As we move into May, the immediate future of live events remains uncertain. Joe Colangelo, CEO and cofounder of Arlington, Virginia–based Bear Analytics, a consulting and tech firm for associations and events, said that associations realize that they must pivot faster. If they have a live meeting planned in 2020, Colangelo said, they see that they must take it down — like a house, brick by brick. Then, they need to rebuild it, but it won’t look like the same house, and they don’t know what it will look like.
And so Bear Analytics also finds itself in a rare situation. Time is too compressed to gather data to make decisions. In fact, the biggest hindrance to association meeting planning right now is that “time is ticking away,” Colangelo said. “What is the plan: Hit pause? Punt to fall? Cancel? Create a live/virtual hybrid? Tell everybody: See you next year?”
Associations’ biggest challenge right now “is having enough information to overcome indecision,” he said. “Associations are known to be bodies that first say, ‘We can research our way to the best solution.’ But there’s no time for that now. You need to be able to try things and understand that some aspects of it will fail. Make a decision. It’s more about having an action-learn/action-learn process than doing due diligence.”
We asked Colangelo to share some of the quick thinking he is seeing among associations.
The shift most are making is toward thinking “virtual first.” Easier said than done?
You are seeing the focus on virtual, and also seeing meeting planners having to create an “insurance policy” for their associations by potentially producing digital and live meetings simultaneously. Meeting planners are under a lot of stress because right now it’s not about getting one thing — the in-person conference — right. They have to get two things right: Working on that and on a virtual event. This is a struggle for many teams right now.
Revenue and expenses look very different for both models. How are associations approaching pricing?
You have to create a new business plan. Before, if you needed to make $10 million, you invested $5 million and profited $5 million. With virtual, the costs will be lower — much lower. Instead of spending $5 million, it’s probably going to be less than $1 million. [Bear Analytics typically works for clients with meetings of more than 8,000 attendees, but his estimates translate to smaller meetings, too.]
When you consider live events that would have charged $600 to $1,500 for registration, a virtual event will be priced 30 to 60 percent lower, based on your norm. A huge variety of registration options are not really necessary. Keep pricing simple, so that it can clearly align with the online experience one can expect when selecting it. The attendees will appreciate the simplicity and it will also help organizers create models that are easier to estimate when determining their new top-line revenue numbers.
As for pricing sponsorships: This appears to be the Wild, Wild West right now. Sponsors and exhibitors are finding letting go of their long-term behaviors challenging. In a virtual environment, the benefit for a 30×30 booth is not as clearly outlined when compared to a 10×10. Exhibitors don’t need to battle to get the best spot on the floor, nor do they want to abandon their priority point systems. These business scenarios are some of the most challenging that today’s organizers are facing.
Is there a new formula for determining cost-per-attendee because an association’s potential audience has changed?
You have the potential to attract a much larger audience than you would for a live event because — at least for right now — everyone is at home in front of their home computers or laptops all day, every day. By gearing toward more on-demand content — and live webinar-based learning if that makes sense — you can spread your content and include built-in breaks. People can register at the lower cost, sit in on some sessions, and then stop and do their everyday things around the house or whatever. Then, they can come back to you later.
You don’t have that flexibility — something everyone needs these days— when you travel to a conference. You have to commit 100 percent to the event. Think about it: You can’t wake up, fly across the country to a live conference, stay for some of it, fly home at night to be with your family, and then do the same thing over again for the next two days. So, in a way, the potential attendee reach is that much larger.
For example, if you have a 5,000-person live event, and you work hard all year to hit that number to break even or to even turn a profit, all of a sudden, your business model is flipped. The balance between the average revenue per registrant and exhibitor is counter-balanced by a reduction in overhead — however, this can vary based on how much of the face-to-face event liability still exists. Not all contracts can be canceled free and clear, and there are, of course, sunk costs associated with a canceled face-to-face event.
One of our clients recently pivoted their large trade show, very quickly, to a virtual meeting — in two weeks. When you’re moving that quickly, there’s no expectation on outcomes. For one of their sessions, they had assumed roughly 150 attendees would participate. They ended up with more than 550 individuals on for the virtual session, quite literally larger than the room itself could have held in person.
You have said that meeting planners are really good at providing production value. Still true?
