It took a 100-year event like COVID—slamming the brakes on all in-person events—to finally get people to pay attention to virtual.
On April 13, 2010, I moderated a panel discussion on virtual events for the International Association for Exhibitions & Events. I was blown away by the technology and felt it presented a huge opportunity for event professionals to add a new channel to their event portfolios. If we didn’t embrace virtual events, I argued, it would find its way into companies through their IT departments, not event departments.
Robin Klombers, who was with INXPO at the time, had prepared a demo of their virtual expo environment. Rather than having her show it, however, I asked someone in the audience to come up to the computer on stage and “drive” instead. He, too, was blown away. Even so, the vibe in the room could be summed up like this: “Cool toy. When I can have a ‘virtual beer’ with my clients, maybe I’ll pay more attention. Until then, let us get back to work on shows with lots of booths and conferences with tons of breakouts, like we’re all used to.”
For all the talk this year of virtual events being a whole new animal, the core technology has actually been around for at least 15 years. I’m still amazed it’s had a relatively fringe impact on the overall industry all this time.
In the first two Road Ahead pieces, I looked at the prognosis for a return to normal in the industry and at how in-person events will change post-COVID. Now I’m turning to virtual events, in particular the business context, their design, strategy, and what it means for careers in events.
1. Business Barometer: Market Caps & Valuations. It might have seemed intuitive last spring that stocks of companies like Zoom and Amazon would soar, while those of Marriott and Delta would tank, reflecting the brutal reality that we were all going to be staying home for a while.
- ON24, one of the old guard virtual firms, saw its stock soar 45% the day after its IPO on February 3, and currently has a market cap of $3 billion.
- Hopin raised $125 million in November at a $2.1 billion valuation, the fastest company to ever get to that amount, and it’s barely a year old.
- Also in November, Welcome raised $12 million, aiming to become the Ritz-Carlton of virtual events. This start-up has no virtual experience, yet still was able to secure funds from marquee venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins, which was an early investor in Google, Amazon, Twitter, and numerous other tech behemoths.
- Bizzabo raised $138 million in December. Though the company has been around for a while, they only pivoted to virtual tech within the past year.
2. Increased Competition Brings Lower Prices. In Part Two of this series where I focused on in-person events, I talked about the difficult—but necessary—contraction on the supply side (at venues, hotels, and other suppliers) to deal with the dramatic drop in demand. In virtual it’s the exact opposite. All that money flowing into the virtual event space is the market’s way of bringing supply and demand into equilibrium. This is good news for planners, as the increased competition will eventually drive down prices.
3. The Wild West Gets . . . Less Wild. 2020 was a free-for-all in hiring virtual event providers. Planners were poorly informed, and every vendor pivoted to claim they could handle virtual. In many cases, it was hard to tell how long a company had actually been doing virtual events because their websites were quickly updated without distinguishing which clients listed were for old services or for virtual ones. That said, they’re all learning very quickly and getting increasingly better at it, as are planners. The result is that virtual event providers, which in 2020 were viewed as relatively indistinguishable utilities, will see significant brand differentiation and reputational separation. Word of delayed customer support, unstable bandwidth, sloppy execution, and clunky integration with other core apps like Salesforce, will spread quickly in the event community, creating clear winners and losers. (By the way, a clever way to check a company’s history with virtual is to view a version of the company’s website from its pre-COVID days, which you can do with a Wayback Machine, by entering the company’s website and selecting a date like January 2020. If you don’t see any mention of virtual services on the older site, and see the same client names as the current site, it means they’re relatively new to virtual.)
4. The Elephants in the Room. With all the focus on the seismic effects of COVID and virtual events, it can be easy to ignore other systemic changes that might sneak up on us, some of which could pose grave consequences for entire industry sectors. For example:
- Until the mid-to-late 1990s, being a travel agent was a valuable gated business opportunity because they were the only ones with access to airline booking systems. All that changed seemingly overnight with the advent of online booking.
- In 2013 a New York City taxi medallion—the license to operate one of a fixed number of cabs—sold for $1 million. The price had steadily been increasing each year, a seemingly no-lose investment because, like real estate, they weren’t making any more of them. By 2019 those same medallions went for $136,000, and some didn’t even sell. What happened? Uber built a better mousetrap.
That same level of change might be heading our way in the form of mega-companies encroaching on what was previously local and small business. Last fall, Amazon quietly (at least as far as our industry knew) launched Amazon Explore, a virtual tours and experience platform. That followed on the heels of Airbnb’s rollout of their virtual experience marketplace in April. (Airbnb already had a growing and well-regarded in-person experience marketplace.) Not to be outdone, Zoom launched the beta version of OnZoom, yet another marketplace for online experiences, in October.
Thus far their focus has been on individuals and small private groups, and except for Airbnb, they haven’t trafficked in in-person events. But if they wanted to, any of those behemoths could pivot to corporate in a heartbeat and put a major dent in the business of destination management companies, which previously were the only ones with the local connections to arrange such insider tours and experiences.
5. Small Players Can Become Global Brands. Designing, planning, and producing virtual events are skills that travel well.
If you’re a company based in Chicago doing an event in Orlando, it would be unlikely for you to hire a planning company based in San Diego unless there’s a prior connection with the firm or it has niche expertise that doesn’t exist in the other locations. But with virtual events, none of that really matters. The only in-person interaction might be filming or broadcasting presentations at the company’s headquarters, and that’s much easier for an out-of-town supplier to execute than one might think.
6. 2021: The Year of the UX. If 2020 was about functionality—making the virtual event operationally sound—then 2021 will be about user experience. All the money pouring into virtual providers will drive greater creativity, more organic interfaces, and greater engagement. The New York Times recently profiled several new entrants into the space that I hadn’t even heard of in the story The Race to Fix Virtual Meetings. People who talk of Zoom fatigue likely haven’t played Fortnite, or any of the other massive online multiplayer video games, where players are glued to their screens for hours and even days at a time. Those magically immersive environments and addictively interactive formats will influence virtual event tech vendors’ platform designs.
7. Broadcast Quality Content Design. While video games will be a driving force behind virtual event environments and engagement, broadcast television will push content delivery in new ways. Look at Apple’s November 2020 launch event or the 2020 Democratic National Convention to get an idea of what’s possible (albeit with a big budget, for now anyway).
This will be of particular importance in the remote viewer experience for hybrid events. Look at sports or entertainment, which have very different experiences for the on-site and remote audiences. Academy Awards viewers get to see a red carpet show before the actual program. Football fans at home watch sideline interviews with players and replay analysis with experts using graphic overlays. They have an announcer and a color commentator exclusively to engage the at-home audience with content that fans in the stadium don’t get to experience.
8. The Challenge of Replicating the ‘Sense of Discovery.’ Perhaps the singular area where virtual has underperformed compared to in-person events is in providing value to exhibitors, and to a lesser extent, sponsors. Without question, this is the primary concern for associations and other large trade show owners, as they stare at gaping holes in their budgets from the loss of so much exhibitor money. A big reason virtual attendees are not giving much love to their exhibitors is that, quite frankly, they’re not that interesting. Not the individual exhibits themselves, the overall experience. Sure, it’s fun to try out the new functionality of interacting with virtual exhibitors in avatar-like environments, for a little while. But after a handful it gets boring. Why? That magical sense of discovery at physical shows, that tingle of curiosity that urges you to walk the show floor, wondering what might be around the corner, despite knowing the pain your feet will feel shortly thereafter, is just not that easy to replicate online.
9. Pricing Settles Into Two Models. To charge, or not to charge: that is the question. Or at least it was for most of 2020. The vast majority of event organizers either charged dramatically lower registration fees, or none at all, lacking confidence in the value of their virtual events, and communicating to their audiences as much. Well, lesson learned. Attendee pricing in 2021 will generally fall into two categories, based on the type of event.
- Marketing-driven events, like user conferences, have seen how making their virtual events free can result in exponential attendance increases. Microsoft Build, for example, got around 6,000 people to pay $2,395 each for the in-person conference in 2019. By making the price free in 2020 it grew attendance to an astounding 230,000, a 38-fold increase. Other similar events are finding comparable increases, such as Cvent Connect going from 4,000 to 40,000 attendees with its virtual conference in 2020. Since these events are not primary revenue drivers for the host companies, they’re able to forego the substantial revenue generated at the in-person events in favor of the dramatically increased marketing and community-building opportunity. And all indications are that this will be the model in 2021 as well; Microsoft’s Ignite conference, held March 2-4, was again offered free.
- Organizations whose events are their main revenue source, however, can’t afford to make them free. Instead, they are likely to follow the model set by the Consumer Electronics Show, which this year charged 50% of the previous in-person registration fee. Half-price feels like a nice, simple number that many associations and similar organizations will adopt moving forward. It lends an easy narrative to digest: there’s too much value to make it free, but by saving on venue, travel, and logistics expenses they can justify 50% of the in-person fee. (Yes, I know virtual costs more than most people realize, but it’s still less.)
10. Data Data Everywhere. We’ve been making slow-but-steady progress in collecting actionable data in events over the years, with trade shows generally leading the way. Exhibitors went from a “spray and pray” approach of handing out brochures to as many passersby as possible, to scanning badges, to syncing leads collected on the show floor into their CRMs. Hosted-buyer models evolved to more accurately match prospects with vendors, proving that it’s better for exhibitors to have dedicated time with fewer but highly vetted customers in curated one-on-one meetings.
