As the world continues to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, meeting and event planners are asking, “How is this pandemic going to permanently alter our industry?” and “What’s the best way to orchestrate meeting and events online?
For Heather Herrig, CMP, president and chief event strategist at Every Last Detail Events, there can be no doubt about the impact this virus has had on the meetings and events industry. But, while government regulations are preventing physical gatherings, there is still an incredible need to come together. And that need can be fulfilled in many ways via the web, depending on the purpose of the meeting or event, and on the host. For example, conferences that help confer continuing education credits essential to job certifications must continue to take place, and so, these would be perfect candidates to bring to an online environment. “Likewise, conferences designed to share key information to leaders, members or customers can be reshaped to a virtual space in order for the same information to be shared in a timely manner,” Herrig says. “These types of events cannot wait indefinitely, and certainly do not have to with the technology available.”
However, some conferences, meetings and events whose very nature are intrinsically connected to being with others, or in being at a particular destination, are unfortunately being postponed or canceled as they do not translate as well to moving online. As Feyisola Ogunfemi, meeting planner and owner of Statuesque Events, explains, the impacts on those corporate retreats and annual conferences have been significant. “This means lost deposits for organizers and lost revenue for venues and suppliers who may have depended on final payment balances,” Ogunfemi says. “Many conferences have been taken online, but are also scaled back before being taken online as certain activities, such as happy hours, are either shortened or eliminated.”
According to Crystal Page, CMP, an independent meeting planner, workers in the meetings and events industry have also been greatly impacted due to event cancellations by furloughs and layoffs, so many are turning to online web tools to help salvage their meeting activities. “For the private sector and government, many meetings can be translated to a successful online experience; however, special events have been forced to be postponed, or in some cases canceled, which has a great financial impact on the industry,” Page says. “Companies have likely identified communication efficiencies in light of the current circumstances that, therefore, have reduced the need for future in-person meetings.”
For Brittany Reed, CMP, a corporate events manager, the pandemic has affected many independent meeting planners in the worst way, causing the loss of substantial business. “I am now faced with the challenges of competing against the webinars that our company already offers our customers as an added resource and finding ways not to overlap content while making it a unique experience,” says Reed, who has worked as a corporate planner for the real estate software industry for more than five years. “Planners also are not all inherently digitally savvy, although we use various software tools. This also poses the new challenge of learning new virtual technologies.”
Marshall Jones, CMP, vice president of regional sales at Prestige Global Meeting Source, points to a few major questions any event planner should be asking before they think of going virtual:
• What do attendees want out of the event?
• What is your goal with the event?
• What does success look like?
• How do you handle revenue and registrations, sponsorships and/or ticketing?
“With all of these, planners need to address two major event components,” Jones says. “We have to become Netflix and we have to educate while entertaining the audience.” Another factor to consider when going online is the size of the event. This often dictates the kind of software a meeting planner will use or how the mix of connection, content and “cool” will work. For example, as Jones explains, teams can be used to do a webinar for a small to mid-sized group — content — but can also be used to host a virtual happy hour for a small group — connection. “These might even be able to be mixed; but, once you want to start doing networking of multiple or larger groups of people, web tools like Teams or Zoom fail,” Jones says. “The same goes for multiple breakouts of content, or content on a larger scale. Potentially, the solution could be streaming or something pre-recorded.”
As event planners, one of the greatest challenges faced when moving a meeting or event online is to create engagement in a virtual space. As Herrig explains, when people are together in person, this engagement happens much more naturally and organically. But, when planners move an event online, they and all those involved, including “attendees,” must work harder to strategize opportunities for engagement and then take efforts to drive them during the event itself. “Q&A is a great example,” Herrig says. “Following a session in person, participants can easily raise their hands and enter into discussion with the presenter and other participants quite easily.” When joining virtually, they need to have the same opportunities and be encouraged to use them, including “hand raising” features or chat functionality in a virtual platform. “Participants will still have questions, and will still want to discuss topics, so our task is to create these opportunities for them,” Herrig says.
And, as Reed points out, during live events, meeting and event planners have a captured audience where they have control over the experience and can visualize the response of the attendees. “The biggest challenge in switching to a digital experience is finding creative ways to capture the audience and create a unique and memorable experience,” Reed says. Reed is noticing a lot of the webinars that are replacing the live events are not well thought out in terms of the attendees’ experience. Most of the webinars Reed has attended are formatted as either a live interview, or an industry professional sharing insights. “The problem with this format is the lack of engagement and interaction,” Reed says. “Why do people attend live events? They enjoy the social aspects, such as networking, and the personalized experience of seeing and talking with peers and industry experts. It is important to keep the attendee’s interest in mind, in the same manner we try to engage them as live events.”
