Events have always been a double-edged sword for marketers: They yield the greatest number of leads, but they're also incredibly expensive and time-consuming. Now, they face an uncertain future.

We have to consider what tradeshows and conferences might look like in the months and maybe years ahead—and whether they're still worth the time and money for marketers, as attendees or exhibitors.

It's likely that any events during the rest of this year will be smaller with fewer attendees because of social distancing and travel restrictions, and that could continue well into 2021 and beyond. Cities and states are capping, and will likely continue to cap, larger gatherings.

Remaining profitable while scaling down will be a challenge.

Producing a small event can require just as much planning and execution as producing a huge, multiday event; so, considering the added costs and complexities, some organizations may choose to host fewer in-person offerings (or skip them altogether) in the near term and instead look for purely virtual opportunities to engage their audiences.

The challenge for events in 2020 is how they can remain profitable while keeping the best interests of the industry they serve—and the safety of speakers, sponsors, and attendees—at the forefront.

Hybrid Events

Events may soon have both in-person and remote audiences and speakers. And considering the safety guidelines in place, there will be far more considerations for onsite venues than ever before.

First, ask yourself: Is an in-person event valuable to your bottom-line revenue? (Think tangible conventions like CES—hosting products that must be seen or touched to maximize their impact.) If the primary value of your event is bringing people face-to-face to do business that they can't do elsewhere, then it's in your organization's best interest to continue those in-person gatherings.

However, if the primary value of your event is educating your audience, online events may serve that purpose best, and the current environment may propel you in the direction you probably needed to go anyway.

Hybrid events would give producers an opportunity to satisfy multiple audiences. These events may have in-person attendees and sponsors, virtual attendees who participate remotely, and a combination of in-person speakers and speakers dialing in via video conference.

That hybrid approach presents challenges and opportunities as organizers may have new tactical gating factors to consider, but this is how you can reach new audiences. Remote attendees may be willing to pay for the repurposed content—even if they're unable to hop on a plane to join in person.

In fact, as budgets continue to contract through the end of the year, you may find you have increased your attendance, because joining online for a fee is still far more affordable than traveling and attending in person.

Virtual Events

Virtual events are already gaining traction, thanks to accessible and effective technology solutions being launched daily—in good part due to low-code/no-code development platforms giving us virtual experiences on our mobile devices in weeks instead of months.

One recent event I attended was entirely based on a mobile event app. Many of these apps integrate well together, and they provide the same features you'd expect from an in-person event. This type of digitization is used to engage with content, sponsors, and attendees, and give a gamification element to the event

As for gamification, we'll see it being used to engage audiences in virtual or hybrid events with leaderboards and giveaways. For example, points can be awarded to attendees when they take actions like completing a profile, participating in a chat, or asking a question during a session.

It all comes down to which technology the organizers choose and how they opt to engage their attendees.

Live Events: Considerations

Popular locations like New York and Las Vegas are slowly reopening under strict guidelines, but there's still no telling when large crowds will be able to gather for events.

So, what is the impact on event planning?

  • Time will be needed to sanitize and clean exhibit halls, session rooms, and other gathering areas (wipe down and sanitize high-touch points, microphones, presentation laptops/mice/podium spaces, door handles, restrooms, registration counters, dining tables, etc.). Most of those functions will be provided by the host venue, but what will exhibitors and meeting room sponsors be responsible for?

  • Social distancing/spacing will need enforcement in expo areas, receptions, session rooms, meeting rooms, and registration areas.

  • Additional items must be provided by the event organizer, the venue, the show decorator, or individual exhibitors, including hand sanitizer, masks, keyless check-in at hotels, and boxed food, as well as other resources that will be needed, such as attendant-assisted coffee stations or water stations.

* * *

Some events have been pushed back to this fall in the hopes that "normal" business can resume. Many businesses' events are at the whim of corporate budgets and guidelines for employee travel. We are all weathering the same storm, even if in different boats.

I'm confident that as an industry we're going to come together with plans and precautions, with the hope that everyone can strike a balance between staying healthy, protecting the vulnerable and moving our industry forward.

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The Future of Marketing Events in the Age of COVID-19

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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