less. There will be more risks: attendance, exhibitor revenue, greater expense, and less space (given health protocols.) We’ll have less staff, yet higher customer expectations. Here’s a quote from someone commenting on the business reality:
“…What will the skies look like when carbon dioxide-spewing planes fly less because everyone has discovered Zoom? The airlines that have been screwing people with baggage charges and change fees are suddenly going to find out that their loyalty cards may not indicate much loyalty on the part of their misused customers.

In some ways, this isn’t just pandemic-related. This isn’t any different than what ride-sharing companies did to taxi companies that wouldn’t go into certain neighborhoods. If you ignore your customers, they’ll be unhappy. But if they have alternatives to your service, right fast you’ll be unhappy.”

Please, please, please ensure you don’t fall into these traps:

1) Counting on attendees to show up to your relaunched event with no strategy or knowledge of where (or who) your attendees are after being on an 15 month “face to face event vacation.”

2)  Expecting attendees to ‘enjoy’ large show floors without a clear ROI.

3)  Expecting people to travel long tortuous distances because they always have.
We all want to say good bye to 2020, what an awful year. Are you up for the challenge of 2021?

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