20 Experts on hosting business events during a pandemic

After dealing with a pandemic for two years, what’s the state of business events? InviteDesk wanted to find out and ran 20 in-depth interviews with people in the field. We spoke with marketers working in various industries that had one thing in common: they all use events as a part of their marketing mix.

We wanted to find out: How did the pandemic impact their event strategy? What are their biggest challenges? What are their plans?…

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How did the pandemic impact their event strategy?

Digital acceleration

It won’t come as a big surprise, but the pandemic certainly meant an acceleration for digitising events. Before COVID, some companies occasionally ran a webinar on teams. But, in the last two years, there has been an explosion of different types of digital events using different technologies.

No exception with the experts we interviewed. They all explored the potential of online webinars, fairs, or networking events. We noticed a clear enthusiasm about the advantages online events offer:

  • An effective way to capture new leads, since there’s a very low barrier to register,
  • an increase in reach at a low cost,
  • and the higher comfort you offer to your audience that no longer has to travel.

“By moving a part of our training online, we managed to offer a better work-life balance to our teams.”

– Nele Cloots, Select.

However, not all the online events were successful from the start. For some people there was a steep learning curve and others concluded that online was not working for them. Online didn’t suit their target audience (e.g. when the audience was IT illiterate) or did not get their (sales)-colleagues on board.

Redistributing budgets. Online = cost effective?

One surprising element is the cost side of online events. When you run a simple webinar, the costs linked to your event will remain relatively low. But, with all the online events out there, it’s harder to stand out. Plus, there’s the challenge to keep the attention of your (online) audience.

To deal with these challenges, organisers had to step up their game, resulting in the cost of online events rising quickly. Money was (well) spent on:

  • building/renting a professional studio,
  • hiring an experienced production team,
  • hiring an event agency to take their event next level,
  • adding a physical element during online events (e.g. beer-tasting).

According to the experts we interviewed, the investments are worth it.

In-person, please!

The urge to have in-person events was immense. The moment that COVID guidelines allowed it, people were eager to run and participate in in-person events. Delivering a message or reaching event objectives is sometimes only possible through the “real thing”. Tasting or touching products, visiting a new factory, and seeing all the shiny new technology, experiencing things together with your colleagues, small talk during the coffee break,…

“We never had so many requests for Teambuilding activities as in September-October 2021”

– Chiara Smets, Event Manager, Antwerp City Brewery – De Koninck

Hybrid comes in many forms

Even though people craved in-person events, hybrid events started popping up too. Our experts used hybrid events as a formula that combines online and offline tools to reach their business event objectives. Let’s go through some ways they used.

Of course, some hybrid events ’simply’ streamed the in-person event for an online audience. Marketers that ran such hybrid events used professional teams to help them build the scenario and get the technical side of things right (streaming, professional film crew…).

In some cases, our experts explained they re-used the recordings of in-person events. They uploaded the recording for guests to relive the event, or used them on their website as a lead magnet.

Another alternative our interviewees discussed was an online event, followed by different groups in the same room spread geographically. One group would follow the webinar in Brussels, one in Amsterdam, one in London, etc. This way, they could share the moment with the entire audience globally AND have some in-person networking opportunities locally.

And of course, there are online events that include a physical element (sending a gift basket, beer or wine tasting). Although the audience’s reactions were positive, these events were in many cases not repeated regularly because of the cost side of things and complicated logistics.

”We wanted to celebrate certain employees during our online company conference. To give them their spotlight moment, we sent a small film crew to their house and some of the others we gathered on location so they still could receive their award on stage in a safe environment. The award winners really appreciated this effort.”

– Kathy De Weirt, Marketing Manager, BOEMM

Events got smaller and better

Because of the different safety measures in the past two years, business events were smaller than they used to be. Most marketers felt that this ”downsizing” had positive side-effects. They experienced better interactions with their guests.

More ”quality time” was spent close with their customers and prospects. It did mean, however, a more significant investment from their own (sales)employees. Marketers had to organise and attend more – but smaller – events.

”For our Audi e-Tron buyers, we held smaller events over a longer period also using time slots. Our customers and commercial crew much appreciated this more personal approach”

– Dhondt, Events Process & Operations Manager, D’ieteren

Keep your head up

Successful business events are only successful because marketers and event professionals work with their hearts and souls to create magic. The last two years have been very frustrating at times: last-minute cancellations of events after weeks of preparation, budget cuts, downsizing of teams, temporary unemployment…

But despite these drawbacks, every interviewee was still very passionate about their view on the future, and the successes they’ve achieved. Short-term, there is still a lot of uncertainty, but there’s a strong belief that things will get better.

The future looks bright

Events are going through a challenging period. Over the last two years, new technologies emerged, and a changed environment led to new insights and new ways of working. Let’s summarise some of the trends and predictions our experts told us:

  • Future events will be a mixture of in-person and online components. The setup of these components varies depending on the event type and its’ objectives.
  • Proximity and intimacy will play an important role, leading to smaller events, local fairs of investments in Experience centres rather than participating in large fairs.
  • In-person events will (continue to) play an important role in relationship marketing – especially in employee marketing, where there is a permanent shift in where people work and meet.
  • Marketers will still need to be flexible for some time. You will need a backup plan and the tools to execute this.
  • Online-only is cited often as an efficient and comfortable event type when it comes to pure information sharing.
  • Physical-only is still the preferred format when it comes to tightening relations with clients
    & colleagues.

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