So how do meeting planners turn online attendees into participants? Promote engagement, create a unique and memorable experience and provide networking opportunities. Of course, when moving meetings onto the web, ensuring a strong internet connection and platform is key to a meeting’s success. Page says it also is imperative that the communication for the participants be consistent to allow for interactive discussions. “Online meetings can present a challenge of the attendee multitasking and not necessarily focused on the topic at hand,” Page says. “Typically, online meetings are opportunities for travel costs savings, therefore, less elements for the planner to balance. Technology can be unpredictable, but with proper pre-testing, it can allow for a great experience.”
The biggest mistake planners make within the online meetings environment is not pre-testing the platform and connection prior to the meeting. As Page suggests, utilizing a platform that has a chat support is especially helpful. Should there be a challenge while the meeting is in progress, it allows for real-time support in the event that a technology issue arises. “This can sometimes be an additional cost,” Page says. “But it is well worth the cost to ensure a seamless meeting. You want your attendees to discuss the topic, not the technology.”
Ogunfemi agrees that one of the biggest challenges with web-based meetings is keeping attendees engaged. “There is a lot of competition online, including live sessions on social media, and even increased workloads for those who are working from home,” Ogunfemi says. Also, networking is significantly harder, so those attendees who may have come with hopes of meeting, exchanging contact information and taking photos may be lost. “Finding ways to help people effectively network is a challenge, though I believe it can be done in well-crafted breakout sessions,” Ogunfemi adds.
There are countless web technologies and platforms available to meeting planners when organizing an online meeting or event. The key is to define what a planner needs from a platform, then do a careful survey of the marketplace to discover the best fit for their needs. “The current trap we can help our planners avoid is creating a glorified webinar,” Jones says. “The experience wouldn’t be much different than just watching something on YouTube, not that YouTube is bad. But how do you do it with 500 people?”
Zoom has certainly proven to be a great tool for events with a few hundred people. For those in the high hundreds or thousands, Ogunfemi suggests YouTube Live broadcasts, which are very popular because the chat section works well and it’s easy to post replays on YouTube after a meeting or event is completed. For registration, Herrig’s favorite tool right now is Swoogo, which also offers some partnerships and other technologies for apps, analytics, marketing and integrations. Herrig is also a big fan of Cvent’s CrowdCompass for their scale and diversity of offerings. EventMobi and DoubleDutch are also popular app platforms and offer other technologies as well. “When it comes to social media, the platforms you incorporate will certainly depend on the audience and how you want your audience to interact,” Herrig says. “There are technologies for all of these needs, and many are already offered through registration or app platforms.”
Now, Herrig and others are starting to see some of their favorite platforms for other technologies join the world of virtual events, such as Swoogo and MeetingPlay. “I would also encourage planners to consult with their A/V partners, as most can offer this level of support as well and take on much of the production for you,” Herrig says. And, remember, creating a true virtual event is more than just streaming the presenters over the internet and hoping participants pay attention. It takes careful planning and strategy to translate a meeting or event to an online space. “We must continue to focus on the fundamentals of planning — defining our goals and keeping them at the forefront of all we do, naming our stakeholders and keeping their needs in mind,” Herrig adds. “Then, we determine how to accomplish the same goals in this virtual way. It will mean planning differently, but the outcome will most definitely be worth our efforts.”
Ogunfemi has turned to Eventbrite for in-person events because its easy to use and integrate into a website, and she’s found that the event check-in app is very helpful for speeding up the check-in process. “We also love using the Facebook ads manager to schedule posts on Facebook or Instagram, in addition to in-person posting,” Ogunfemi says. “Online viewers love seeing posts live, especially in Instagram stories, so we always dedicate someone to covering a few key moments of the day.”
Reed has personally used CrowdCompass and Pathable for on-site event apps. And, for registration, she has used Cvent and AtEvent. “There are many tools out there, and we are currently in the process of sourcing them,” Reed says. “Depending on the feedback over these next few months, many companies will rely on web tools to cut costs and offer more education-based conferences as an online option.”
Jones is working on full-scale solutions that will even allow for a virtual trade show. “There is trade show software out there where you walk into a virtual room and do “face-to-face” meetings with one person at a booth, trade show-style,” Jones says. Technology aside, industry experts agree that, if anything, this crisis has made the meetings and events industry more aware of having technological contingencies. If needed, can meetings and events be taken online? At what point does a planner make that decision? What platforms will be used? How will a planner pivot and execute an online meeting? How will they ensure participant engagement, and make this an event worth participant’s time and energy?
As Herrig explains, this situation has made the industry more aware of these questions and given planners an opportunity to think strategically about their answers. “It might not be so much as a change in reliance on these tools,” Herrig says. “But it may be more of a change in awareness of what’s available, and knowing when we need to leverage certain technologies for the best and safest attendee experience possible.”
Page says this pandemic will allow companies to identify meeting and event efficiencies, particularly from a cost-savings perspective. “Past in-person meetings will transition to web-based platforms,” Page says. “So, it will be more important than ever that meeting planners are up on the latest technologies to support the evolution of the industry.” I&FMM