My husband and I were supposed to be in New York on a getaway this week. We had tickets to shows on Broadway and at Madison Square Garden. Today, sitting home in my safe little bubble, I can’t imagine bumping shoulders with thousands of people at these events! I absolutely love Broadway and I adore going to the theater. Normally I can’t get enough, but right now, I am in no rush to be back in a crowd of people.
The truth of the matter is the events industry will undoubtedly be one of the last sectors to regain any sense of normalcy after this pandemic. Although we see things opening again and restrictions being lifted, the days of large gatherings of people are still a long way off. To this end I have many friends and colleagues who have been seriously affected by loss of work and still have a long road of uncertainty ahead of them. It’s time to be deliberatively creative. We may not gather in large groups, but the events industry is not obsolete, so what now?
When conornavirus hit we all very quickly turned to online. Terms like virtual, digital, zoom, webcast, skype, teams, webex, and video are now a comfortable part of everyone’s vocabulary. Even my 93-year-old grandmother knows what zoom is, the thought makes me smile. After only two or three weeks of physical distancing we felt a strong urge to connect and it was important to have family chats by video conference or share a drink with friends on a facetime call. But now, only a few weeks later, the frequency of these visits has diminished substantially, and the appeal is wearing off. We see this happening with online meetings as well. The webinar quickly became a part of our daily workday and people are now ‘webinar fatigued’. The simple online webinar is not the hero in the story of how our events industry makes it through this pandemic.
What does this tell us? Do I dare say it? Life is not going to go back to exactly the way it was. We will continue to adapt and adjust, and routines will follow suit, but it’s safe to say that things will be different. Many have learned they enjoy cooking and will not be eating out as much as they were before, or maybe we did not miss shopping as much as we thought we would, or perhaps we cultivated a new hobby like gardening or decorating and our priorities will now be changed.
People will also feel differently about gathering at events. There is something that takes the fun out of a gala or concert if you picture it with everyone in masks (although maybe Masquerades will make a comeback!). Even once the restrictions are lifted, many will opt out of attending an event and choose to stay home, where they have become quite comfortable.
So for the next 12-18 months we have our work cut out for us. I see three phases:
1. Phase 1: Online meetings and events – like it or not, it’s the tool we have for now, so let's make it work. We have viable solutions and ideas to combat the boring webinar.
So how will we keep online meetings interesting and keep people engaged? How do we continue to raise the bar for the next several months? This is a challenge thousands of event professionals all over the world are facing and the ideas coming out of the industry are pretty creative. Using technology can be nerve wracking and frustrating. There is much to consider when opening the pandora box of virtual event platforms, so first and foremost, choose the right platform. There is no ‘one size fits all’ product. Your platform must meet your goals, so start with understanding what you want to accomplish. Once you choose your platform, how do you break through the webinar fatigue?
Use the interactive tools in the platform. Instead of just watching a screen all day, set the event up so that people need to navigate, participate, and contribute to the event. We are hosting an online trade show and the attendees need to enter rooms, enter booths, watch videos, download resources, chat with exhibitors in real time, they are active in the event.
Invest in AV and Tech support. If the restrictions allow, arrange for Keynote presentations to be recorded or streamed with a tech in a well-lit setting with good sound and attractive background.
Include gamification when possible. Many platforms have a game option where participants collect point to win prizes based on the level of their involvement. At first, I thought this was childish, but having seen many examples, I can attest to the fact that folks buy-in to it and enjoy the challenge.
If your event attendees are pre-registered, maybe mail them something ahead of time? An event guide, branded swag, a gift, a name tag…..anything to make them smile and show the importance of the upcoming event.
Use music during the event. Now be very careful to only use royalty-free music, you absolutely cannot use songs from your play list, but having some music while we wait for the event to start or between speakers can add enjoyment.
If your event is a series of presentations, give breaks. This is another time to play music or maybe have some entertainment. People need to take regular breaks when attending an event online.
Entertainment could include things like a virtual scavenger hunt, online auction, chef demo, electronic puzzle, trivia, etc.
Open the attendee chat option and let people mingle
Include Q&A or moderated chats
Engage a high-energy emcee or host
The list is endless but to pull it off your planning and execution team are very important. The more moving parts you have, the more roles to play. At a minimum you want to ensure you have someone assigned to:
Testing the site repeatedly
Speaker management – check ins, testing, rehearsals
Social media before and during
Monitoring chats during the event and watch for any messages about technical difficulties
Dedicated to technical support
Yes, building a virtual event involves all the same considerations as a physical event. Don't underestimate it and don't undersell it. If you are hosting a series of events for the same group, don't use all your tricks on the first event. Leave some room to raise the bar for each event and don't take on more than you and your staff can handle.
For the next little while, this is what we will be working with, but that's okay because there are plenty of experiences we can build for our attendees. Over the summer we may have the chance to host some limited outdoor events with strict social distancing rules in place. Tent rentals will go up for certain events but when it comes to meetings or conferences, the online experience is one we have to master. And this does not end with Phase one.
2. Phase 2: Hybrid events – a combination of in-person and online to get us through the transition. If this sounds like double the work, you are right!
By perfecting our skills with virtual and online events, we will be ready for the next phase when our industry starts to slowly integrate physical events back into the routine. But this will definitely be a gradual process. The introduction of hybrid events may be all we can expect for a while which means our experience in both the physical event and online event will be imperative. The Hybrid event allows for a small in-person event to take place while streaming to incorporate a larger online audience who is also taking part. The planning will be two-fold and the moving parts will be double. Taking the time now to perfect the online event will set us up for success for phase two when hybrid events are in fashion.
3. Phase 3: Physical events will be back BUT with a new offering. Event professionals will be put to the test, faced with inquisitions about how they are incorporating safety at a whole new level when hosting an event.
Eventually the in-person event with the large venue, the catering, the AV team, the rental equipment, and all the fanfare will be back. But new considerations and new policies will be expected as part of our industry standard. Now is the time to start designing what that looks like. Things like room capacities, floor plans, egress, catering procedures, seating charts all need to be reconsidered. What’s your business plan for 2021? What will your offering be? This is not a waiting game until things go back to normal, it’s a revival with new commitments to our clients.
I hope to be sitting here at this time next year writing from a hotel in Times Square with tickets in hand for a Broadway performance. I hope I feel comfortable when I enter the theater and confident that the staff has taken precautions to ensure my safety. I hope my experience is free of distraction or frustration that would come from seeing that no effort is being made. It won’t bother me if there is a longer wait to enter or exit the theater to allow them to disburse the crowds. I will absolutely comply by sanitizing my hands on the way in. I will appreciate when I see client-facing staff wearing gloves. I will understand if the bar cannot be open. That way, when the lights go down, I can lose myself in what I know will be an amazing performance because Broadway never fails me.