Yes. With virtual — and potentially when in-person meetings re-open on the other side of this pandemic — you will be working with a new, robust ecosystem. Planners are always focused on the experience.
The delivery mechanism will be changed. Associations will be focused a good deal on on-demand content. Think about how this will improve the production value. You won’t have those problems like when the microphone doesn’t work or the panelists stumble through their messaging. What about the panelist or keynote you really wanted because they are ideal for your session, but their travel dates couldn’t work for your conference? That goes away. Sessions can and will have a more polished look, like a network production.
How must today’s meeting planners adjust their skill set to fit the hectic new pace of business and to shift to digital?
The one thing that this pandemic has caused is an unbalancing of team capabilities. You have these rock-star meeting planning employees. Their primary function — and what they are best at — is producing well-run live meetings: Plan fun events, handle hotel contracts, designing complex physical spaces, troubleshoot registration-desk management, assist the exhibit floor organizers, put out fires during trade-show hours, settle disputes, accommodate speakers, run IT in the breakout rooms, produce flawless board meetings, be runners, and serve as overall member customer-service reps.
But think about it, for the next six-to-nine months or so, those skills and talents are less critical for a virtual conference. Meaning there is excess capacity here, or cases where a whole new set of skills are required. … [Is] someone who is great at managing hotel contracts or setting the perfect food menu, etc., [in the best position to choose] what technology will be used for virtual event production?
At the same time, you have marketing- or financial-focused team members who are winding down the face-to-face event and trying to ramp up the virtual version. Those teams are at a capacity deficiency. There’s an imbalance in skill/talent alignment with capacity.
For many — but not all — it’s going to be a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights situation, at least at first. This is a huge shift.
As a leader, you’re tasked with focusing that team and trying to create that new balance. Adopting some of the principles of agile [responding to change over following a plan] can help move mountains quickly. Emphasizing communication, alignment, and accountability will empower your team to move faster. The end result has to be action and execution.
Communication is going to be vital when team members are facing new responsibilities and new challenges. Secondly, aligning the new virtual event goals with team capabilities and realigning capabilities for the task at hand is critical. Lastly, when time is limited, there needs to be a higher priority on quick accountability — standups [short meetings] can be a great tool to implement to help eliminate project blockers.
The same goes for you at Bear Analytics, right?
Absolutely. As our business has been massively disrupted in the last month, we’ve mobilized to create a series of task forces to handle everything from reprioritizing R&D initiatives, to looking for cost-saving areas, to developing new analytical approaches for virtual-event data and assigned one staff person to be the leader in getting them figured out.
We hold standup meetings at the beginning and end of each day to give progress updates and identify project roadblocks. At first, some of those standups lasted 30 or 40 minutes because we were all still finding our way. But once the task forces were able to build knowledge and were able to learn from each other, the meetings now take only 10 minutes. We finish each other’s sentences. We understand where it all is heading. Some team leaders were comfortable admitting, “Here’s what I know, but I might not be the best person to be the leader on what we need for this given situation.” With the agile teams, we’ve seen our production increase by 25 percent this past year, with the same amount of staff and work hours.
Once we get to the other side of this pandemic, what drastic changes might we see in live meetings?
I don’t know if these are drastic changes, but meeting planners need to rethink efforts to build a maximum density in the exhibit hall. People might not be excited about cramming together with everyone else. You will see events creating safer exhibition experiences. For example, you could set up quadrants on the floor and assign groups of attendees to only traffic a given area for a given time slot. It could be a Monday-Wednesday and Tuesday-Thursday schedule.
You could try asking your exhibitors — who are lined up row after row — to only be open with booth workers in place in every other booth. Those booths that are open would alternate on a day or half-day schedule. This would accentuate social distancing and limit overall hall occupancy.
Planners might want to revisit an old idea: matchmaking. This “speed-dating-type” one-on-one meeting is a pre-arranged 15-to-30-minute meeting, where attendees can set up engagement leading into a face-to-face event. This prearranged meeting structure can create comfortable, private networking opportunities for attendees.
These ideas are in their infancy right now. Time will tell which approaches make the most sense, for which venue, and whether or not more sophisticated tools like beacons can be used to ensure safe spacing at events.
Paul Bergeron, IOM, is a freelance reporter who covers association management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.