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Transform now or regret later

by Olivia Powell

Mark Parsons, founder of Events Intelligence shares advice for the vital metamorphosis of the organiser.

While on holiday this year, we stayed in Tuscany for a few days. The hotel had panoramic views over the vineyard, with the town of Montepulciano framed majestically in the background. It was the epitome ofTuscan beauty and a delight to drive into.

When we checked-in however, we were given a long list of things that were not possible due to the hotels’ coronavirus precautions. Among others, the restaurant was completely closed, and – somewhat more curiously – the virus was also responsible for the lack of air conditioning.

Now, it was clear that they’d decided to run the hotel with three employees rather than ten or fifteen. Having made no money during the lockdown, it was hard to begrudge them for taking measures to run at a higher margin over the summer, especially with so much uncertainty in the future. They’d taken stock of what they had to sell, cut back their offering, and blamed everything which had changed on coronavirus.

For the last six months the exhibitions industry has also been able to blame all their woes on the virus. This is fundamentally flawed. Things are not going back to ‘normal’. Putting aside the economic environment, our industry is not the same as my hotel in Montepulciano. For all the positivity on re-openings: customers are correctly questioning payback given tight budgets, and have valid concerns over the size and quality of the audiences we can deliver in person given people’s hesitation to travel. The reality is tough.

So, what should organisers do about this? While painful financially, they could decide to sit this time out, wait until the virus passes and restart shows like ‘normal’. But our customers’ expectations have fundamentally changed. The recent months have accelerated the digital transformation of almost all industries. As customer centric organisers, if we don’t mirror the change in our customers, we are likely to become irrelevant. The question is not whether to transform, but what to transform into?

What exactly needs to be done?

Although less than other industries, we have been talking about the opportunities of digital, data and technology coming of age for years.

Now the transformation through digital, data, technology and advanced analytics needs to happen.

But what should an exhibition (that has been historically analogue) transform into? In most cases a tradeshow creates value from bringing communities together at a specific time and place. While ‘virtual’ and ‘hybrid’ events are the current buzzwords, the fact is that organisers need to build events which blend digital and analogue channels in innovative ways to meet their exhibitors’ needs. In a past article in EN, Paul Rodriguez and myself described how a data-led approach can be used to transform the marketing stack of an organiser. Let us extend this to how an organiser best meets the needs of their exhibitors.

Taking a fictional hospitality show in Europe, let us explore a potential transformation path. At the presenttime they have had to postpone their 2020 edition, and plan to hold their next edition in spring 2021. To mitigate risk, they believe this will be some form of hybrid event. Over the next four months they should:

» Hold one-to-one calls with all the exhibitors, which had confirmed for 2020 (and 2019 lapsed) to gather detailed input on their needs and expectations of the 2021 show. Old school, but critical to understand the landscape

» Use data analytics to identify an additional cohort of highly relevantsimilar companies which have yet to be exhibitors but are very likely to have similar needs to existing exhibitors

» Run a series of online forums combining a mix of these two groups where they discuss findings from the initial one-to-one calls and gather feedback. Use polls to gather data to segment forum participants based on their risk attitude, face-to-face expectations and views on alternative ways of doing business if the show has to be delayed again

» Classify confirmed and potential exhibitors into distinct clusters for exhibitor marketing purposes – it is critical to identify those which are price sensitive, those which are loyal and those which are more open to experimentation. Those which are very price sensitive should be steered towards the digital offering, those which are loyal and open to experimentation steered towards both live and digital offerings

» In parallel, define the blend of digital and live components of the 2021 hybrid event. It is critical to define the touch-points between the live and online components of the event, identifying what needs to happen concurrently, and what can be provided before and after the live event. In practice, the quality of experience will be a function of driving meaningful interaction between online audiences and the live show floor.

Such an exhibitor-led approach is designed to create data to effectively build a hybrid event with a mix of exhibitors with various levels of openness to exhibit online.

While technology is a key component of delivery, this can be outsourced or bought in. It is easy to be fearful of technology, but the reality is that once a vision of how to meet exhibitors’ needs is in place, the technical components will fall into place.

The hidden component of this narrative is the effort required to go beyond the traditional sales process. Joining up and explaining the value of both live and digital components to exhibitors is a significant challenge and something not to be underestimated.

An effective combination of live and digital creates a product merchandising and sales messaging challenge which is new to a sales team used to selling sqm and sponsorship packages. Hybrid events create a diversity of product opportunities, but also require the orchestration of multiple touch-points and a consultative selling style which is new to many organisers.

How to get started?

One of the few advantages that organisers have (and should remember they have, because it is dangerous to stay in analysis paralysis) is that the choices they make today aren’t permanent.

There will be an expectation of increasing digital and hybrid offering for the next edition, but also an expectation that things will not be the same. You only need to look at education over the last few months to realise that when there is no other way, what is offered is embraced – even if it is not perfect.

Bringing along your own employees may in some cases be the larger challenge. Change management will be required to create a burning platform to facilitate change. Leadership needs to explain the way forward, reward positive role models and advocate the need to build the data-led exhibitions of the future.

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