The Show Must Go On Virtually

Photo credit: iStockphoto/VectorPocket

The last six months of the pandemic sounded a clear message for the events industry — either make the challenging transition to virtual or prepare to fail.

Market research studies pre-COVID 19 predicted the 2018 USD 1.1 trillion global events industry would grow to USD 2.3 trillion by 2016 in a 10% year-on-year growth.

With countless events put to a complete halt, the trajectory of conferences and exhibitions, seminars, and other corporate events will now rely heavily on virtual event planners and software.

Recent projections from Grand View Research predicted that virtual events would grow nearly ten-fold over the next decade from USD 78 billion to USD 774 billion.

Virtual platforms thrive, but competition is fierce

Commenting on where the MICE industry is now in the region, Ivan Ferrari, event director at Informa Markets, the organization running the inaugural ConnecTechAsia event, says some companies were initially in denial and were waiting for the “hurricane” to pass over. “That kind of denial has evaporated mostly.”

“We’re generally facing the reality that 95% of the MICE industry is struggling. While Singapore is more advanced than the rest of the region in terms of MICE, the bigger countries are able to have a MICE industry as they can travel domestically and organize small-scale events, which is not possible here. So, in general, we have a very patchy picture. We are all impacted, but the level does vary depending on the country, industry, and specific situations,” Ferrari continues.

“The bright spot in this industry are those companies that provide digital solutions, of course,” he adds. “Virtual platforms, online matchmaking, these kinds of providers are thriving.”

Indeed, in 2020 alone, virtual events software companies are raising large funding rounds. Eventbrite secured USD 225 million, Bevy.com and Run The World each secured USD 15 million, and the list goes on. These companies define a future where trade shows and networking events occur on laptops instead of large conference venues. But how easy a feat is that?

Meeting changing attendee expectations

From initially offering just the option of virtual platforms, the focus has now shifted to how to stand out amongst the multitude of virtual events today. In the span of a few months, organizers find themselves competing to provide unparalleled online experiences for their attendees.

It is no longer about replicating aspects of a physical or on-premises event. Virtual event organizers aim to transcend the physical and bridge that gulf to make their events more meaningful to audiences in this new frontier.

“First of all, we have had to deal with the limitations of the existing tools that were not designed for this kind of demand and volume,” says Ferrari. “Digital events were a niche because physical events were the norm. But this is just the beginning, and as we progress, you will see much better products that will provide more engaging networking sessions, matchmaking sessions.”

“Also, it is not only the digital products that are improving, but the audience will also be more familiar with the different types of approaches and find it easier to take advantage of the tools. For ConnecTechAsia, we took a full two months to select the platforms we wanted to work on,” he adds. 

For the virtual trade show component, ConnecTechAsia utilizes technologies from Intrado and for the business matchmaking, Grip. With more than 200 exhibitors, six to eight national pavilions, and 220 conference sessions, the massive virtual event looks to maintain the scale and magnitude of its previous physical incarnation.

“Exhibitors want qualified leads. So, we have a platform that allows them access to the backend of their booth 24/7 where they can track the activity and interaction closely at their booths, with metrics to better understand the level of interest displayed by potential visitors,” explains Ferrari. “After the event, the platform will continue to be online as an interactive marketplace allowing exhibitors to continue uploading content or inviting visitors to attend their booths, and so on.”

Delegates want access to content beyond the event dates, and they are also picky on which exhibitors will be present.

“This year, most of it is free. Keynotes and panels, everything is on-demand the second after the session is over. Attendees are more interested in looking for solutions and products than exhibitors. We have noticed that attendees look extensively at the exhibitor list before deciding to come to a tradeshow. Hence on the search function, you can enter a keyword and look for the solution you need. You will then get a list of conference sessions, exhibitor material, resource centers, etc.,” says Ferrari.

ConnecTechAsia is going further. Using the AI-enabled business matching platform Grip, it makes recommendations and allows the right delegates to meet the right exhibitors. You can then use features like ‘open virtual meeting rooms’ to connect.

Business models will need to change

While costing less than an actual physical event, Ferrari notes that running a quality virtual show that is multifaceted and offers complex options is “not much less.”

“220 conference sessions placed on the platform are not cheap to create and upload,” says Ferrari. “Furthermore, staff, marketing, and PR budgets are the same. With no track record of virtual events, you will need to promote to your community. At the same time, we are charging less for the booths and making many features free for attendees.”

Ferrari points out that business models are going to have to change. However, initiating the community into the digital experience will enable the shift to more digital events throughout the year. Event organizers will benefit in the form of the spin-off from digital products like webinars, content syndication, online interviews, podcasts, and others, moving forward.

In the new business models, content curation will be critical. Citing the example of media that have managed to convince their audience to subscribe to their sites for highly-curated content, Ferrari believes that subscription models are more beneficial than ad-revenue models in the long run.

“In our case, in the MICE industry, the survivors, the thrivers, would be those that manage to curate more. We already have divisions that focus on business intelligence, small scale conferences, academic publishing, and we already have the content and the network of people that can deliver this. The more you can curate content, the more you can implement subscription-based models. Turnout will depend on that.”

Ferrari adds, “Moving forward, the future of events is leaning towards a hybrid model. While physical conventions will not go away, there will be less because people will be pickier when it comes to traveling. Furthermore, there will be a slice of the community who will not show up to physical events anymore but will still be interested in being involved digitally. Hence, the digital component will need to remain so that we do not lose this community segment. Going forward, this will be a feature that will be taken for granted.”

In the meantime, event organizers will need to embrace and adopt these changes permanently as startups continue to aim for digital product solutions to enhance virtual and digital experiences in the MICE Industry. Who knows, perhaps not now, but down the road, augmented reality and virtual reality MICE platforms could become a reality.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/VectorPocket