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Navigating the New Normal: Checking in With Northeast Planners

By Megan Gosch

Chances are, you won’t know you’re living through history until it’s too late. It’s already happening. A chain reaction has been set in motion and the ground has begun to slide beneath your feet.

This past year has been a whirlwind to say the least. As a global pandemic sent the world reeling, planners were left grasping for footholds as the event industry was brought to a standstill, and many of the most fundamental elements of live meetings and events were cast in a new light.

Of course, the pause didn’t last long. Planners quickly got to work, drawing from years of experience as master problem solvers to pivot like never before, while those who had already dabbled in virtual event formats put their skills to the test.

Those early spring days were focused on the immediate future and plans for events already underway, but as weeks and months have passed, one thing has become clear: the ripple effects of COVID-19 won’t fade anytime soon.

As planners begin to settle in to a “new normal,” we’ve checked in with local pros and industry leaders to learn how they’ve navigated an everchanging event landscape and how they’re approaching the year ahead.

Settling In
After an initial shock to the system with the onset of COVID-19, many planners have spent the last several months getting a new lay of the land—navigating a slew of ever-changing executive orders, safety protocols and health and safety guidelines while working with clients to determine best fit and a new path forward.

“I started the year with 30 confirmed events on the calendar. 2020 was going to be a mammoth year,” says Melissa Park, a global event producer based in New York. “Within a matter of months almost all had been canceled due to COVID-19. I think that speaks volumes about the moment we were in and how it’s impacted the industry.”

As many of her clients were forced to call their events off, Park assisted the few that moved to a virtual format and helped tie up loose ends with contract cancellations, securing refunds and finding new dates. Then she dove in on all of the latest virtual platforms and safety protocols, using the unexpected free time to get up to speed.

“I tested dozens of virtual options to find a winner for future events and meticulously worked through my layouts and plans for events that had been canceled to understand how I’d need to update to align with safety protocols and new policies in place,” she says. “It was a mental exercise in staying fresh, understanding what’s possible in whatever this new normal might look like.”

For the team at global brand experience agency Jack Morton, executive orders and lockdowns meant quick pivots and big decisionmaking for each client. “We’ve always had technology at the core of the experiences we build, but when COVID hit, it was a big task to keep up with the different government protocols and orders in so many different states and the question became, cancel or go fully virtual,” says chief client officer Craig Millon.

For some of Millon’s clients, the pandemic set a quick turnaround in motion that transformed live events to fully virtual experiences in little more than a month, while others opted to cancel altogether knowing the event planned was not a fit for the virtual space. But with immediate events of those early spring days officially wrapped up, the Jack Morton team shifted gears and is able to help clients plan ahead. “Now that conversation is usually a question between hybrid or virtual and we’re planning for events with four or six or eight months of lead time, helping us make the most of those platforms and deliver a much more effective event for the goals they’re hoping to reach,” he says.

Promising Perks
While everyone can agree the onset of COVID-19 has been a devastating blow to so many industries around the world, planners have been able to find a few silver linings in the upheaval left in its wake.

Through the process of pivoting Cvent CONNECT 2020, an annual in-person premier event technology conference to a digital affair, director of meetings and events Rachel Andrews and her team found increased attendee accessibility and reach to be major benefits in the switch.

“A virtual event allowed more people than ever before to attend CONNECT at a critical time where planners were hungry for guidance,” says Andrews. The conference, which was held August 25-26, brought together 43,000 attendees—nearly 10 times the average of in-person attendance in years past—and eliminated time, cost and space constraints and allowed whole teams to tune in. “New visitors and people who might have never known Cvent were able to see what CONNECT is all about. There’s no doubt that increased exposure from our virtual event will lead to greater in-person attendance in the future,” she says.

Morgan Doan, CSEP, PWC, principal and creative director for MORGAN EVENTS and chair of the 2020 ILEA Awards Celebration agrees, noting that this year’s virtual version of the association’s awards not only expanded the event’s attendee reach by removing any barriers in physical location, but also combined two distinct awards programs (ILEA’s Esprit Awards Celebration and the Spirit of Excellence Awards) as a cohesive show. “Rather than two separate awards programs with their own select attendees, we opened our doors to everyone in ILEA and the live events community, bringing a much larger group together for this one big night of celebration,” says Doan.

“The more virtual attendees you’re reaching in your events online, the more potential future live attendees you could attract as well,” says Park. “Live, in-person events are where I work my magic, but if you’re able to blow attendees away online and convey your client’s message in doing that, the more likely those virtual attendees are to factor you in next year. If you blew them away online, of course they’ll want to see what you can do in person,” she says.

Other major perks have included new partner and content possibilities, data that can drive ROI and new opportunities to learn and grow.

