According to a November 2018 study from the Events Industry Council, the conference industry generates $330B annually in the U.S. Roughly 330 million people attend in-person training and a whopping $10 billion is spent by businesses attending such events, per year.
Due to COVID-19, in February 2020, this industry changed forever. For example, in an unprecedented move, one of the greatest success stories of the conference industry, SXSW the Music, Film and Interactive conference that welcomed over 73,000 attendees from across the globe in 2019, had to cancel the event. It was heartbreaking, and anyone who has attended SXSW will tell you this event experience had everything. I have been attending SXSW for over 14-years, first for music and most recently Interactive, and it’s hard to quantify how much I learned over those years.
We are devastated to share this news with you. “The show must go on” is in our DNA, and this is the first time in 34 years that the March event will not take place. We are now working through the ramifications of this unprecedented situation.” - SXSW organizers
Conferences and events, while not 100% training focused, are a key channel for training, knowledge transfer, peer-to-peer sharing and more. This educational void is a critical gap that will need to be filled as we collectively navigate a changed world of commerce in this global pandemic. Based on early data from an April 2020 news release from The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), 41% of organizers report postponing events. The bulk are scheduled to take place starting in late summer through November, with roughly 30% per month starting in August while 34% of organizers have postponed events to 2021.
While replicating the interpersonal and social characteristics of an in-person experience are hard, or perhaps even impossible to recreate, the informational and educational programming is not. Since the first online learning program was created in 1960 at the University of Illinois, the world has been advancing learning frameworks and technologies as more and more people look online for learning, and it’s growing exponentially as it becomes a part of our everyday experience.
While not all conference or event organizations see themselves as educators or trainers, the truth is they are some of the best. Why?
They are at the bleeding edge of innovation
They are curating highly relevant programming that keeps people engaged and willing to travel, while delivering value to sponsors and partners
They are attracting top notch speakers and presenters who are current and offer compelling perspective or thought leadership
These three factors alone make a powerful foundation for learning and knowledge sharing. However, the very nature of the traditional conference or event means you have only a few days of concentrated experience a year. There is so much opportunity to go beyond the event.
Filling the Educational Event Void through Continuous Learning
In a call with our staff last week, our company President had each person share a silver lining from their COVID-19 isolation and our team had many uplifting and significant stories. Some shared how they have a bit more time for personal reflection and learning, which also brought up the ability to attend yearly conferences and events. While events and conferences will take some time to return to prior "normal" conditions (if they ever do), there is also a silver lining and an incredible opportunity for the organizations that hosted over 32,000 events annually, worldwide. Companies have a chance to leverage online events to offer a critical link between individuals and their personal and professional growth, offering continuous interaction that drives value throughout the customer lifecycle.
The big question is how? How do these organizations pivot and adapt, not only during this time of self-isolation but for the future profitability of their business? Believe it or not, transformation is less complicated than it may seem. Knowing this cannot be a short-term quick fix, it requires a commitment to the long-term and a willingness to think differently about all aspects of events.
The advantage of virtual events: maintaining sustained engagement with customers
Think creatively about additional revenue opportunities arising from continuous interactions with your customers and prospects year-round -- with additional virtual events, interactive sessions, games, or contests/poster sessions. This is the time to invest in deepening your customer relationships.
Extend virtual sessions and thought leader webinars across a longer time frames
Delight your audiences’ inbox with weekly short-format content (video interviews, articles, tutorials etc.)
Leverage professional certifications and continuing education credits as attractive ways to draw more attendance, sustain engagement and raise the importance of your solution
Use event tracks to curate learning engagement pathways for your audience
Create year-round subscriptions for access to the brand, content, sponsors etc.
Virtualize your events and create a transformed experience for your attendees and sponsors
Review whether a new approach to events requires a shift in your business model. Do you have more budget with less physical staffing needs? What sort of content can you develop, own, or repurpose for use in your marketing funnel or to support your entire customer base once the event is complete?
This is just the beginning. For details on how to get started moving in-person events to online learning, check out my post that includes a three-step process to transition live events to a virtual experience: