How To Rethink Events For A New Era

Post-Covid, corporate events and conferences will never be the same. And maybe that's a good thing.

Can you recall the last time you experienced something that engaged all five senses, helped you connect with interesting people in a relevant way, and left you with lasting memories? It might have been an intimate dinner party. It might have been a noisy sporting event in a huge arena. Either way, what you experienced was the exclusive power of live engagement.

From a business perspective, no other channel can deliver on the trifecta of content, community, and commerce quite like experiential marketing. We all learned that the hard way over the last couple of years. According to industry research from October of 2020, “The negative impact of the lack of live events is being widely felt by both visitors and exhibitors. Two thirds of those who exhibit at business events reported their cancellation has had a notable detrimental impact on their business, reducing their ability to build brand awareness with their target markets.”

For those of us who have made our careers in the world of conferences and exhibitions, it’s easy to see that it will never be the same. And that’s a good thing. From where I stand, it’s clear that events will be better than ever if we act on what we’ve learned. There is so much value we can add for show organizers, brands, exhibitors, sponsors, participants and cities that regularly host events. Consistently, marketers tell us that in-person events are ideally suited for brand awareness, networking, lead generation, product demonstration and actual commerce. Digital events are better suited to fundamental content delivery, instruction and certification. By integrating what we’ve learned about producing digital events with the best of face-to-face events, we can expand our reach even as we offer more personalized experiences for participants. We can be more responsive to our stakeholders’ needs and step up as more responsible citizens of the world.

I urge every C-suite leader to consider these opportunities when planning to host or participate in a business event.

1. Personalization ― Digital technology has changed everything, and in our industry, it’s mostly for the better. It’s not simply about having the latest in flashy apps or meta interactivity, although there’s plenty of excellent and entertaining tech worth exploring. Strategically, however, our priorities should focus on designing for data analysis ―structuring our live events so that they integrate the best of digital and in-person elements in a way that unleashes the power of data-based design. Literally, we can design events to improve how we collect, analyze, and apply relevant insights in order to deliver a personalized experience across a spectrum of audience personas. We have data analysis platforms and graphic-based dashboards that provide complete visualization of the KPIs that matter. In real time. When we design an event to layer virtual streaming content with in-person engagements, and we offer opt-in mobile connectivity, we can monitor and adjust our conferences as they unfold in order to optimize the experience for everyone.

2. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion ― In a series of recent focus groups conducted by Freeman, we asked meeting planners to rank the top issues they are facing in both short- and long-term planning. Understandably, short-term disruptions such as world events and supply chain challenges rose to the top. But when asked the same question regarding their long-term outlook, DEI and Sustainability led the way. We have seen that by offering virtual content to our event offering, our audiences are more diverse, pulling from greater distances, from more countries, and from more women and minority groups. New parents can attend without stressing about childcare. Neurodiverse participants and those with physical challenges have more congenial options. And those who are struggling to justify the investment in time and the cost of travel have an opportunity to sample the experience and consider attending in person next time. Moreover, by applying the data analysis and personalization already mentioned, we can intentionally design our in-person events to be inclusive.

3. Sustainability ― Today, environmental justice and social justice are inextricably linked. Businesses that are serious about holding themselves accountable to DEI standards must also account for their carbon footprint and include sustainability measures in their business plans. As one Harvard Business Review study shows, companies with strong ESG standards out-index others across a range of metrics, including profitability. The events industry, as with most business segments, has acknowledged its responsibility to pursue long-term zero-emissions strategies. Interestingly, at the SISO CEO summit, Hervé Sedky, president and CEO of trade show organizer Emerald, said, “I believe that trade shows can help reduce overall emissions. People who would otherwise need to travel to multiple locations to conduct business instead accomplished it when everyone was in town for a trade show―eliminating the need for thousands of additional flights.” Of course, the design of any event―from a private wedding to a huge trade show―involves making informed choices in support of sustainability goals. If you partner with event professionals, make sure that they have plans to reduce waste by reusing, upcycling and donating leftovers, whether that’s food, decorations, wearables or building materials. Require that they scrutinize opportunities up and down the supply chain to reduce truck mileage and associated emissions. Leave the host city better than you found it. Your business and your brand will be judged accordingly.

4. Orchestration ― Orchestrating the journey for attendees of a conference or trade show requires that the event designer consider each touchpoint and how it advances the individual’s progress along a virtual and in-person path. Pre-event communications set expectations and build anticipation. The event itself is a journey of discovery, networking, exclusive experience, and interaction with displays and exhibits. It can transpire across various venues within a city over a few days. Or it can roll out as an experience that occurs in various cities simultaneously or touring. A hub event, designed with satellite events, minimizes travel, reduces environmental footprints and offers greater intimacy, with the option to digitally share a live feed of key shared content. At the journey’s end, follow-up engagements allow the experience to continue. And at each touchpoint, we can invite input to inform the design of the next adventure and to give participants a reason to stay engaged as they choose their own adventure personalized to their interests. Year-round communications, embracing the full bandwidth of marketing channels, keep the individual connected to the tribe until they gather again in person.

5. Ambient Wellness ― Looking beyond basic health and safety, we can all use help rebuilding our mental and physical resilience. Research shows mental and physical health are vitally interconnected and increasingly a priority for Americans. Attention should be extended to promoting the overall wellness of event participants, offering nutritious food options and opportunities to take breathers from rigorous event schedules. Further, by inspiring the communities we host to recommit to the shared purpose that brings them together, to promote the vital beliefs they share, and to celebrate the benefits of coming together, we equip them with the very building blocks of resiliency.

The overriding purpose for any live business event is to create a welcoming space for people to explore and exchange ideas. When we strive to engage people in emotionally charged experiences, the kind that are stored deep in our brain as “glad I was there” memories, we are earning their trust and loyalty. And when event organizers rise to the opportunity to serve as community organizers, sometimes bringing tens of thousands of people into a city over the course of several days, we create a kind of incubator for innovation, value and community. This is our higher purpose. Who knows where the insights and connections we provoke might lead? Certainly, getting it together is a first step in the journey forward.