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As the world gradually starts to re-emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic damage done is really starting to show. Add the complexities created by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the result is a pretty dreadful financial picture right across the board, including in the events industry and especially event tech.
While inflation has driven the cost of events way up, increased competition is forcing prices down. And the fight for contracts is as brutal as the fight for Ukraine. However, there are things you can do to give yourself an edge in these tough times.
What is the situation?
The last couple of years have been great for those involved in running virtual and hybrid events. The technology has been able to jump forward as thousands of events of all kinds were forced to go from in-person to virtual. In fact, 85 per cent of the 1,830 marketers surveyed by LinkedIn in 2020 said that they held a virtual event within the last year, with 28 per cent saying that the overwhelming majority of their events were now virtual.
Understandably, the expectation was that this would forever change the nature of the events game, leading a lot of new players to enter the scene to get a piece of this profitable pie. However, the uptrend appears to be beginning to tail off.
“The patience of virtual attendees is wearing thin,” said Ken Holsinger, senior vice president of strategy-data solutions at Freeman in a press release. “They want better experiences.” This statement was in relation to Freeman’s release of a new study into opinions on the events industry. The research found that 85 per cent of attendees and 86 per cent of exhibitors were expecting to return to in-person events by the end of 2021, with positive sentiments on this move increasing significantly.
To a limited extent, this shift in moods was predicted. Responding to the question of whether virtual events are really here to stay, as part of an article for Forbes, Keneisha Williams of Black In Events Network said, “Yes. But not at the magnitude many are assuming. There will always be virtual and hybrid events, but in-person events will always reign supreme over virtual. We had to adapt to virtual because we had no choice. Humans are social creatures and we need face-to-face experiences.”
“Given the option, attendees are going to choose in-person as long as it’s in reach. I also believe if a company has a big enough budget to host hybrid events, which ultimately includes virtual, they will. However, it won’t be at the top of the list for many organisers.”
The challenges facing the event tech industry are multifaceted, however. Not only is there increasing demand for in-person events, but massive inflation has led to event organisers lacking the budget to invest in major tech upgrades that may be needed to run more complex virtual events. The analogue simplicity of an in-person event certainly seems more enticing, under these circumstances.
Combine this with a lot of companies (many freshly founded) offering innovative all-in-one solutions and the competition has become cut-throat, especially around the corporate events scene. As an example, virtual events platform Hopin went from being the fastest-growing European start-up of all time to laying off 12 per cent of its staff as share prices fell 41 per cent in Q1 of 2022.
What is the solution?
Julius Solaris, founder of Boldpush, made a number of suggestions to his peers in the event tech industry regarding how to deal with this somewhat unexpected downturn in virtual event bookings in a LinkedIn post. The crux of his argument appears to boil down to ‘be the best’.
“Develop more,” he said in the post, among a number of other suggestions. “After an incredible year of development (2020), many platforms stopped building better features or improving UX. You can still win with a better product.”
Sure enough, a few notable tech firms are starting to experiment with more advanced technology. Dolby.io, who we spoke to in the last issue of CX, were working on using WebRTC to create events in the metaverse, allowing attendees to interact with the event they were watching and fellow attendees in a revolutionary way. However, there are limitations to this approach, most notably the inherent cost of such a system.
Solaris also emphasised the importance of specificity, noting that ‘all-in-one’ solutions tend to result in jacks of all trades that are masters of none. That is to say, a solution that does a reasonably good job in a lot of situations, but an exceptional job in none of them. “All-in-one can be all-in-none,” he said. “What’s your all-in-one software best for? Is it virtual, in-person, or hybrid? Is it better for associations, marketers, or agencies? If you don’t have an answer to these questions you may be out of the game quickly.”
Solaris also stressed picking the right contracts to fight for rather than pitching for every event going. A focused product and pricing structure, offering a perfect-fit solution to a planner’s needs, is far more likely to succeed against those offering a more general solution that may need tailoring to those needs.
Relatedly, not only did Solaris also recommend working closely with planners to give them the support they need, but others have emphasised the need to design events to fit the requirements.
“In-person events have always needed to evolve,” said Cindy Lo of Red Velvet, as quoted in the Forbes article mentioned above. “Virtual events have expedited the process for both registration and attendance – all event organisers have to start thinking about what type of experience, content, and engagement they will have to account for following the shift to virtual. Gone are the days of organisations producing one annual sales summit to the next. They will have to start designing additional virtual or hybrid events to fill in the gaps and not to cater to large numbers like they used to so the content and experience is personalised for the audience.”
It’s a point that Holsinger agreed with, albeit from a different perspective. Using sporting events as an example, he added in April Walsh, senior manager of industry relations at Freeman, for a good analogy: “If April and I were to get courtside tickets to see the Lakers play and our friends were watching at home, how much interaction would we have with them during the game?” he asked rhetorically. “We need to design events for the audience experience that is unique to each medium.”
What happens next?
Various industry experts predicted that there would be a rush back to in-person events, especially among massive trade shows. However, most also agree that, once the novelty of being able to leave the house wears off, virtual and hybrid events will see a resurgence.
Quoted in the Forbes article, Marco Giberti of Vesuvio Ventures, who co-authored Reinventing Live, said, “Post-Covid virtual events and webinars will be unrecognisable. It will be like comparing traditional TV with streaming, print magazines with tablets or music CDs with Spotify. Events will probably start online and move to offline activations to later go back online again. Communities will interact through the combination of virtual and face-to-face experiences in ways that will increase their return on investments and improve efficiencies. This trend will facilitate and accelerate hybrid events and a new generation of face-to-face event experiences.”
Lo added, “The golden ticket is going to be that magic hybrid model that doesn’t break the bank, basically a broadcast while also having your in-person meeting integrated. However, something to account for is everyone will have a different comfort level. As long as people follow protocol and continue to get vaccinated, we should hopefully start to see corporate events returning back on the books sooner than later.”
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