Changes to Make Now for Better Events in 2021 and Beyond

Key Takeaways:

  • Sponsorship models need to look completely different for virtual events. But there are solutions.
  • Consider smaller, more frequent events, or even a subscription model, to engage screen-fatigued attendees.
  • The lack of nationwide standards on when to return to in-person events means each organization’s plan will differ based on how they interpret risk.

“If 2020 was a black diamond, 2021 is a double black diamond,” said Nico van Praag, senior vice president at Freeman Company. It’s true: Last year, everyone shifted to a slate of virtual events. This year, the event mix may include virtual, hybrid, and in-person events—and you may have to quickly pivot among formats as health conditions or governmental regulations change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To mark Global Meetings Industry Day, the Event Leadership Institute hosted a panel of event professionals who shared how they have met the moment with new strategies for formats, sponsors, ideation, and more. Moderated by ELI founder Howard Givner, the conversation offered informed optimism even in a time of flux. Here are highlights from the conversation.

How do we convince sponsors to sign on to virtual events?

Stop competing against your physical event, said Kathryn Frankson, director of marketing at Informa. Virtual is something new, and you need to rethink sponsorship packages. She said the new mindset should be: “We’re in the digital marketing arena. We’re competing against digital marketing channels: Google, Facebook, YouTube. There’s an opportunity for more revenue and to take dollars from some of these oversaturated marketing channels.”

Throw your old sponsorship prospectus out the window, she advised. Brainstorm ways to create specific content for sponsors. Instead of offering a session, ask them to interview your keynote speaker. Create a thought leadership partnership or a lead generation partnership. “You’re finding that right alignment. It’s going a layer deeper—beyond a logo,” she said. “There is opportunity there if you start to tweak the story and sell based on a new solution that you’re able to offer.”

Ditch your big annual event. Instead, try smaller, more frequent events.

“Smaller is mightier in a virtual world,” said Tavar James, director, head of experiential marketing at Equitable. “We have to find a way to take a lot of information, truncate into smaller periods of time where we focus on the most important topic.”

The old model crammed as much information as possible into a four-hour general session. That doesn’t work at a virtual event where attendees may get antsy after 20 minutes. James suggested trying a 30-minute “jam session,” then reconvening in two hours. That gives people time to take a screen break or catch up on other work.

Use the opportunity to rethink formats as well. It’s tough to form relationships watching a traditional speech. “Make sure the experience is as human as possible,” James said. “When you take out the PowerPoint presentations and have conversations, you’re hitting the humanization part right on the head.”

Frankson said hyper-relevant, super niche events can work well for a virtual audience. Build a competitive advantage by choosing micro topics that align with what your industry needs.

Are subscription models the answer?

They could be! Subscriptions to events are just one solution that could come from the post-pandemic rethinking of events, according to Brian Morrissey, founder of The Rebooting. “You should come out of this with new event products.”

Subscription event models should offer consistent, quality content that is worth paying for, Van Praag advised. “Compare it to Netflix: The content has gotten better, so we keep paying.”

Frankson added that the challenge is to map out content to make it interesting and engaging for the audience. “There’s an assumption that the hard and fast educational content is why your audience joined your event. There are a lot of other levers to be pulled,” she said, suggesting different styles of events and exclusive experiences.

If you want to explore subscriptions, get started now, advised Kevin White, ELI instructor and CEO of XPL Agency. “They had better hurry up because Clubhouse is about to do it for free, constantly, and in-depth. There’s a race on if you’re going to start subscribing.”

Are you providing logistics or solving business problems?

Delivering an operationally flawless event used to be enough. Van Praag worked with Salesforce on its Dreamforce 2019 event that drew some 170,000 attendees, and the question there was how the event could solve a business problem of introducing more customers to a broader array of products—not operations.

“Logistics is an art. It’s an act of magic, frankly. But it is, I hate to say, a price of entry. The way we were approaching it in the past is, that’s enough. If we can create the physical space for people to gather and get Bruno Mars there, and we create places where salespeople meet with potential clients, then we get credit for driving the business. … But there’s a greater opportunity to look at it from a business problem perspective and create experiences that drive greater understanding and engagement in your business model overall. I believe the pandemic has driven a change to bring more C-level people into the process.”

Evaluate your organization’s risk tolerance—and what your audience is ready for.

Morrissey—who moved from New York to Miami nine months ago—predicted a quick return to pre-pandemic gatherings. “People are going to snap back to normal incredibly quickly,” he said. “People are going to want to go to events.” He believes that the physical act of gathering, and the benefits of networking and the proverbial cocktail party can’t be replicated online. “I have yet to see a virtual event that is able to come within breathing distance of recreating the networking possibilities of in-person events.”

The debate over when to return to live events will depend on the host organization’s interpretation of risk, White said. And right now, there is no consensus.

“You’re not going to get certainty or standardization in this industry,” White said. “You’re all going to have to find your path through it.”

Watch and listen to the entire panel #GMID2021 presentation for more takeaways about making events better in 2021.

Announcing Event Leadership Institute’s inaugural virtual event, the 2021 Business, Design and Strategy Summit. Sign-up to stay up-to-date with the latest announcements.