With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, general service contractors swiftly adjusted their know-how and experience with physical events into the digital world.
Chuck Grouzard, executive vice president of exhibition sales at GES, believes the pandemic allowed general service contractors to develop new digital offerings based on the need to have alternatives to an in-person event.
“Beginning in mid-March and continuing throughout 2020, [GES was] faced with many in-person events canceling, postponing, or quickly trying to partner with someone to help them develop a virtual platform,” he said. “In many instances, clients were trying to literally plan, produce and launch their ‘new’ virtual event in less than a few months.”
While Grouzard said this new challenge for general service contractors was in some ways a “crash course,” GES was fortunate to have some digital solutions in place, particularly in audio/visual services.
Kevin Bird, executive vice president of sales at the Atlanta branch of Shepard, said they had similar digital solutions already in place.
“I think the thing that really helped us is the fact that, in addition to being a general service contractor, we are also an audio/visual company with a production and entertainment group as well,” Bird said. “We have the ability to repackage service offerings that already existed to best help our customers as they began navigating the move from traditional live events to the digital world.”
Bird said each part of the general service contracting ecosystem has been affected differently through the course of the pandemic, and their clients’ plans for future hybrid and in-person events will change that even further.
“With the venues and organizers, this pandemic has created a unique opportunity to work together as many events have postponed dates and their date patterns that they are accustomed to are no longer available,” Bird said. “With the venues specifically, it is making sure we have open lines of communication to discuss the logistics of the event—both the traditional kind and then the health and safety kind. Where does the venue stop their cleaning/disinfecting protocol and where does Shepard step in?”
Bird said many clients now include them in the planning process, due to their virtual needs.
“We expanded our preferred offerings to include multiple digital event platform providers so that we could ensure our customers had access to the solution that best fit their needs,” Bird said.
This changed the dynamic with Shepard Atlanta’s technology partnerships.
“There has been an influx of great event platforms that are all very unique and cover the full spectrum of features and price points a show organizer might need,” Bird said. “Our relationship with them is symbiotic because we are often the production arm of the event and we work very closely with the platform to ensure everything goes off without a hitch.”
Grouzard noted a similar evolution at GES, adding that they vetted 30 different digital platforms to find what worked best for them.
“A lot of hard work, sweat equity, creativity, and collaboration came together over the course of three months as we built out what we believe is a robust and meaningful online GES platform that addresses how best to meet the challenge of creating meaningful online solutions for content-driven programing, education, networking, exhibiting, sponsorship, and meaningful engagement,” Grouzard said.
According to Grouzard, GES had to engage in even greater collaboration with their clients and facilities around understanding how digital technology solutions will play a greater role in the planning and production of virtual, hybrid, and in-person events.
“Together we have worked closely in a new space that many of us were not fully equipped or experienced in,” Grouzard said. “A lot of questions were asked in the early stages of working together to build the format to produce a virtual and/or hybrid event. Some trial by error, a lot of creativity, trust, and open and honest conversations were had with how best to deliver and create a whole new experience for the associations and for-profit organizers that were thrust into this new arena.”
Roles and responsibilities
In many cases, the clients GES has worked with on developing digital platforms were forced to take on new roles around digital and virtual solutions. He said clients did not always have a team member who was an expert in virtual platforms, which allowed GES’ team to demonstrate expertise and experience to their clients, even creating a live studio for recreating event spaces, pre-recording sessions, and producing live sessions.
“For some clients, we have provided a full suite of services to include a complete digital transformation of their event,” Grouzard said. “For other clients, we have assisted them with strictly project managing their virtual event, meaning our teams become an extension of the client and [worked] directly with the chosen third party virtual software provider.”
He added, “In some instances [GES has] created a 3D 360 virtual experience, complete with recreating the look, feel, and overall experience of what they typically would have at their in-person event.”
Transitioning back to live
As for the future, Bird foresees primarily virtual events in Q1 and Q2 of 2021, with a transition to hybrid events in Q3 and Q4. As for live events, Bird said, “There is certainly a sentiment in the industry that live events will return, but there will be a need to take the relevant content from onsite and create an experience for those in their community that were unable to be there live.”
Grouzard said GES had similar projections for 2021, and he believes hybrid events will continue to play a critical role in the future, especially for events centered on content and education.
“The in-person, face-to-face event will return, but I believe we have witnessed a new solution on how to extend the annual meeting in a virtual platform for weeks and/or months following the in-person meeting,” Grouzard said.
He also noted the greater opportunity for clients to have leverage to keep conversations going post-show.
However, Grouzard believes hybrid and in-person events will still be important for events like trade shows and consultative/complex selling. However, he thinks the key benefits of attending in-person events, like spontaneous networking, meetings over coffee and meals, breaks, and firsthand experience of new products and services have yet to be fully captured in the virtual realm.
“Unfortunately, in my opinion we have not seen a digital solution to best replicate an in-person exhibitor booth experience, bringing buyers and sellers together as robustly as an in-person exhibit hall allows,” he said. “Of course, as we go forward, we will see a constant evolution of how attendees will experience the live in-person events they attend.”
To him, while many have realized how often virtual attendees can get distracted, the goal was to “make attendees and the event audiences feel included, interested, and engaged at both in-person and virtual events.”
“We must create mutually beneficial experiences for the attendee that chooses to attend virtually or in person,” he added.
“In the end, [the question is] how do we come together as an industry, take the lessons learned from the past, take new risks, and collaborate on how best to build it back better?”