The road back to Live, the corporate perspective: Paneuropean Webinar

Corporate planners from across Europe came together at the micebookExpo on Tuesday 22 March to discuss the ‘then, now and future of corporate events’.

The panellists include Dirk Prijs, President GvE (Genootschap voor Eventmanagers) Netherlands; Ans Lardinois, Communications & Events Manager Randstad Holdings Netherlands; Maria Gomez, President EMA (Event Managers Association) Spain & Head of Events, Amadaus; Luis Bajo, Head of Events Nissan Spain; Richard Waddington, Chair EMA (Event Marketing Association) UK; Emma Stoker, Relationship Manager Barclays UK and hosted by Rachael Boraston, London & Partners UK.

The views shared are general and derived from input from the membership of the three associations. With a collective membership of over 2100 corporate members, the views are shared to help the audience and wider industry have some indication as to the views of the majority of their corporate membership. 

The “Then”:

From early discussions, it was clear that in the first half of the pandemic, corporates were seeing far greater reach from virtual. They were generally well accepted by execs within as an efficient tool through which to engage with both internal and external audiences; attendance was up, costs were down and engagement was deeper and broader.   

However this was short lived, during the truce given by the pandemic in Q4 2021, it was becoming clearer that corporations had the desire and need to get back to face to face events, which soared requests to levels forgotten during the pandemic. It is clear that whilst virtual events have kept the lines of communication open, there was something missing. Whilst virtual allowed for ongoing engagement during lockdown, and could be a useful tool for many lines of communication, virtual does not hold the candle to being face to face. These live experiences are key to drive engagement, foster relationships, build trust and to facilitate networking.

The “Now”:

Although, the uncertain world in which we are currently operating, coming out of Covid and War in Eastern Europe, our memberships can see how hard it is to plan ahead, ‘put at risk’ the health and safety of both employees and customers, and potential reputational damage and perception of our organisations.

Whilst naturally the supply chain has been calling for businesses to return to live, there is frustration with non-commitment, ongoing cancellations and postponements. It is felt that they needed to gain a greater understanding of the situation, nuances  and challenges from the corporate side, such as planning and comms time, individual desire for people to attend, government rules, guidelines & messaging, corporate reputation, plus at times a better understanding of the objectives for the event in order to propose / select the right format. Whilst the desire to return to live events is clear, corporates will be taking a much more quantifiable approach going forward.

As we enter Spring, we see a growing demand for live and whilst we don’t see a return to the levels of pre-pandemic this year, the dial is being turned up. We envisage and are already seeing supply chain bottlenecks, lack of space, people and resource over key dates, the next twelve months are going to be extremely frustrating as we all try to find our way in the new norm, the world was shook by a seismic pandemic that has knocked everything of tilt, it will take time to adjust and adapt. 

The Future:

In the future tech/virtual will remain a key element, how exactly that will look we are all still learning/evolving. We don’t want to lose the level, depth and breadth of engagement we have achieved through virtual, we do need to return to live, to create those human interactions, networks, those cauldrons of energy and creativity. Corporate commitment to sustainability will hold a microscope over live. Is it critical, can we be more sustainable, what can we do differently to achieve our objectives whilst being kinder to the planet? 

Major audits are taking place across business, looking at what we’ve done, are doing now and need to do in the future.    

Below are the questions that were put to the panel, with an edited collective response. 

Q: What has been the value/importance of being part of your associations during these convulse months?

Generally all the associations saw growth across their membership as many corporate eventprofs found themselves in need of ‘information’ working from home, in a world they were totally unfamiliar with. 

Each association quickly pivoted their member engagement to virtual, running numerous webinars discussing the immediate situation, sharing experiences and collaborating to fast track development. This was a crisis no one had ever been in before with challenges no one had faced – how best to learn than work together, cross industry.

One of the most important values of being part of the Spanish Event Managers Association has been to stick together as a solid group, as a block, and more even in tough times. During this period, we have been able to raise the motivation needed in the sector through several actions, meetings, and specific training with our members, being confident at the same time in our corporate association messages and encouraging them to go beyond the events and overcoming the different boundaries.

In the Netherlands we held regular updates on the outcomes of the Field lab pilots (collaboration between government, scientists and the event sector), updates and views after each press conference about the impact on the sector, and ran webinars on corona related event solution topics such as event software and online interaction.

In the UK, it gave our members an opportunity to share knowledge and be part of a community, where we were all adapting to a new normal and learning (and sometimes tripping) as we went.  We could share best practice, challenges, Chatham house sessions to vent.  It gave us those virtual water cooler moments. It gave us a voice back into the sector via our Chairs voice on the Board of BVEP (Business Visits and Events Partnership).

A lot has happened in the last two years that has impacted our industry and people, not just the impact of Covid but in DEI Initiatives, Sustainability and Talent. 

As a corporate, there is a risk that you can be insular in your outlook. Being part of an association gives a broader perspective, which has been invaluable over the last two years. 

Q: You belong to three very different industries, and organise very different types of events. What is the main challenge in your sector of not being able to organise face to face events?

We are now able to organise face to face events and meetings but this has not been without its struggles and its own set of new challenges.  During the last quarter we had to reinvent ourselves looking for different ways to nurture our relationship with our stakeholders. This has been achieved by keeping in touch with our audiences through digital channels, providing them different ways to discover our brands and wherever possible enriching the overall e-commerce experience. Part of the challenge we have as event managers is how to impact our stakeholders in a disruptive way, capture their attention, fulfil all the customer’s needs, and stay relevant in a saturated global market.

