If you're a marketer, you are undoubtedly familiar with the conundrum of tradeshows and conferences: Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

They're the most expensive line item in your annual budget, so they're the hardest to push through—but they're also the hands-down best way to grow your list, move the needle with prospects in your CRM, and deepen relationships with existing customers.

The case should be easy to make with your C-suite, but proving the ROI of tradeshows can be challenging because it's unlikely anyone will sign a contract on the spot—especially if you're pushing high-ticket technologies and services.

Part of the problem is events themselves. Depending on your industry and the event, conferences can cover tens of thousands of square feet, tens of thousands of attendees or delegates, and thousands of exhibitors who are given little opportunity to distinguish themselves. Some smaller events offer "speed-dating" type networking hours so you can court prospects face-to-face, but even they can be tough: Your best prospects might be burnt out by the time they meet you—if they turn up at all.

With the pandemic underway in the world, events of all sizes are canceled, from intimate industry workshops to giant tradeshows. Stories circulating about COVID-19 infections that originated at CES and a massive mining convention in Toronto have generated fear among event organizers and attendees alike. They are asking:

  • When conferences are able to resume post-pandemic, will people even go?
  • What's the future of the event space?
  • And, more important, can we use this pause as an opportunity to make live events more valuable for everyone involved?

The State of Affairs in Event Land

Event producers have been working hard to reschedule their 2020 events, but it hasn't been a seamless course.

They're running into issues like problematic contract negotiations, or, even more challenging, the need to extract themselves from existing contracts. Even as they clamor for new dates for their events, there is lingering uncertainty around the timing, and a hesitancy to sign new contracts: Will the pandemic be over, or will we be hit with a second wave? How can that be addressed in a new contract?

In addition, show organizers are trying to connect with hotel and venue staff, show decorator staff, and A/V staff—all of whom are working reduced hours with furloughed team members and trying to still move things forward.

It's not easy.

Even as event producers are struggling to stay afloat and in business, they are trying to serve their customers and pivot to virtual events and opportunities. That requires some creativity, but it's where innovation is most likely to occur.

Whether they're providing in-home production and connectivity, laptop and technology rentals, coordinating virtual spaces, or something entirely new, organizers are striving to discover new solutions and help their clients plan again for future in-person opportunities.

Current Opportunities and Lifelines

As they fight for future in-person dates, event organizers are also fighting to get on the calendar for webinars and virtual events, which are becoming immensely popular.

In a similar vein, these companies are sourcing new solutions for the first time, and in some cases starting to produce regular media opportunities where they didn't have them before. On the sales side, that also means identifying new sponsorship opportunities, including gauging whether their audience is open to listener- or viewer-supported content as opposed to exclusively sponsor-supported, and whether new content should be gated by registration or a paywall.

Moving forward, producers focused on live events are faced with a new set of challenges. The first will be generating attendance. Apart from the usual struggles associated with attracting delegates, producers now must do all they can to make attendees feel safe. They have to be incredibly responsible and transparent with the safety measures they take, and they'll need to work closely with hotels and venues to identify efforts to sanitize and secure meeting spaces, hotel rooms, lounges, and restaurants, and any other spaces they choose to use.

We've spoken to several event organizers recently, and there are some who say it will be hard to generate attendance, whereas others say we're already chomping at the bit to get out of our homes and looking forward to meeting other humans face to face.

Crisis Yields Innovation

These mixed feelings, in concert with organizer concerns, may lead to a new breed of events altogether.

In the near future, we may begin to see hybrid events—featuring both in-person and online participation options. For attendees, that means those who don't feel safe at a live mass gathering (or simply no longer have the budget to travel) can still enjoy the event's content and networking options from their home or office. For organizers, that may mean new, incremental revenue streams—if these virtual guests can be integrated seamlessly into the event.

Consider an event where sessions are livestreamed and participants joining from home can still submit questions in real-time. These events might also feature a virtual exhibit hall, with "booths" where virtual participants can request video chats with an exhibitor's business development staff. Virtual guests could even enter contests for exhibitor giveaways to boost engagement—just as at traditional events.

Fully digital or hybrid digital events may constitute new, inventive ways for organizers to connect with audiences and result in longer-term solutions instead of quick-fix initiatives. Accordingly, we could see more research offerings, closed forums and groups, video summits, and virtual events that might be pockets within larger gatherings. And these may even involve integrating augmented and virtual reality as a means of getting digital attendees more immersed in the event.

What Won't Change

At the end of the day, the success of events will rely on quality content. It's content that draws attendees, and content that keeps them coming back.

Attendees pay to come to any event—live or virtual—for content and networking. Exhibitors pay for exposure and networking in hopes of securing new business; but if the content isn't high-quality, they won't be able to achieve their goals. Moreover, their brand be associated with a low-quality event, and their prospects almost certainly won't invest in returning to the conference, so why would the exhibitor?

* * *

It will be exciting to see how the industry shifts as a result of this pandemic. We are known for thriving under pressure. My guess is we'll see an events renaissance as a result of the creative and innovative thinking that's occurring right now.

I'm looking forward to what comes next.

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Marketing Events in a Post-Pandemic World: Opportunities for Innovation

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image of Don Knox

Don Knox is managing partner at Blast PR, a full-service public relations firm.

LinkedIn: Don Knox

Twitter: @donknox