Andrews notes the ability to secure topnotch speakers that may not have been available had Cvent CONNECT been in person, including CEOs from industry giants like Marriott, Hilton, Southwest and American Airlines. “[With] our ability to record sessions anywhere, anytime, we were able to secure an incredible keynote lineup featuring the CEOs of leading global organizations—which only drove added interest to the event.”

With attendees logging on digitally, Andrews and her team were also able to gather real-time insights to measure the success and effectiveness of the event’s programming through composite attendee engagement scores, click and page interactive metrics, real-time chats, user feedback and more. “Those data points give us insight into buyer interest and help us better personalize the customer experience … helping us to narrow down key takeaways, lessons, and areas of improvement.” “

At Jack Morton, we already had a lot of data sources we were pulling from our in-person experiences, but the amount of insight we can grab from virtual and hybrid events is unbelievably great,” Millon says, “especially in a time when having access to time on your site, real-time participation and how your content is engaging your audience is more important than ever.”

Elevate and Engage
With the novel aspects of pandemic life slowly becoming an ingrained part of the everyday grind, planners are facing a familiar challenge.

“Now that the immaturity of COVID-19 is coming to a close, the free passes on livestream glitches or subpar webinars are up,” says Will Curran, founder and chief event Einstein for Endless Events. “Back in March and April there was this sense of camaraderie between hosts and attendees to show your human side, make mistakes and acknowledge that we’re all figuring this out one day at a time together. Today, not so much.”

The demand for polished programs and engaging events—a pressure planners know all to well— is back in full force. “There’s kind of this mentality of we’ve all had time to figure this out, we’ve all sat through a not-great virtual event and knowing these aren’t going away, attendees are looking for more,” he says.

Just months into the pandemic, Zoom fatigue had already become a day-to-day reality for planners and attendees alike. And with webinars and virtual happy hours starting to feel played out, planners are beginning to prioritize platforms and program changes that can elevate and engage virtual and hybrid audiences.

“Zoom fatigue has truly made engagement a more difficult barrier, plus attendees are consuming a lot of bandwidth from top-notch content and experiences from industry giants like Apple and Netflix, so we’ve all got to be extraordinary again and compete at that level, and that’s the true learning curve of this moment we’re living in,” says Millon. “That need to deliver online experiences at an exceptionally high standard is the greatest challenge.”

Planners focusing on virtual and hybrid events are funneling more energy and effort into quality content creation. “So much of the end-user virtual experience is grounded in those under-the-radar factors—whether that’s sourcing studio spaces and videographers to support engaging pre-recorded programs or live sessions, editing camera angles and virtual presentation cues, or developing compelling content to keep attendees engaged between presentations,” says Andrews. “As planners, we are now TV producers and directors too.”

And the more content planners and producers are creating for virtual and hybrid events, the more intentional the planning process has become. “There’s got to be some sort of check-in to make sure you’re not trying to replace a live experience with a digital one,” says Millon. “You don’t want to pretend you can take a live event and put it online because there are so many touchpoints the viewer at home is missing out on.”

The Jack Morton team actually started hybrid and virtual presentation training a few months ago to hone best practices in engaging hybrid and virtual audiences as opposed to live, in-person groups. The team’s also focused on creating experiences that are as seamless from a user perspective as possible to ensure engagement.

“Attendees are looking for easy, transparent online experiences where there’s no guesswork. They’re not wondering how to login or how to navigate the platform or how to network,” Millon says. “It’s like your first experience taking an Uber or a Lyft where the ‘wow’ factor is in the experience itself. The easier it is to use, the more users will engage and the more they engage the more they’ll remember what they took away from the event and how it left them feeling.”

Around The Bend
As is the case in most historic, landmark shifts, the impacts of COVID-19 are sure to be notable and far-reaching.

While industry experts are predicting a long-standing focus on digital events and a reinvigorated commitment to sustainable and eco-friendly event practices down the line, planners have begun to form their own predictions for the immediate future, with many seeing hybrid events paving the way for the foreseeable future.

“In my experience and for the clients I work with, the moment we can all safely get back to live, in-person events, we’ll be ready, but right now hybrid events are moving things forward,” says Park. “The outreach opportunities to engage both virtual and in-person audiences is the best of both worlds in this moment, and it could end up attracting new attendees in the years ahead. Those connections made with your organization or client or brand will be something they’ll remember and could inspire them to join in person when they’re ready and able.”

Based on his work with clients, Curran anticipates an uptick in hybrid events as well. “I’d say hybrid is the new event— as in, we don’t even need to call them ‘hybrid’ events because ‘event’ will synonymous with the hybrid platform and everyone will assume there’s going to be some sort of virtual element involved.” Earlier in 2020, Curran’s clients were hoping to plan for in-person events with a virtual component in case they needed to go digital. “In the year ahead I’m hoping we’ll see groups doing the opposite with a virtual-first mindset, forming full digital plans and an in-person element in mind in case it’s possible.”