Coronavirus and Meetings
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The COVID-19 crisis has forced countless events to be cancelled or postponed, and it will likely be months before the full impact on the meetings industry and the global economy can be assessed. But members of the industry are also seeking and finding creative opportunities to keep business going.
Holding online events is one way this is being accomplished. As a number of high-profile gatherings have been forced to become digital-only, a growing number of organizations are experimenting with virtual events for the first time, or scaling up their digital offerings to new heights. While there are many aspects of in-person events that can't be replicated in digital form, the virtual gathering also presents distinct opportunities that could prove beneficial for organizations over the long run.
To discuss the opportunities of virtual events, we spoke with Jennifer Kingen Kush, founder of digital-event strategy firm Kingen Kush Solutions, as well as the former vice president and executive director of PCMA's Digital Experience Institute, where she guided the organization on advancing engagement around digital events and meetings. We discussed how planners can get the most out of their virtual events and how incorporating online meetings into their offerings can set them up for success once their in-person gatherings return.
Virtual Event Insight From Jennifer Kingen Kush
Is it safe to say that digital event specialists are extremely busy these days?
We've been getting lots of calls. There are groups who are saying they have to cancel the face-to-face, but they want to figure out a next step, and that's where they turn to a digital-first event. Mobile World Congress did a one-day digital event, and Google Cloud Next has become Google Cloud Next '20: Digital Connect. Facebook F8 is completely online and Starbucks is doing its shareholder meeting fully online for the first time ever.
But for the events that are a little further out, some of those groups are saying, "we have a bit of time and are not sure how long these changes will impact us" and some are looking at doing a hybrid approach, saying "we have upcoming fall events and still hope it's face-to-face, but want to incorporate a digital component now."
One group that's just switched to digital in a really interesting way is Art Basel Hong Kong. They had hundreds of millions of dollars of art that galleries were going to be showing to buyers and had debuted a digital viewing room as an extension of the face-to-face for the year. But now that Hong Kong cancelled face-to-face events, the organizers shifted their full focus to online. They've set up rooms were people can go in, get pricing and do transactions and still provide value to the stakeholders. There's even a VIP preview before they open it up to the wider public, just like they would do at the in-person event.
In the next few weeks, a lot of people are probably going to be trying out virtual events for the first time — both as hosts and attendees. As people get more comfortable with this technology, will this exposure to virtual events have long-term effects on the meetings industry?
Absolutely. And I think the tech companies will adapt to the growing needs — there will be a lot of innovation. The content that you get at these events is the best of the best for that organization, bringing together their thought leadership and putting everything forward. When you capture that, the content is so valuable and attendees can more easily share it with their sales or marketing or education teams.
One thing I've seen with remote attendees is that after they engage online with you, when they later show up at a face-to-face event, that relationship has already been established and it makes the in-person experience even more rich. It's like having a pen pal, then meeting them face-to-face. It can be really powerful and creates more of a feeling of connection.
Do you expect to see more organizers expanding their virtual event offerings, even for gatherings planned for far into the future?
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I see it as three stages: First, there's the crisis management, like we are seeing now. Second, you have the incorporation of digital as a way to diversify your offerings. And third is more long term, thinking about next year and beyond, where you start looking at things more strategically.
With the cost of technology and internet access so much lower, the barriers to entry are lower and audiences are more comfortable in the space; thanks to streaming on Netflix or FaceTiming with their families, it's more familiar now than it's ever been. Ten years ago they may have said, "my audience isn't ready," but every year it's been progressing.
When you're challenged, you have to explore new options and look differently at things. There have been a lot of tech companies and solutions in the space for a long time, working especially in the tech world and corporate world and it's on the forefront for everyone now.
Are you concerned that over the long term virtual events eat into the revenue of face-to-face events?
When I was at PCMA there were concerns that digital events could cannibalize live ones. So we conducted research and created an ROI Report in 2016. It reviewed five years of data about around Convening Leaders and our Education Conference, looking at who had attended our live events after taking part in the digital ones. We found that hybrid and rebroadcast events brought PCMA 3,933 new prospects and more than $1 million in incremental dollars to the organization, including more than $110,000 in new memberships, $305,000 for membership renewals and $562,000 for face-to-face registrations. Rather than cannibalizing live events, digital events can actually enhance them.
If your organization were looking to grow a region, to go in and hold a face-to-face event might require a lot of money to invest upfront. But you could beta-test it with a digital experience and attract a new audience.
—Jennifer Kingen Kush
The whole data side, on the back end, is a great opportunity for groups, because online people are very participatory. They will voice their opinion. When you do digital, you can really engage them and they will tell you. You can see where people go, what sessions they like, what they say in the text chat. Being able to know your audience and be able to then develop education and products to better address their needs is powerful.
From everyone I'm talking to, they just want to help each other get through this, work together to say "how do we create a solution to minimize risks while engaging your audience and achieving your goals?" The ultimate goal is to strengthen face-to-face and group events.
How might we use virtual events to increase engagement and better complement in-person events?
An association that has to cancel a face-to-face event just reached out to me. I said to them, "This could be an opportunity to engage your members who are not coming to the face-to-face and encourage them to come next year." They have a lot of students who were not yet members and this presents opportunities for legacy planning. Or it might mean broadening your reach across industry segments: if you're a specialty medical association, you could reach out to other healthcare professionals or young professionals around that specialty.
It also can help you grow geographically. If your organization were looking to grow a region, to go in and hold a face-to-face event might require a lot of money to invest upfront. But you could beta-test it with a digital experience and attract a new audience.
With what we're going through now, when people recover and stabilize and start planning for next year, that's where there will be opportunities that can be developed over the long run.