It goes without saying organizations have had to rethink their strategy for in-person events in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The outbreak has tested just about every aspect of business preparedness and contingency plans.
But, if there is a silver lining to this calamity, it is the rise of hybrid and virtual events, and the forced digital transformation that has accelerated due to the pandemic.
Right now, teams are reluctant to return to in-person meetings, and this is unlikely to change any time soon. The unwillingness to attend in-person events should surprise no one given the uncertainty of what lies ahead for the virus.
Research conducted by The Harris Poll showed teams working from home are just as productive as they are working from the office. It also revealed a majority of those polled (61 percent) say there is no timeline for returning to normal.
It also revealed more than half (54 percent) of surveyed employed Americans working from home due to COVID-19 would not be comfortable attending large, in-person work-related conferences or events this year.
To ensure participants’ safety and comfort, organizations must move to a hybrid approach for events, including town halls and sales conferences. In doing so, many organizations, both large and small, say the result is a better experience for everyone involved.
Considering working remotely will remain normalized following the pandemic, virtual events are likely to remain a part of the landscape for the foreseeable future, even after many believe it safe to return to in-person meetings and events. Organizations have progressed more in the past three months than they did in the past three years.
Here is a look at what the future holds for such events as we enter the ‘next normal.’
For the long haul
In general, workers recognize the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way businesses operate for years to come. Individual employees say they are in no hurry to return to the office or in-person events; neither are their employers.
They have also discovered they may not need to attend many in-person events. In fact, about two-thirds of workers (63 percent) said they can accomplish more during a video conference from home than they can during an in-person meeting.
The result will be more impactful events which deliver higher value to both internal and external stakeholders. Teams no longer have time for filler; they want substance, and organizations will be forced to align their offerings with what their audience expects. While it may make for some short-term frustrations, it will ultimately lead to better experiences more tailored and safer for all participants.
Already in progress
Before the pandemic, many event planners were starting to consider hybrid events to complement and bolster in-person meetings. But, even with this consideration, many did not feel compelled to extend them virtually.
While there is not any one single apparent reason why people did not attend virtual meetings, it often centered on the idea they had been gathering in-person for years. Without something like the COVID-19 pandemic, they did not feel the pressure to move in that direction.
The pandemic accelerated how people think about events and how to effectively meet when social distancing is required. Mandated lockdowns enforced a need for them to act rather than debate what they might be doing in six months or a year.
Despite these requirements, people still want to—and need to—connect; it is how the world operates, making it arguably their most significant need. Even as business has slowed, it has not stopped; it has just changed.
Success is real
Organizations planning in-person events have successfully transitioned to virtual gatherings amid the pandemic.
Just consider the approaches of Convey, an Atlanta-based SaaS (software as a service) technology company, and Model N, a leading provider of revenue management solutions for the technology and life sciences industries. The COVID-19 pandemic required both to reimagine in-person events as virtual ones.
“In light of COVID-19, we launched Cloud Conventions 2020 as a virtual event,” said Convey founder Carolyn Bradfield. “For our keynote addresses, we needed a reliable platform to manage our speaker requirements as well as stream the event to a large audience allowing them to interact for Q&A.”
Meanwhile, for 16 years, Model N has held Rainmaker, an annual conference for customers, industry leaders, and partners. However, a week before the Rainmaker20 event, scheduled for Orlando, Fla, in mid-March, the threat of COVID-19 forced Model N to reconsider its plans.
“Within 24 hours, I was on a discovery call with the team scoping this quick pivot,” said Model N’s director of events and field marketing Phil Montero. “Two days later, registration was live, allowing us to salvage our physical conference virtually.”
Model N hosted 14 live webcasts over two days and saw a 27 percent increase in attendance. Sessions were presented by thought leaders and industry experts virtually, which allowed customers, partners, industry experts, and Model N employees to attend seamlessly and safely.
Scaling up for success
Virtual and hybrid events present an opportunity to scale up an event and reach larger audiences. Because there is no need to source a larger venue, such gatherings can be a more cost-effective way to reach more people.
They can also easily be expanded to accommodate additional interests or grow as an event evolves.
More than anything, such events permit organizations to engage with their audiences in new and powerful ways. These events can be more immersive, and often lead to a greater sense of community among attendees.
While organizations may be hesitant to book in-person events, virtual events can easily be expanded into hybrid offerings should organizers opt to include some level of on-site components.
This will lead to some level of experimentation as companies navigate these unchartered waters.
A better way to connect
Now that organizations proved to themselves they could accomplish a virtual event, they will continue to look to them in the future.
Many organizations already realize a virtual event is just the start and those yet to will soon catch on. That is because virtual gatherings provide organizations with an opportunity to take content and repurpose it post-event.
They can use it as content for social channels, where it can live for months. While those who did not attend an event can interact with the content at their leisure, it also provides an opportunity to re-engage with attendees, who can engage in the material a second time.
Before the event, consider any and all post-event steps—whether it is a survey or thank you notes—and develop a plan to leverage them to maintain momentum.
Lessons for the future
It is difficult to look at this pandemic and point out the bright spots. But, if there is a positive, it is that it forced companies to accelerate their digital transformations.
“All conventions moving forward will likely have a digital component, which builds a bigger audience for the typical convention,” said Mark Jaronski, deputy commissioner for Tourism at the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “That does not replace the importance of face-to-face meetings, however, and Georgia has many cities which host meetings and conventions of all sizes.”
“Georgia’s meeting destinations continue to receive many inquiries, and the booking pace in many of our cities has remained strong for 2021 and beyond,” Jaronski added. “That said, I have spoken with many of our industry partners throughout the state and the feedback has been very consistent: meeting planning professionals are dealing with a variety of challenges during this pandemic—from working from home to canceling and rescheduling future meetings. Going forward, the reality is that virtual and in-person meetings are here to stay, and Georgia’s cities and facilities are prepared to accommodate them.”
The best lessons are found in what seems to be the most difficult of times. While some companies will sadly not survive this pandemic, the ones that do will emerge with an improved view of how to meet and how digital platforms can help them achieve their business objectives.
To be successful, teams must take the lessons they can from this pandemic to guide their future thinking. Yes, it will help them prepare for a global crisis in the future, but in the process, they may also discover a better way to operate.
If everyone learns that lesson now, they will be better prepared for the next trial they encounter.
Mark Roberts serves as CMO of PGi (www.pgi.com) and is responsible for all marketing operations worldwide, driving growth opportunities and building brand recognition for the company within the communications market.