It’s been nearly two years since event planners first witnessed mass event cancelations and scrambled to plan virtual events. Since then, we have seen the landscape of the events industry change dramatically. But just as we thought that we were getting through the worst of the pandemic-related uncertainty, the Omicron variant came and took over the world. While it’s great at offering safety guidelines, the CDC FAQ for event planners doesn’t really give any advice about our overarching event strategies!
Event planners essentially have three options: to cancel, postpone, or pivot. But how to choose? Since event planning during COVID is one of event planners’ top concerns right now, we’ve decided to dive into proactive event strategies to best handle the current situation. We’ve brought on an expert on all things event strategy: Keaton Watson, the Principal Relationship Architect at Endless Events!
Keaton is going on his ninth year in the events industry. He’s worked in hotels in Dallas, Cleveland, Florida, and joined the Endless Events team a year ago. He firmly believes that event technology should be at the core of any event strategy in this day and age. Make sure to tune in to find out how to strategize in times of uncertainty and how implementing event platforms can make last-minute pivots a bit easier to navigate.
Event Planning During COVID: Initial Considerations
Now that we know Keaton better, it’s time to pick his brains. Let’s talk about event planning during COVID! Karmen asks: “What should event planners consider before simply canceling their events and waiting it out? Since you talk a lot to clients, what are some common reactions to the current situation?”
Keaton starts with the good news. “We’re much more prepared to deal with the pandemic now than we were two years ago. We can take what we’ve learned during this time to alter our approach. What we’re seeing now is an inclination to postpone an event rather than cancel it.”
However, some things are different this time around – our attitude towards virtual events. “The idea of potentially pivoting to a fully virtual solution is not the most attractive thing for a lot of customers and meeting planners, mainly because we see a lot more virtual burnout now. People are itching to get back to in-person events.”
Combating Virtual Fatigue
“How could we potentially beat Zoom fatigue? How do we make attendees a little bit more engaged? Certain age groups are more prone to enjoy virtual event platforms and not having to go to events, while others prefer in-person events,” says Karmen.
“Different organizations have different demographics in their attendee base,” agrees Keaton. “They need to come up with a solution that fits that group rather than use a blanket solution. The number one resource that you need to have on hand is the statistics regarding the demographics of your attendee base. For instance, if you’re an association that has an older attendee base, virtual attendee engagement is tough for a lot of reasons. There are barriers around technology and user interface. It’s a bit easier to engage younger folks.”
Speaking of pivoting to virtual events, planners can’t simply copy the in-person event’s schedule and paste it into a virtual model. “Your three-day program would generally last all day and into the evening hours with social activities. Well, that’s not a very feasible model for virtual events,” says Keaton. “So those three-day programs would probably move to a five or even multi-week format with half days. We think the cap for maintaining engagement through virtual meetings is around three to five hours.”
“We also know that the gamification that has developed over the last two years may not necessarily be up to par with what’s demanded now,” he adds. “I’ve recently had a conversation about gamification with a customer. The solutions were not strategic enough; people figured out how to game those systems to just get their points and get out. That’s obviously not in the spirit of what we want to accomplish.”
Event Planning During COVID: To Postpone Or To Pivot?
When strategizing Omicron, it’s hard to decide between postponing events and pivoting to virtual or hybrid models. Karmen wants to know what are the consequences for organizations that will postpone their events.
“The most obvious consequence of postponing your event is that you’re not going to be able to achieve the goals that you have for that event right away,” replies Keaton. “So if your goals are oriented around a timeline, then not having that event is probably hugely detrimental to your ability to meet those goals. If you can do the meeting safely in person and still achieve your goals, obviously that’s the most preferred solution. However, you have other options too. You can pivot to a completely virtual and limit your liability to zero.”
