The Full Return of Live Events Remains Down the Road

The following is republished with the permission of the Association of National Advertisers. Find this and similar articles on ANA Newsstand.

By Maureen McLaughlin

Mixed messages have been swirling around post-pandemic travel and the return of live events. New York’s Pride events resumed this June, after being canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, even as the White House announced that the U.S. would fall short of President Biden’s goal of having 70 percent of Americans at least partially vaccinated by Independence Day. (The goal was met in early August.) Fourth of July weekend was widely predicted to be among the busiest for American travelers since the start of the pandemic, with 43 million expected to have traveled by car or plane, according to AAA and reported by ABC News. Orlando, home to Walt Disney World, urged even fully vaccinated travelers to keep their masks on indoors amid a summer spike in the number of cases of COVID-19. This alternate messaging leaves many marketers and event planners wondering what the second half of 2021 holds for their in-person, hybrid, and virtual event programming.

“The entire industry is completely frozen,” says Allie Magyar, founder and CEO of Hubb, which provides event management technology. “People don’t know what the hell to do. They’re launching registration, but they’re not seeing people register and actually be willing to go to an event. There’s a lot of uncertainty for people.”

More than three-fourths (77 percent) of vaccinated people said they would be willing to travel domestically for either personal or business reasons, according to an ANA survey released in June of 1,458 brand marketers, agency employees, and nonmembers.

With most people willing to travel and venues once again filling to capacity, what’s the hold up on business events? The answer is, well, businesses, as they put the kibosh on travel and limit live programming.

According to the ANA survey, 57 percent of responding companies are not allowing travel at all; 25 percent are allowing only executive travel. On the agency side, only 37 percent of respondents said that they are permitting business travel. Among nonmember companies, 46 percent said they are giving the green light for employees to get back on the road.

In addition to holding their employees back from what they consider unnecessary business travel, many brands are still reluctant to host their own in-person events, instead continuing to lean on a virtual model for the foreseeable future.

“It’s almost more of a PR concern,” says Matthew Glass, SVP at Allied Experiential, a marketing agency focusing on the entertainment, culture, sport, and lifestyle sectors. “No one wants to be the first one to be out there if something happens and there’s some critical backlash. [Brands] need to be conservative in their thinking and be cautious because things aren’t over quite yet.”
More Interactive Content

With companies skittish regarding both business travel and producing live events, marketers are morphing what were once in-person extravaganzas into virtual and more intimate fare.

Last summer, for example, Allied Experiential partnered with Amazon to convert the Amazon Treasure Truck PupFest — an event for pet owners originally slated as a tour of dog parks — into an hour-long virtual livestream co-hosted by actress Lucy Hale and celebrity dog trainer Brandon McMillian, from CBS’ Lucky Dog.

The stream was hosted on Amazon Live and served up a mix of content including dog training tips, a contest for best user-submitted dog videos, and an exhibition of dog influencers performing their best tricks.

“The benefit is the viewership and engagement is much larger,” Glass says. “You’re not just talking to a couple thousand people at a dog park. This is open to hundreds of thousands or millions of people to tune in, so from a brand’s perspective, obviously that’s appealing to have those kinds of numbers.”

The virtual program, which was sponsored by Purina, Chuckit!, and K9 Advantix, garnered one billion paid and earned media impressions.

Glass says the key to pulling such high numbers is enabling attendees to interact with the content. “The most successful livestreams do have different kinds of engagements,” he says. “The more that you can have it not just be a TV show, not just be content, but actually be interactive, the better.”
On with the Show

It’s hard to imagine that marketers will forfeit the kind of reach afforded by virtual events even when live events do return in full force, leaving many to weigh the costs and benefits of deploying a hybrid model indefinitely.

“If we take PupFest out again in the fall, there’s a good chance that we would have the livestream aspect to it, so everybody could see and be a part of it,” Glass says. “It’s the kind of thing that consumers have gotten more comfortable with and there’s different technologies that you could use to create engagement online. Everybody is anxious to get out there live but it doesn’t mean that we forget what we’ve learned.”

Another benefit of the move to virtual events is the heaps of data they generate, especially for conference and meeting-planning executives who have traditionally struggled to prove sponsor ROI and gauge attendee engagement.

Magyar says that the data collected from virtual and hybrid events shows that attendees want something tangible from their experiences.

“It taught us that people attend events and only participate in a very small number of things that actually matter to them,” she says. “It’s also taught us to be a lot more prescriptive around how we understand who is attending our event and what they gain value from, and put effort into those specific things, instead of trying to be everything to everyone.”

Bizzabo’s Virtual Attendee Experience Report, which analyzed data from 358 in-person and 618 virtual events between September 2019 and September 2020, confirms Magyar’s findings. According to the report, attendees of both live and virtual events skip most of the festivities, while most people attend just 20 percent of an event’s total number of sessions.

The report also found that 73 percent of virtual attendees go to events to learn, compared to 57 percent of in-person attendees. Unsurprisingly, in-person attendees were three times more likely than virtual attendees to cite networking or meeting people as their main objective at events (24 percent and 8 percent, respectively).

To boost event attendance and engagement, marketers need to segment their event audiences and be careful their programs are not one-size-fits-all.

“There is no way to try to convince someone attending virtually and attending in person are the same value proposition, that’s a huge mistake,” Magyar says. “The future of events is omnichannel; that means that we need to provide digital experiences combined with in-person experiences and people opt for whatever experience is of most value to them.”
Testing New Concepts

For Hubb’s Untethered event this September, Magyar is looking forward to testing her ideas for what she calls a truly hybrid event, with two separate value propositions.

One concept she’s eager to try out is having attendees watch content ahead of the actual event and using their time during the in-person event to participate in Q&As and brainstorm with their peers.

“Part of the challenge to us as an industry is not going back to what we used to know, and instead really taking some risks and trying out new things,” Magyar says. “Because if there was ever a time for disruption, if there was ever a time where we have more grace from our attendees with more unknown about what this looks like and how it should happen, it’s right now.”



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