Enterprise event planners are in a serious bind. How they respond will fundamentally impact event success - and industry reputation. If safety is a question mark, employers can easily put off return-to-office plans - and many are.
For events, it's not that simple. On-the-ground events are high stakes; escaping venue contracts can be financially punishing.
Not long ago, I got a disappointing call from an analyst: he feels bullied by event planners into attending their on-the-ground events. Yes, the same event planners that proclaim a "customer-first" mentality.
The real shame of it all? A true hybrid event model, with the flexibility to choose on-the-ground or online, would have alleviated this. It would have reduced the pressure on individuals to make tough - and personal - event choices.
I've also heard from several colleagues who went on the road, and came back with so-called "breakthrough" COVID infections. These infections are no joke, and the long term health impacts are unclear. Kudos to John Appleby, CEO of Avantra, for being so open about his breakthrough infection story - and why he has no regrets about getting vaccinated. Appleby's not the only one to tell this type of story to me off the record. To be fair, I also have colleagues who are traveling extensively and plan to continue.
Bottom line: risk tolerance should now be up to the individual, and event safety is still a moving target. The main culprit: the highly contagious nature of the Delta variant, which has changed both the perception of safety, and the difficulties of ensuring it.
Hybrid events - a better response to Delta variant concerns
Given that personal health decisions and, in some cases, livelihoods, are at stake, my urgent message to event planners is not, as you might expect, to cancel their on-the-ground events. I believe there are plenty of attendees who are ready for on-the-ground, as long as their safety expectations are met. My message is as follows:
1. Unless your event safety plan includes a combination of indoor masking, on-site testing and/or proof of vaccination, your "safety guidelines" are probably not strong enough. Handing out color-coded badges to indicate degrees of personal distance an attendee expects is cute and worthwhile, but hardly enough. The CDC's current event guidelines allow for nuance based on indoor/outdoor, regional COVID conditions, and number of attendees. California is the first state in the US to regulate events of 1,000 or more to require either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. Meanwhile, enterprise event favorite Las Vegas is in the midst of a major COVID outbreak and has re-imposed indoor mask requirements inside its venues. An opt-out option for larger venues that require vaccination is now in place; the Las Vegas Raiders have opted in. You can see where this is trending - far away from color-coded comfort zone badges.
2. Providing attendees a true choice between online and on-the-ground is not going to cannibalize your event. Plenty of folks are ready to get on planes and see each other. Those who aren't coming - well, they aren't coming. No matter what kind of online options you provide. A true hybrid event gives you a much better shot at the active participation of remote participants. And it gives you the ability to take a true customer-first stance, and not pressure people into attending (I'll provide an example shortly).
3. Once more with feeling: streaming a keynote or two is not a hybrid event.
4. If you have a fall event pending on-the-ground, there is still time to add compelling hybrid options. No, you probably don't have time to transform into a full hybrid event. But you do have time to add needed features (I'll get to a few tips on that shortly).
5. Hybrid events are the future, not a stopgap.
6. Creative event planning requires significant changes in how events are designed - and the skills needed to deliver them. These changes are overdue anyhow - enterprise events were mostly stale affairs with bloated keynotes, redeemed by friendships and serendipitous hallway encounters. Those who excel at hybrid will have differentiated events - and better data to show for it.
Moving to hybrid events - a quick tips brainstorm
Back in January, I launched my hybrid event stump speech with What would a hybrid event look like? Answer: you'll need much more than a streaming keynote:
As I wrote in my virtual events year in review, we did get better events as the year went on. But I'm not sure the urgency is there yet.
Alas, the urgency still isn't there. For those event planners scrambling on fall events, adding hybrid features is still doable - especially when you consider that there is probably some type of online plan in place, at least for keynotes. I won't duplicate all the tips from my prior article, but here's some doable ones to consider:
- Pick one or two rooms where all the sessions will be streamed live onto an interactive platform of some kind (even Zoom could work).
- Bring in live event facilitators and topical experts to participate in those live streamed sessions, and connect with online attendees on follow-ups.
- Planning to release a few recorded sessions? When you "debut" them online, have an online discussion during or immediately after the recorded session with the presenter. I saw this done very effectively recently via streaming sessions on YouTube and a private Discord channel to interact with the speakers. The discussions were lively.
