Devin Cleary is the Vice President of Global Events at Bizzabo, the world's fastest-growing event technology platform for hybrid, virtual and in-person events. Devin is a passionate, results-driven event producer and marketing executive with experience leading the creation and active management of diverse experiential marketing programs for B2B, nonprofit and consumer markets. He was recognized as one of Connect Association’s “40 under 40” leaders in 2021, and was also featured in Event Marketer's 2017 "B2B Dream Team" and BostInno's "50 on Fire."
A Reverse Pivot to In-Person Events
In the “Friends” episode, “The One With the Cop,” Ross buys a new couch. He opts to carry it up to his apartment instead of depending on professionals. Who can forget that iconic scene where he shouts, “Here we go! Pivot! PIVOT! PI-VOT!”
We can give Ross some credit for drawing up a plan to get the couch up a narrow stairwell. But it isn’t long before he abandons the plan and suggests Rachel and Chandler just follow his lead. Alas, he’s left with a sawed-in-half couch and a $4 store credit. He should have called in the professionals.
The event industry spent the better part of 2020 and 2021 perfecting digital engagement and catering to at-home audiences. But as we welcome in-person experiences, event professionals face a new challenge: pivoting the virtual events developed during the height of the pandemic into real-world experiences.
We’re not looking at a return to life as we knew it. In-person experiences will look different because expectations have evolved. These best practices can help you execute a successful reverse pivot.
Scenario Planning FTW
The best way to plan for navigating the ambiguity of events is through scenario planning and risk mitigation. The onus, however, will fall to event planners, as their roles have evolved far beyond coordinating vendors.
First, stay flexible. If you’re planning an in-person event this year, embrace the ambiguity. Teams should prepare their top scenarios—and what they might look like—if things need to change. A flexible event design incorporating digital elements into the in-person side makes it easier to switch to hybrid or fully virtual if necessary. Keep the lines of communication open and aim to be as transparent as possible. Map all steps required to ensure you provide a safe environment and not leave anyone guessing.
From a content perspective, professionals must get strategic around the different sessions events offer—and the formats used to present. In-person events can’t simply focus on a speaker standing behind a lectern. During the planning stages, brands must choose topics appropriately aligned to the needs of in-person attendees.
Consider delivering more technical, advanced content to in-person audiences because the environment supports a more conversational approach with instant Q&A.
We all know that people’s work habits have changed. For some employees, remote work has added an extra layer of pressure. In many ways, employees are more immersed in their work, so it’s unlikely they’re spending three days at a conference where they’re incommunicado with their colleagues.
Events should include dedicated work areas for people still expected to attend team calls. Having dedicated spaces on-site for people to use when taking a break from the programming keeps them present. They’re less likely to return to their hotel rooms to catch a meeting and opt out of returning for more sessions.
Event spaces are undergoing their own renaissance. The days of hosting a keynote in a room accommodating 15,000 attendees are nearly gone. You’ll start seeing a more creative design, with innovative event experience leaders reimagining everything into a playground-like environment.
For example, a major keynote may address people in the center of a trade show floor. People will have opportunities to engage with the speaker. It won’t feel like compartmentalizing experiences throughout the event but rather a holistic environment inviting attendees to immerse themselves, take periodic breaks to reconnect with their companies and then return to the learning and networking.
Sponsors understand the challenge of getting people where they want them to be, and they’re also looking at creative options. Traditionally, events require sponsors to purchase booth space to participate. But when sponsors tried to attract visitors via links or virtual booths during virtual events, results were mixed.
Now, brands are evolving their approach, extending conversations beyond an event and evaluating how they can engage with participants throughout the year. If they sponsor a breakout session at an in-person event, why stop there? Instead, prioritize the session as part of the event integration strategy. Reshare the content and follow up with future marketing collateral.
This approach requires developing a year-round strategy where sponsors can tie their offerings to other events, programs and marketing campaigns. If the marketing team can do that, the door opens to many more opportunities for sponsors, who feel they’re receiving a lot more value with a more holistic package.
One of the silver linings of virtual events has been the ease of convening a global audience. Maintaining a hybrid component to events gives everyone accessibility to a program or community, even if they can’t travel. If they don’t continue to offer flexible options for attendees—and allow people to meet where they are—companies could very well lose customers.
Incorporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)
In the past, DEI meant having diverse speaker lineups, but it’s expanded to include all the ways in which people are diverse, including ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation and beyond. Event planners must also consider how people attend events as well as other factors, such as learning styles, and how they can make events more inclusive and accessible.
At the base level, offer closed captioning and transcription. From a content perspective, are speakers aware of the different ways in which neurodiverse people interact with their content? Will your event offer quiet rooms for people who need the space to listen differently? What about spaces for nursing mothers?
Registration should evolve, too, beyond a set of tick boxes where someone indicates the need for a wheelchair or sign language interpreter. One new best practice includes asking attendees about their preferred learning styles—visual or auditory, for example—and then creating programming to accommodate that preference. Suddenly, the event becomes not one for 5,000 people but rather 5,000 individual events at that moment. Are we there yet? Not entirely, but the industry is moving in that direction.
View Attendees Holistically
Event planners must view attendees beyond just their role within a company. Because they’re more likely to invest time, energy and money with organizations reflecting their value system, it’s critical to show how your event and your brand align with those values.
Events offer many ways to do so. During registration, ask attendees to share the top cause most near and dear to their hearts. We’re all part of the experience economy and want to feel connected to like-minded individuals. One way to foster this connection is to bring your audience together through their shared passions. It doesn’t take away from the core construct of the content or the event’s goals. It does, however, build community, which is the utopia of the event formula.
There’s more pivoting to do—hopefully with more grace and fewer struggles than Ross.