As a global organisation many of our members across Europe are now allowed to organise face to face events again, whilst other parts of the world are not. The challenge is: when and how do we get our audiences interested to join face to face events again? Perhaps we’ll see a good appetite for it in the short term, but in the long term they realise the ease of joining online instead of offline so we must maintain communication and listen to the needs of our audiences to maintain momentum. For the face to face event there has already been a shift from quantity to quality. We are being more selective in the format our events take. There is absolutely an appropriate moment to use our virtual toolkit, we are not advocating for the end of virtual events, rather reapproaching the conversation with three options Virtual, Hybrid and Live. As event planners we must look at the overall objectives of an event and determine which format will give us the best results and remain open to curve balls and make contingency plans.

Compared to the automotive sector, our products and services can be translated to virtual and virtual has allowed us to reach an expanded audience in terms of locations as well as accessibility. However our industry does rely on relationships and creating networking elements with our clients and customers in a virtual world has been a big challenge. From a colleague perspective we have missed those opportunities to create collaborative events. 

Another challenge is standing out in an even more crowded world. Our clients and customers were inviting us “virtually” into their homes and became even more choosy with how they spent their time, so we needed to ensure our content hit the mark, and was a valuable use of their time.

Another challenge is that we as a team were learning as we went, we are experts in delivering award winning events, but had very little experience in virtual. We had to become experts overnight and there is still so much to learn. 

Q: Different industries and their needs have been able to adapt better to the changes during the past two years, how are you overcoming the constant uncertainty?

Plan, plan, plan!

Communication is key – with our business areas, suppliers, clients and customers. What we want to ensure is that we minimise the disruption to our clients and customers that a quickly changing environment can have.

Get comfortable working to shorter lead times and have a plan, plan B and plan C. Contingency planning is everything right now to mitigate the uncertainty. Having upskilled teams to run virtual and hybrid events we need to look at how this flavour of events fits into the larger strategy post covid. Virtual and hybrid do hold value and allow organisers to achieve goals which would not be feasible in a live environment such as reach and scale. However, on the flip side we must not forget our roots. As we’ve said already, the intangible value of live events in the ‘watercooler moments’ and chance encounters are near impossible to simulate organically online. 

It is also paramount to maintain relationships with existing suppliers, venues, production agencies, etc. We are all navigating these uncertain times and we must work together to find solutions and respond in the quickest most appropriate way should we get another curve ball.

Shorter lead times – our businesses are more cautious and not necessarily planning too far in the future. 

I think in these times of uncertainty, you and we as a sector must think beyond the events.

Over the last two years it has been remarkable to watch how adaptable and flexible our industry is, irrespective of sector. The events industry is such a valuable part of the global economy as well as the human experience. Watching our industry pull together resources throughout the pandemic to build pop up hospitals at iconic venues, giving our time, resource and expertise to creating and managing testing facilities and so much more. 

In these times of uncertainty, we as a sector must think beyond the events. That means having a strategic mindset and constantly adding value to our company. From logistics to strategic view, thinking as a brand experience manager basically focusing on the customer journey, gathering, embedding all the touchpoints along the event whether it is virtual, hybrid or live. This means, to take into consideration a 360 communication strategy; what are you going to do before, during and after the event to impact all of your stakeholders through different channels? Our role as an event manager is key to coordinate not only the face to face or digital event but the overall channels and departments that are adding value towards our brand experience. We must always have contingency plans in place, so we can easily switch to online/hybrid or adapt to a new situation. Communicate. Clear and regular communication is the best way to ease uncertainty and manage expectations. 

Communication and planning is everything. 

Accept uncertainty. 

Q: Adaptability and creativity are certainly two important characteristics of Event marketeers. Now, what the audience is wanting to hear, what type of events are you planning for the next months, and are you planning with the same timelines as before?

As a carmaker brand, we are launching innovative vehicles and unique technology in terms of engines and new ways to keep improving sustainable mobility. This is key for us, as we build and manage events, this is where our Japanese brand experience expertise and values becomes so relevant. This means we are planning several test-drive activities, dynamic as well as static workshops for different types of brand stakeholders whilst also always considering the 360 comms strategy. By leveraging a digital approach to reach more audiences and gain experiential brand engagement manufacturers are able to diversify their markets and reach new audiences previously locked out of the limited capacities of face to face events whilst also providing an exclusive VIP experience for those lucky few who do attend live.

However I have concerns that the  limit on staff and resources we are seeing will impact events across the board in the short term. As event managers more than ever we must consider both our insular event and the larger environment. If you are bringing in international delegates we must consider where they will stay as hotel capacities the world over are impacted massively by staff shortages. If we are hosting an event with high AV needs, contingency planning is paramount as event tech hardware is in high demand, not to mention qualified technicians. 

As a Global organisation we are planning more local and regional events. We have a big event planned for the end of March; 450 attendees have accepted so we are very positive. We will be hosting additional satellite in-country events alongside the main event for people who can’t travel to join, inputting key content from the main meeting and hosting those events locally.  

EMA-UK leadership members have discussed the future of live and the general feeling is that going forward, virtual will always have a place in their overall event strategies. Virtual has provided us with an expanded reach and that is something that we want to build on. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns has made us look at live and affirms the importance to our communications strategy. Going forward we see a far more integrated, measurable approach across numerous disciplines. 

Q; In this uncertainty corporate planners navigate; do you think it is necessary to change the business models? What do you look for and expect from the supply chain? 

As we were running out of time a quick discussion was had on the topic and it was suggested that this could be a panel discussion for the future between suppliers and buyers. What works, does not work, what could the models be, benefits, negatives, what do people want – you shouldn’t be changing a model because of a specific situation, you should constantly evolve and review working relationships and evolve them. The general view is flexibility and greater transparency from both sides are key to moving forward.

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