Richard Etchison January 26, 2021 | 07:49:58
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The Future Of Conferences And Events: A PR Planner’s View

A year ago, our B2B Tech PR clients were finalizing their 2020 conference speaking strategies, looking forward to sponsoring or winning speaking gigs at tech stalwarts like Cannes Lion, DreamForce, and Hubspot INBOUND.

That was then. As the pandemic hit the U.S., I recall the first big event to cancel was South By South West (SXSW). Soon, the event dominoes toppled in a quick series of cancellations and postponements, with most moving their meetings to the fall. We were speculating about how jam-packed the fourth-quarter 2020 tech calendar would be – and that was in some ways true, but only on our screens. Event producers hustled to pivot to virtual conferences, which forced innovation throughout the entire live events industry.

Now, as tech leaders look at their PR and marketing 2021 calendars, they see a transformed conference ecosystem. Here’s what the near and distant future will look like in the evolving world of live events.

Live will return, but don’t count on it in 2021

After a year of Zoom meetings, virtual happy hours, and family Facetime calls, most would agree that there is no substitute for in-real-life (IRL) experiences. The B2B world in particular is dependent on live events to meet business objectives; (97%) of B2B marketers believe that in-person events have a major impact on business outcomes. Everybody wants IRL, but only 62% of event marketers are planning to resume in-person events in 2021. Many conference producers have announced their 2021 in-person events in hopes that vaccines will quell fears and increase confidence about attendance. But as happened in 2020, live events like Cannes Lions, currently planned for June 2021, may have to be postponed yet again or adapted to a virtual platform. The Consumer Electronics Show and SXSW have gone virtual this year, and most events well into summer are still being planned in virtual or hybrid formats.

Virtual is more “real” than ever

In 2020, necessity became the mother of innovation. B2Bs and media outlets rely heavily on their own events and industry conferences as full-funnel engines of customer engagement, conversion, and retention.  Many raced to transform their annual conferences to virtual experiences. Some like Social Media Week did so with astonishing speed, revamping its model in 3-4 weeks. At first in survival mode, they were just salvaging what they could of their event marketing programs. Yet savvy producers created compelling online conferences with the help of tech advances and good old-fashioned creativity. They created ways for attendees to interact and network in real time virtually, for exhibitors to have virtual booths, and for sponsors to enjoy robust ROI in virtual environments. As some conferences embark on their second virtual event in 2021, they will offer experiences that are compelling and interactive, approximating the IRL experience more than ever before.

The future is hybrid

The scramble to salvage vital pieces of the B2B marketing mix has produced a positive by-product. In-person conferences will almost inevitably include online, on-demand, and other virtual elements that will result in better overall attendee and sponsor experiences, improved personalization, and new opportunities to engage attendees with broader reach. Event producers who had never dipped toes into online elements are now busy incorporating virtual tracks into their conferences permanently.  The bar has risen for online conferences, with better video production value, live attendee chats and Q&As, and virtual exhibition halls. In 2021 and beyond, there will be very few live conferences that do not offer some kind of online element. Still, event solution providers and marketers are still addressing the biggest challenges of staging online conferences, mainly how to mimic the electricity of real-life, one-to-one human engagement.  In a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario, the future of tech conferences in particular is certainly hybrid, combining the magic of face-to-face interaction with the technological efficiency, data collection, and broad reach of virtual meetings.

Trade organizations like the Consumer Technology Association, B2B techs like SalesForce, media companies like Digiday, and independent event producers like SXSW are all adjusting to the strange new normal. Perhaps because they see the upside of lower barriers to entry and reduced costs, a few event producers like O’Reilly Media seem to have no plans to return to IRL, opting to hold their Strata Data and AI events in fully online environments. But no matter how event marketers decide to handle their meetings, tech conferences will be better in the coming months and years, as they benefit from a crisis that forced us to rethink the everyday.

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