Much less progress, however, was made with content. Event apps made it easier for planners to see who attended which sessions but did little to track engagement. Scanning an attendee’s badge at a breakout room entrance didn’t tell you if that person was really interested in the topic or if they simply ducked into a room to catch up on emails.
Virtual events provide dramatically better data on all fronts. It’s easier to gauge viewer interest level during a session by tracking their activity in the Chat and Q&A windows, for example, or seeing when they put the virtual platform window in the background. While some of that technology was available for in-person events via apps, it’s simply not as organic for people to use them when watching a speaker on the stage, as it is when watching them on a screen.
11. What Can We Learn From Online Dating? In theory, facilitated networking (often called “brain dating”) should be easier to execute in an online environment. Organizers and tech vendors simply haven’t cracked the code on it yet. For all the talk of missing the serendipitous running into people at event venues, the truth is you usually run into people you already know. In-person events don’t do a great job of helping you meet totally new, but potentially valuable, contacts. Virtual event platform designers and event producers will be handsomely rewarded for designing an efficient, organic way for online attendees to meet the small handful of people they really want to meet, amid the sea of participants.
12. Exhibitors Will Go Rogue. For trade shows in particular, virtual events present problems for exhibitors, especially large shows. Big annual in-person conventions create their own center of gravity when an entire industry seems to take over the host city. And there’s something cool about running into your fellow show attendees, even ones you don’t know, at airports, bars, and restaurants; you’re all insiders, and you’re everywhere. It feels like a must-attend event for suppliers, who tolerate exorbitant costs to exhibit in front of increasingly distracted crowds.
No such communal magic exists in a virtual trade show, which makes it much easier for brands to pull out and host their own virtual events, rather than get lost in the shuffle of digital booths. And why shouldn’t they? They’re no longer limited to the three days that all the buyers are in town, and can pick a date with no competition, especially since the time commitment to attend is less than going to a physical event.
The same goes for the challenge of launching a product around a show, where you have to fight to be heard above the noise. As Brian Heater wrote in Techcrunch reflecting on this year’s CES: “Perhaps instead of having thousands of companies vying for our attention at one event, we’re moving toward a model in which there are thousands of events. When you’re not asking people to fly across the country or world to attend an event, the bar for what qualifies for news lowers considerably.”
13. Keep Reskilling, or Get Left Behind. While 2020 was a year of tremendous disruption driven by the pandemic, don’t expect the pace of change to slow down once COVID is brought under control. In 2020, most event stakeholders, from clients and attendees to sponsors and speakers, were pretty forgiving if virtual events had production glitches, or worse, were just plain poorly designed. In 2021, the training wheels will have to come off, and people will be expecting events to be designed, executed, and measured successfully in achieving the organization’s goals.
Event industry roles will continue to evolve, and planners will need to keep honing their skills in new ways of event design, virtual content delivery, facilitated networking, analytics (lots of data with virtual!), and more.
In addition, ambitious event planners are already taking on more of the tech-related tasks previously performed by audiovisual contractors. It may not be realistic for a planner to know how to operate sound, video, or lighting gear as the techs do for in-person events, if for no other reason than they don’t have that gear lying around to practice on. Virtual event tech levels the playing field. If you were able to configure a mobile event app, you’ll probably be able to set up a decent portion of the virtual event platform and master various parts of the run of show. This is a tremendous opportunity for those eager to grow and expand their skills, while leaving others behind who refuse to lean into the new landscape. By being a point person for the virtual technology, in-house planners can forge tighter working relationships with the senior executives in their companies who are presenting at these events.
All of this points to event profs needing to be flexible in learning and mastering the skills that a rapidly changing environment demands. Charles Darwin nailed it when he said “It is not the strongest, nor the most intelligent, of the species that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” I know it’s not easy; we had to do it too. In response to COVID, ELI fast-tracked the development of four new courses in an average of three to four weeks each, a process that previously had taken three to four months. We didn’t have a choice; we had to keep up with the pace of change.
14. Are We in the Movie Business or the Content Business? Prior to 1950, the only places Hollywood studios could distribute their movies were in theaters. By 1955, however, half of all U.S. homes had televisions. Rather than looking at this as competition, the big studios embraced television as just another distribution channel for their entertainment content, and had the same approach when cable arrived. While initially dismissive of streaming, they eventually came around to the realization that Netflix was onto something, and got on that train too. When Disney released “Mulan” in September, they did so through their streaming channel Disney+, rather than in theaters, because of COVID.
And within those options there are numerous sub-options, particularly for hybrid. For example, do remote viewers need to experience the same content as on-site attendees? If not, at what point do they become separate events altogether? Should in-person participants be able to view online content while at the event site? Should the remote and on-site audiences be networking separately or together?
The pandemic has presented us with the opportunity to expand, not contract, our roles, if we take a strategic view.
If you’d like to see a full list of 25 rapid-fire predictions for the year, watch the on-demand recording of The State of The Events Industry 2021 webinar.