As we all know by now, it’s not either in-person or virtual; hybrid is a spectrum. “Hybrid is the way of the future,” says Keaton. “There’s a lot of advantages to a hybrid meeting, or at least transitioning to a hybrid model rather than a fully virtual model. Firstly, you keep the reach of a virtual event. Accessibility and inclusivity is the strongest thing virtual has going for it. Secondly, you also limit your liability and still have the right people attending your event in person. The hybrid model also opens up the possibility of doing interesting, nontraditional venues. If you’re only putting 25 people in a room, you don’t necessarily need to be in a hotel. You can reimagine your event and make it fun, new, and fresh.”
A Strategy Session In Times Of The Pandemic
Karmen is wondering if Keaton has any advice for event planners in such a time of uncertainty. In his opinion, now’s the perfect time for experimentation and collaborating with an event partner. “Go back to the drawing board on your event strategy. Lean on the experience of your long-term event partner to help facilitate your vision for the future.”
Karmen wants to get more specific. “Could you just give us a rundown of what a quality strategy session could look like in this space?”
“A great strategy session is going to focus on a few things. Primarily speaking, you need to have a deep understanding of what are the goals of your event, which is not talked about enough in the process. Traditionally, the ideation takes place around an event that has happened in the past. When you come to an event partner later down the line, you already have a set vision in mind. You’re looking to replicate what’s worked in the past. So you’re not necessarily thinking about whether this event will still achieve your goals or the goals of your organization,” he explains.
“A great strategy partner will ask you those questions and won’t let you get away with saying ‘we’re not too worried about the goals’. Once you’ve established them, then you can move forward with what’s the best way to facilitate that. What kind of analytics do we need to see to make sure that we’re measuring the ROI and achieving your goals? And from there, you can organically figure out which event model works best for you and what platform partner can best help you facilitate those things.”
Speaking of great strategizing practices, Keaton wants to talk about one of the hottest event trends of 2022: the 365 community model. Event Planning during COVID would be a lot easier with a loyal community to fall back on. However, planners are not familiar with it yet.
“The community model is challenging for event planners to fit into a budget because we’re very used to allocating budgets to one single event at a time,” explains Keaton. “If I have four or five events over the course of the year, each of those events has a separate budget. But if you’re able to break out of that model and borrow from each budget, you can make a community investment into a platform. That way, you’re setting yourself up for success in the long term, because you are eliminating some of the challenges that you encounter when you start moving to a hybrid or a virtual model.”
What are the perks? “The 365 community model allows you to engage your attendees outside the bounds of the event date. You can use this powerful tool for marketing, sending out mailers to your attendees, making a change in the schedule without worrying about the lag time.
An event becomes a culmination of experiences that have been set up six months before. You can inform your attendees about your event and generate excitement inside that platform community. But it’s just tough to get there because many event planners can’t break out of the traditional budgetary mindset around events to be able to facilitate a year-long solution,” he concludes.
Strategizing Omicron: What’s The Timeline?
Last but not least, Karmen wants Keaton to give the listeners a rundown on event timelines. What’s an ideal timeline that leaves room for pivoting if necessary?
“The sooner the better. If you’re going from in-person to virtual, you need at least six weeks – that’s the bare minimum,” says Keaton. The math checks out: 65% of marketers need more than 6 weeks to promote the event and drive the desired amount of registrations for large virtual conferences. Let alone pivot! “If you’re pivoting from a hybrid to a virtual meeting, then that is a lot easier. We would still want six weeks, though. It’s a bit more flexible because you’re already doing some of the pre-work to set up a platform.
But if you’ve implemented a 365 community model, the pivot is even easier. “You’re still delivering on-demand content and recordings through your platform. And if you have the community set up already, the pivot from fully in-person to virtual is actually easier because you already have that working relationship with the platform. You can host that meeting virtually on a dime. All your branding and graphics are already on the platform. All those assets already exist within the platform, and you can reuse them to facilitate a virtual event pretty easily.”
That’s a wrap on the very first episode of #EventIcons in 2022! Hopefully, this conversation with Keaton encouraged you to face new challenges with more confidence. Also, consider looking into that 365 community model – the early bird gets the worm! If you liked this episode, subscribe and stay tuned for more awesome guests and their insights.