June 11, 2021
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Is the Future of Events Small and Destination-Oriented?

Events are back. The speed at which the United States went from lockdown to 12,000+ people gathering in Miami to talk about crypto absolutely blows my mind. (Though it does appear this event has turned into a Covid spreader event.)

And it’s not just events. Business travel is slowly increasing. I took an Amtrak this week to Washington D.C. to meet some of my team for the very first time. The train was packed.

I’m uncomfortable suggesting that the country is just rubberbanding back to where it was before Covid. And yet, what I am hearing from event professionals is that there is strong demand for events this year

You could argue that those of us that were more conservative—I made it very clear that I would not do events in 2021—may have been wrong. 

But that ship has sailed. We now have to look forward. 

That said, I don’t believe that events are just going to return to the way things were. I’ve been to far too many events where they felt unoriginal, low-quality, uninspiring, and left much to be desired. Additionally, many events did not really provide any sort of return on investment, leaving me wondering why I went—both as an exhibitor and attendee—in the first place. 

Going forward, events are going to need to help sponsors and attendees better understand how they are directly benefiting their business. Let’s dig into the experience for both sides…

Attendees

When I go to an event, I am looking for three things. I don’t need all three to simultaneously occur, but the more that I’ve got, the more likely I am going to find value in it. 

First, I’d actually like to learn from people that understand the problems I am dealing with. In any given industry, the same people are invited to speak at all the conferences, so there’s often not much difference in the conversations. There’s a reason we refer to this as someone being on the conference circuit. 

In a previous career, I went to a supply chain event and I was interested in learning about what went into procurement. But the people speaking were executives who hadn’t been directly related to procurement in years. The best way to help the audience learn is to have people who actively do work participate in the event rather than big named executives. 

I think the sweet spot for a speaker is at the director level. Because they are likely more directly involved in the day-to-day of the business, they are able to provide more actionable insights. If I am going to an ad ops event, for example, who is better suited to discussing strategies for yield management: a CRO or a director of yield management? 

We need to do a better job at finding speakers that are going to not only make our events stand out, but also provide a deeper understanding of the topic being discussed. We can then use our keynotes and fireside chats as an opportunity to get executives on stage, especially since they’re the ones most likely to drive ticket sales.

Second, I’d like to meet interesting people. If I can’t learn anything from the speakers, I want the chance to meet with folks where I can hopefully build a long relationship. 

That means I need time to talk to them. I’ve worked with event designers where they legitimately leave 5-10 minutes three times a day for networking. With session slippage and trying to get from one track to the next, there is legitimately no time to sit down, have a cup of coffee, and talk to the other people there. 

Additionally, there need to be attendees that are relatable. If I want to become better at what I do, I should be networking with people that are in a similar place in their career as I am. This goes back to agenda design. Who is on stage will dictate who comes. And that dictates the type of audience that to which we should promote. 

Third, I want to go somewhere interesting. It’s the unspoken truth, but events are just a great excuse for people to go on a mini-vacation. I had never been to Vail before I went to a Digiday event. I can cross that one off my bucket list now. 

I also want to do fun things while I am there. The event shouldn’t just be eight hours locked in a ballroom listening to people on stage. There should be activities that give people an opportunity to step outside and do things that are native to the area in which the event is being hosted.

Sponsors

As with most things, I believe that a positive sponsor experience is predicated on there first being a good attendee experience. It boils down to engagement. If attendees are checked out, looking at their email, or otherwise trying to find ways to do things away from the event—especially possible if you go somewhere exciting—then the sponsors won’t get a bang for their buck. 

But I believe it’s more than just that. Most exhibition-style events are very hands off. The client builds a booth, collects business cards, and then spends weeks and months after the event trying to get meetings from those leads. There should be a better way. 

I think about this from a multi-platform perspective, with a pre-, during, and post event strategy. Here’s what that looks like. 

In the lead up to the event, the sponsor should look at advertising on the digital properties, either on-site or in the newsletter. This introduces the brand to the community, but more specifically, to those that are likely going to be attending the event. If the reader has seen the brand message before, when they see it at the event, they may be more inclined to react to it. 

At the event, there are a couple of ways to help the sponsor maximize ROI. 

The first is to directly play matchmaker between attendees and sponsors. This requires the organizer to take a more hands on approach, but it also means that the sponsor gets face time with the type of people that they want to meet. Sometimes referred to as a hosted buyer event, giving an attendee a free ticket could be incentive enough for them to take a few meetings with sponsors. At that Digiday event, I went for free, but had to do upwards of 10-12 meetings. 

The second is to tie the sponsor into the activities. Using that Digiday event as an example once more, one of the large adtech companies planned a mountain top cocktail party that used one of these heavy-duty trucks to get to the destination (it kind of looked like a tank.) The sponsor could invite whomever it wanted to be there and since it was an experience, people were more likely to participate.

Post-event, organizers should facilitate the distribution of sponsor information to attendees based on the profile of a prospective customer. For example, if it is a media event and the sponsor is a DSP, share that information with attendees that are responsible for programmatic. It’s probably less interesting to someone in audience development. 

What does all of this look like? 

Events should be smaller. They should be focused on more targeted topics with a more curated audience. The people on stage should be able to give the attendee actionable information. We should expect a direct relationship between the speaker on stage and the people trying to learn. 

Additionally, the event should be held in an interesting place and the content should only run for 4-6 hours of the day. That gives people opportunities in the morning and afternoon to network for extended periods of time. And finally, during those large blocks where networking takes place, there could be pre-planned activities if people wanted to attend. In Vail, there were blocks of time specifically set for skiing. Digiday didn’t pay for the skiing, but people knew they had the time to do it and could go with other attendees. 

On the sponsor side, there should be opportunities to connect attendees and sponsors in an active way. That could be through pre-scheduled meetings or with sponsor-led activities that the event organizer helps facilitate. 

We should think about these events as educational vacations. People want to learn, become better at their jobs, and meet exciting people in new and interesting places. Going forward, event organizers should be crystal clear on those points. 

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