- Want to get special? After your keynote airs, put your CEO or executive team in a semi-private discussion with online attendees or VIPs (Yes, you can open that up to those on the ground also).
- Experiment with an online connections option such as Gatherly, which I have helped to run before, to allow online birds of a feather meetups.
- Hold online "keynote parties" where those who share an affiliation (like industry affiliation or job role) can watch the online keynotes together. LinkedIn Live has been used to great effect for this by the CRM Playaz and many others, and it's not the only option.
This is hardly a comprehensive list - consider it a brainstorming spark. As I compiled it, I realized once again how much untapped potential there is.
Now, I can hear the objection: "Those ideas are fine, but they won't scale for my event." Yes, scaling hybrid features takes time, which some event planners don't have. But here's the useful caveat: not everyone wants the hybrid experience. Even some online folks are happy just catching the keynotes. So, you can ease the scale problem by charging for a premium online experience with VIP access. For a terrific example of how this is done, check Can we find a business model for virtual events? Presence Summit provided some big clues - starting with exceptional interactivity.
The maestro behind that event, Paul Richards, is the Chief Streaming Officer at PTZOptics. That job title is no surprise; Richards was HD streaming from the PTZOptics studio throughout the Present Summit. Richards is also the author of The Virtual Ticket: How to Host Private Live Streams & Virtual Events. Richards was urging us to make virtual events great before the pandemic forced the issue. I always hear grumbling about how crummy virtual events are. Have you seen this type of feedback on virtual events before?
Clearly, virtual possibilities are untapped. As we slog through the uncertainties of the Vaccine Economy, we better start tapping.
Getting the right event marketing tone - the Sage Transform example
Recently, I was venting on event planners applying the "please come to Vegas!" pressure. The victim of my venting? Stefanie Maragna, VP of Corporate Marketing & Events, Sage Intacct. Maragna took the plunge: she read me the verbiage for the upcoming Sage Transform user conference out loud. Displayed prominently on the top menu is the "virtual experience." Click on that, and Sage writes:
There's nothing better than attending Sage Transform in person, but for those not able to join, we're excited bring you Transform 2021 in a virtual setting.
I have no problem with that - sure, make the on-the-ground pitch. No hand-wringing about safety issues is needed here, but: if you can't join in person, no problem. Sage continues:
The Sage Transform Virtual Experience will take place online on November 10-11. Virtual attendees will enjoy a mix of live-streamed sessions, access to our on-demand only sessions, and recordings of other sessions delivered during Transform 2021 Las Vegas after the event.
That sounds far better than the typical virtual event, at least for starters. Could Sage go further, and add online networking, and perhaps VIP access to some speakers or Q/A sessions? Sure, but it's a strong start toward putting the virtual right alongside the in-person.
For the in-person event, Sage Transform has a well-conceived health and safety protocols page. For that, Sage Intacct piggy backs on the guidelines of the CDC and Las Vegas re: indoor mask-wearing, before outlining its own requirements, which include either proof-of-vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours prior. This is absolutely the right thing to do. Unfortunately, a number of enterprise events are not yet taking this step. If they don't, then talking about "event safety" seems problematic at best.
My take - now is the time to get hybrid events right
Having already attended an in-person event in Las Vegas, I object to the idea that any event can be billed as "safe." For starters, how you can make that claim when your attendees are stuffed into packed planes with passengers who have their masks off a good chunk of the flight, snacking and drinking.
Ensuring home-to-venue safety is something no vendor can claim right now, no matter what steps they are taking within the venue. But the fact is: many vaccinated individuals in good health feel comfortable with those risks right now. As for those who don't, well, their concerns are also well-founded. If you choose not to take those risks, for whatever reason, you should not be made to feel excluded - or subjected to ill-conceived pressure by event organizers. Nor should virtual attendees miss out on a chance to connect with others who can make a difference to their networks and projects. I've heard from plenty of these people; many aren't ready to go on the record. That should tell us something.
The one thing that allows such flexibility right now? The truly hybrid event. Hybrid is also the best fallback against a quick change of plans or venue cancellation, should circumstances change.
It's time to stop pretending/wishing that we're beyond the pandemic and back to event normal. Events as we know it are changing. With imagination and grit, we can extract plenty of positives from this.
This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series, The art of virtual events and webinars - from mediocrity to excellence.