The events industry is experiencing some profound and unexpected changes. Demand for events and conferences which are attended in-person, is waning as a result of COVID-19 rendering face-to-face events either unfeasible or undesirable.

Informa, the world’s largest events organiser, has been forced to cancel or postpone £400m worth of events. And Reed Exhibitions has postponed events representing around 30% of this year’s expected revenues. The impact on the events industry is profound, just as it is for other sectors built on real-world human interaction, such as hospitality and tourism.

“This disease is presenting the exhibitions and events industry with an unprecedented global challenge”

Cathy Breden, EVP of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events.

However, industry insiders believe that the upheaval which COVID-19 has so unceremoniously foisted upon them, will prove temporary. There are so many aspects of in-person events that simply cannot be replicated digitally. A ‘Zoom’ alternative to networking over drinks, is without doubt quite some way off yet. Demand for in-person events will return. Because after all, good human interaction requires precisely that. Humans interacting with humans, not screens.

But as justified as the long-term optimism is, the events industry must right now weather a storm. So, what are the more specific consequences of COVID-19 for event organisers, and how should they respond?

The COVID-19 impact on the events industry

For the same reason that in-person events won’t disappear forever, they also won’t temporarily become fully virtual events, either. Few events work entirely on a digital platform. The demand that’s migrating away from in-person events, will settle on hybrid omnichannel events, which are a combination of digital and real-world event content, and which will grow in size and popularity in the coming years.

That means that some event organisers may already be discovering acute gaps in their capabilities, if they are not sufficiently equipped to transition in-person events onto hybrid platforms. Not only in ways that satisfy the needs of exhibitors and attendees, but also in ways that continue to deliver the commercial objectives of the event organiser.

That gap doesn’t just relate to prominent capabilities, such as online conferencing, web-based content and digital collaboration. Digital events are about much more than chatbots and VR. The real capability gap is about the more fundamental fact, that the biggest difference between an in-person event and a hybrid event, is data.

Digital events create and use a lot more data than in-person events. And in turn they require the event organiser to possess much stronger data capabilities, in areas such as data infrastructure, data architecture, data integration, data governance, data security, data compliance, data analysis, and last but not least, data monetisation. In the new world of hybrid events, data holds the key to how event organisers will keep making money.

The event organisers that continue to prosper despite the impacts of COVID-19, are those that not only successfully address the functional and practical aspects of transitioning events to hybrid platforms, but also enhance their data capabilities in ways that make the most efficient and effective use, of the increased breadth and depth of hybrid event data. Event organisers that fail in this regard, will not only find it much harder to deliver hybrid events that create satisfying experiences for exhibitors and visitors. They will also risk forgoing the primordial benefits that they once derived from in-person events.

The opportunities, and how to take them

An event organiser that not only survives but thrives on the changes, is one that can successfully capture and mobilise digital event data, in ways that enable new data-driven ways of working. For example, through the development of attendee digital twins, smart live event optimisation, and intelligent live matchmaking.

The following tables provide a sense of the kinds of data-driven opportunities, that are within the reach of event organisers which possess sufficient digital event data capabilities.

What’s the opportunity?Attendee Digital Twins
How does it work?Visitors to virtual events, are more comfortable providing data about themselves, as they aim to shape their event experience to match their needs and preferences. This enables event organisers to build ‘digital twins’ of attendees, which can be used to improve matchmaking, enhance attendee activity analysis, and fully tailor virtual events to exceed exhibitor and attendee expectations.
What’s the benefits?1. Attendee digital twin data drives visibility and conversion of monetisation opportunities.
2. Sourcing data from attendee’s online activity and their social networks, creates far deeper insights than registration data alone.
3. Richer data about attendees, drives increased robustness in matchmaking.
4. Event organisers can work with exhibitors to continuously tailor the event experience being offered to attendees.
5. Exhibitors product design can be guided by attendee interest levels in different topics and offers.
What’s the opportunity?Smart Live Event Optimisation
How does it work?Unlike in-person events, which are very difficult or impossible to amend after floorplans have been finalised, the structure of digital events can be modified quickly and easily at any time, even during the event itself. This means that data can be gathered and analysed during an event, to identify virtual stand upgrades that will create additional benefits for exhibitors, resulting in an improved exhibitor experience, and additional revenue for the event organiser.
What’s the benefits?1. By analysing live in-show data, exhibitors can gain insights on ways to fine-tune their event presence, to enhance their event experience.
2. Event organisers can access new streams of cross-sell and upsell revenue, by offering in-show upgrades with benefits supported by data science.
3. When exhibitors know they’re able to fine-tune their virtual stands during an event, it can relive pressure from the pre-event sales cycle, resulting in more cost-effective sales processes.
4. Exhibitors can use machine learning technology, to generate increasingly personalised and targeted content to attract relevant buyers.
What’s the opportunity?Intelligent Live Matchmaking
How does it work?The success of matchmaking, is directly dependent upon the quality of data about attendee preferences and exhibitor profiles. Digital events are necessarily supported by much richer sources of this data, which can be used to build a deeper understanding of attendee and visitor affinities, based not just on attendee preferences, but also their online activity both before and during an event. This can enhance the strength of matchmaking, resulting in a more successful event experience for attendees and exhibitors alike.
What’s the benefits?1. Matchmaking can be based not only on attendee registration data, but also on data about the preferences and personas that can be inferred from each attendee’s online activity after event registration, and during the event itself.
2. The quality of matchmaking is enhanced, as a result of being based on enriched attendee data.
3. The number of matches made is increased, by creating more data-driven matchmaking opportunities during an event.
4. Matchmaking becomes more efficient and personalised, as richer attendee data enables matchmaking to be supported by artificial intelligence technology.

To achieve these outcomes, an event organiser must identify any gaps that may exist in their current digital event data capabilities, and then quantify those gaps before working to close them.

The first step is to analyse the data flows that exist for all current events, whether they are in-person, virtual or hybrid events. Next, plans for how hybrid events will be operated in future, must be analysed and translated into an understanding of what data will be needed and why, as well as what and how new data will be created by the hybrid events.

This analytical approach is essential, because prior to taking steps to properly organise data, an event organiser needs clarity on what data they have to work with, and what kinds of valuable jobs the data can do. Once that clarity exists, the event organiser can reinforce hybrid event plans, with activities which ensure that the all of essential data underpinnings are properly designed, built and managed, in ways that create real value not just for exhibitors and attendees, but also for the event organiser.

Conclusion

COVID-19 is rapidly changing the events industry, and event organisers must respond to those changes in the right way. No-one knows the events industry better than the event organisers, who already recognise that digitally enabled hybrid omnichannel platforms, are the only really viable alternative to in-person events.

But event organisers must also recognise that digital, means data. So, their success will come not just from migrating platforms, but also from seeing and taking the unique data-driven opportunities that the digital platforms bring.

The changes currently sweeping the events industry, are unexpected and unwelcome. But despite that, there’s no reason at all why event organisers should fail to experience all of the data-driven benefits that digital platforms have to offer. The key is to give data a leading role on centre stage. The event organisers who succeed at that, will not only weather this storm, but will also be fitter for the longer-term future. As investments in data capabilities will continue delivering valuable returns, even after more normal life is restored, some years from now.



References:
https://www.ft.com/content/7f70e0fc-5d75-11ea-b0ab-339c2307bcd4
https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/10/informa-delays-or-cancels-events-coronavirus-exhibition
https://www.relx.com/media/press-releases/year-2020/trading-update-april-2020