by Ronn Levine
"I write the last line [of the novel], and then I write the line before that… You have to know what your voice sounds like at the end of the story, because it tells you how to sound when you begin," author John Irving told The Economist in 2012. I once heard Irving talk in person about this—writing your ending first and then working out how to get there. A Power Panel at BIMS 2020 last week said something similar about virtual events: Script the results you want to see first and then work accordingly to make it happen.
After 30 minutes of listening to five very smart people talk about the future of events on that panel, I thought back to this idea: What do you want your event to accomplish? What should your ending be? If you’re the Financial Times, you want more subscribers. If you’re Winsight, you want to bring buyers and sellers together. If you’re an events company like Emerald, you probably want to do both—or just deliver the most overall value possible.
“Can I give you some numbers?” Orson Francescone (pictured right in photo), head of FT Live, said. “FT is a newspaper, and we reached a million subscribers a year ago. Our strategy is to drive subscriptions and we’re doing that very successfully. Events were always a big part of that strategy because subscribers who attend events tend to be better engaged [and bring] longer lifetime value…
“Last year we had 24,000 delegates at our conferences. This year with 220 online events”—and counting with three more December events scheduled—“that’s webinars, conferences and award shows, we’ve had 160,000 ‘digital delegates.’ So suddenly those numbers are kind of blowing our model out of the water in the sense that we are bringing in a huge funnel of new subscribers into the FT machinery. That’s a very attractive proposition to someone who owns an integrated media platform like us.”
While Francescone set the very substantive tone, he did not define it. Chris Keating, EVP, conferences for Winsight, scripted a positive ending for his company, where connections mostly trump content. Kudos also go to moderator Robyn Duda, co-founder, Change the Stage, for keeping the conversation pinpointed and flowing.
“Where we’re shifting our thinking a bit is that content is still usually important and getting the best speakers is great, but… making sure that people really connect in this virtual environment is really critical,” Keating said. “Sitting home alone staring at the computer screen is not a very immersive experience. So for us [what’s crucial is] putting together peer group meetings so you can spend time connecting with them, putting together meetings with exhibitors and attendees, not in a selling situation but in a sharing knowledge situation.
“That’s always been there, but for us that becomes more important. Just having speakers, virtual booths, hoping they’ll connect, I don’t think that is going to help anyone out. But creating these environments, these opportunities to make the human connection—because lets’ face it, there’s not many things that someone will learn here that they can’t read somewhere or talk to someone. You have to create that human connection and to us that will really become a key part of our strategy.”
With those differing views, it took Jessica Blue, EVP, Emerald Expositions, and John McGovern, CEO and owner, Grimes, McGovern & Associates, to round the topic out.
“The best model I’ve done is the one that integrates media, content, in-person, matchmaking and live experience,” Blue said. “I’ve run a lot of events with associated media and honestly that’s the most attractive model and sees the most brand loyalty no matter what market you have—[it creates] that year-round community engagement. [During my time] at UBM, [our] events-first strategy was misunderstood. To be only about events is far from the reality of it and what we were really encouraged to do is view our media assets in a different way. To integrate them fully into the events business to build the brand strategy and to drive the cross-portfolio growth. That strategy when well executed really paid off.”
The discussion of media assets led right into McGovern, who represented the M&A world. He believes that long-term, being able to successfully put on virtual events will have many advantages.
“Think about how valuations are set—the buyer builds a pro-forma model that shows that one plus one will be more than two once they do the acquisition,” he said. “Pre-COVID, very few of those models had significant revenue or gross profits tied to online events. Now you’ve got all these event companies doing online events which are doing well and, depending on the market, they can support 12 months a year. [So when] live comes back, you end up with ultimately higher margin businesses with the combination.”
Duda, who like Keating and Blue, spent time at events giant UBM, agreed about the “super importance” of creating connections but also emphasized user experience. “Part of that is navigation,” she said. “You can have the best content in the world, you can personalize things, you could create the best connections. But if people don’t have a seamless, UX user experience,” it won’t matter.”
While Financial Times has jumped fully in the virtual waters, Blue said that although Emerald has put on “31 virtual events across our portfolios… it’s [also] given us an opportunity to step back to look at what we do and how we do it—exploring research about trusting trade show organizers.”
Keating concurred about making good use of this in-person events break. “One thing we have to get better as an industry is proving ROI, something digital media is very good at. We’re using this downtime to figure out how to become a much more active connector between buyers and sellers… Hopefully, we can be active connectors and this gives us an opportunity to be good at that.”
Francescone believes that the result you’re looking may be reliant on which type of event you run. “It depends how you define events,” he said. “That word has been blown up. Are we publishers, television producers, trade show organizers, online magazines? So how you define events is really the key here. If you’re a trade show organizer then trying to go digital is tough. If you’re a conference organizer trying to go digital, it’s easier. We’re really good at delivering content. We know it’s hard to deliver those connections in a digital format. I think it will get better as the technology improves. What is an event really? That definition will keep evolving.”
Keating says that Winsight does not want their events division to be siloed. “I grew up in media and moved to events. We don’t want them to exist on their own anymore. There’s a so much more powerful way that you can connect. Our main restaurant website has over 1 million unique visitors a month. That’s an enormous audience to tap into and connect with for live events.”
When Will In-Person Events Come Back?
“I don’t know,” said Francescone. “I’m comfortable with that because we’ve built a very successful digital model. When the physical model comes back we’ll be able to switch back very quickly. But, just to try to help our audience with the way that we’re thinking about this, there are a few steps.”
The first three steps he named were vaccine rollout, the slashing of travel budgets and staff safety. The fourth was more complex. “Behaviors have changed, and I think they’ve changed forever,” he said. “The reality is the days when you used to get on a plane to go to a conference in New York or Singapore are either long gone or will take a long time to come back. So I think the big international shows are the ones that will be hit hardest.”
Francescone said the likeliest scenario is that in-person events will return in the fall of 2021 “slow, gradual and localized. It will start with roundtables, dinners, breakfast briefings, small conferences and then when people feel more comfortable it will keep going from there. But the main trend will be localized and hybrid, connective.
“All events will be digital forever, so I say to my team, digital-first forever is our strategy right, regardless of when the live comes back.”
Blue said that Emerald just put on its first in-person event since March—the International Gift Show of the Smokies in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. “Exhibitors were down 60%, buyer attendance down 30% but there were 12 attendees per exhibitor. And the serious buyers were there. We also got to test the rollout of our health and safety plan. Masks, temperature checks, waivers, 6 foot queuing, one entrance in, one entrance out. It’s a good thing for the industry, but [events are] dependent state by state.”
“People have been gathering in groups longer than flying in airplanes, so people are going to get comfortable doing that again,” Keating said. “[But] business travel will be depressed for a long time. The day trip to Dallas or the three-day trip to see clients who may not work in an office anymore. That’s going to take longer to get back so what we do, our events are going to have to be an extremely efficient and powerful way to see a lot of customers in a short period of time. That need is not going to go away.”