THE FORCED EVOLUTION OF ASSOCIATION EVENTS Written by Shawn Smajstrla

Many organizations were able to successfully make the instant leap into virtual events, but now must learn how to navigate a world where they’re more rule than exception. This post is an except from the MultiView e-magazine “Sponsorship Dollars in the age of Virtual Meetings.”

It was major news when Mobile World Congress announced its cancellation in February, but it was also a prelude to the long list of exhibitions, trade shows and conventions that would become casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. An industry that had been largely focused on evolving the attendee experience of live events was confronted with a sudden alternate reality – one in which there was no such thing as live-in-person.

Scrambling to provide for members and sponsors, organizers pivoted to virtual and digital environments. That so many events were partially or wholly transformed was a testament to the capabilities of associations, and now months into our post-COVID world, virtual events have become commonplace. But questions remain about the role they’ll play when live, in-person events are again an option.

“This sudden pivot to virtual alternatives certainly filled a need, and in the near term that need will still exist,” Michael Candela, Executive Vice President of Partnerships at MultiView said. “But we also need to start thinking about what association events will look like when that critical in-person element returns. That personal experience plays a vital role, but I’m sure virtual aspects of all events are here to stay.”

When events will return to destination venues remains a moving target, but research carried out by Event Manager Blog in May found almost half of event professionals (48%) assume they’ll start getting back to live events in Q4 of this year. Almost four in ten (39%) said it would be at least 2021.

Even when live events do return, it’s expected they’ll be forever changed, and challenges will have to be overcome. Venues will likely operate, at least initially, at a reduced capacity. Social distancing measures will factor in, as will the willingness or abilities of potential attendees to travel.

If we’re able to find a silver lining here, it’s that our forced swim in the virtual waters has afforded us first-hand opportunities to recognize the benefits of virtual events, such as reach, inclusivity, sustainability and cost savings.

For years, there has been plenty of talk and brainstorming (and some action) about incorporating virtual aspects into events. Lack of resources, capacity – and perhaps some misguided ideals – limited this. After all, virtual events suffer from a few primary deficiencies when compared to live versions, namely networking, live demonstrations/sampling and collaborative activities.

There’s also another key component to live events that often fails to translate directly into a virtual environment: sponsorship. Organizers rely on sponsors for much of the revenue generated by events, and sponsors rely on the exposure their investment brings.

“Associations made the sudden jump to virtual events primarily with their members in mind, and rightfully so,” Candela said. “But reality is that most events don’t exist without sponsors. It’s a major component and weaving that component into this new incarnation of virtual and hybrid events will dictate their survival.”

The fact that sponsors want the audience and want to be involved in the organizations will leave them open to new concepts and forms of sponsorships. It’s up to the associations to identify these opportunities and where they can offer value to the sponsors. One accommodating feature of virtual events is the inherent data produced. This data can illustrate how online audiences behave and what they engage with (including sponsorship content).

Tradeshows are slowly starting to revive. Both China and Germany reopened exhibitions in May. Other parts of the world will start to follow as they see decreases in threats of coronavirus. But the process will be measured and uneven, requiring that events and conferences look to virtual manifestations in the interim. ASAE, for example, has moved to an all-virtual format for 2020.

Even if we ever reach the point coronavirus is a painful memory in our past, the digital assimilation into live events is unlikely to recede. Virtual and hybrid events will be the new normal, and the most successful planners will be those who can leverage the opportunities for monetization.

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