2020 has been a real train wreck. Let’s just get that out there and deal with it. I often think about what I will reminisce about with my daughter 10 years from now when she’s off to college (hopefully) about this current situation. My whole [marketing] world has been turned upside down and if you are a marketer, you know exactly what I mean.
In March, we were just beginning our event marketing plans for the summer and remainder of the year. All of our channels were ready to go – we were ready for event registrations to start rolling in! Then big shows started cancelling or postponing. Daily news reports of serious spikes in COVID-19 cases were in your face no matter where you turned. And quarantining at home was the new way of life.
Our marketing focus immediately shifted and we stopped any and all event marketing. The writing was on the wall – live events were on hold for the foreseeable future and our members were hurting – quick and nimble decisions had to be made. While everything we do at IAEE is to drive member value, the marketing team focused all its efforts on how to provide timely and relevant resources to our members who were being affected by COVID-19. In March and April, our main drivers every day were talking to members, helping the membership department and revamping our value propositions to our stakeholders. We asked the questions daily: What do our members need from us right now? How can we provide value right now?
EXHIBITIONS DAY: FROM THE HILL TO A SCREEN
The problem we were facing is the realization that live events were on hold. Women’s Leadership Forum was being postponed to the Fall and our first CEM Week in May was looming. Our marketing strategy had flipped completely. In some ways, it’s been refreshing to refocus our messaging and put event marketing on hold. From March to June, we solely directed efforts at COVID-19 related initiatives. This was “safe.” The team was focused on providing resources and information to help navigate the pandemic. Before any communication was or is even discussed, I would, and still do think to myself…How would I receive this information if my budgets were slashed? How would this communication affect me if I thought my job was on the line?
An event that I am truly proud of is Exhibitions Day, which is the industry’s day of advocating on Capitol Hill and meeting with federal lawmakers. During this time, the importance of Exhibitions Day and advocacy in general took on a whole new relevancy due the dire circumstances that our industry was facing. Instead of meeting in D.C., we had decided to take the event virtual. This was IAEE’s first venture into producing a virtual event that was not a webinar and it felt as though all eyes were on us, as the leading global association for exhibitions, to make this a success. The IAEE Advocacy Committee was integral to the success of this first virtual event and the engagement we produced from it because we listened to what our members and attendees needed and how they would like to participate to create the most impact. Many will tell you that advocacy only becomes important when there is a crisis, but I would argue that if you have a steady campaign of advocacy initiatives that you are invested in, the payoff during a crisis is ten-fold. More than 1,600 people signed up for the event through the help of numerous industry partners helping to promote the event.
By all accounts, Exhibitions Day was a success. 625 people took part in our virtual day of action. Although our attendees were not able to connect face-to-face, they did appreciate the conscious efforts made to promote networking and collaboration amongst one another. Next year when we are back to doing face-to-face events (hopefully!), we will include the option of advocating virtually as well as in-person Hill visits. This was truly a situation of making lemonade out of lemons.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR EVENT MARKETING?
Now, we’re half way through the year. CEIR economist Dr. Allen Shaw reported on June 5 “…that growth of the exhibition industry plunged during the first quarter of 2020 as 72.6% of events originally scheduled for the second half of March were cancelled.” That was just for March.
I feel like we are in a bit of grey area. Virus cases are starting to increase again. People are starting to question what the rest of Summer and then Fall of 2020 will really look like. What should we start marketing that is not COVID-19 related? Day by day, organizations are deciding how and when to move forward with live, hybrid or virtual only events. And even if one does move forward, what do the optics look like when you are marketing an event to people who A) have been furloughed and are coming back to work with a full plate B) have no travel budget/do not feel comfortable traveling or C) have had all professional development funds slashed? The risk as a marketer of appearing tone deaf to the current situation is ever present in my mind. Each communication we send out is carefully scrutinized for tone, possible reaction by the audience, and other factors.
The CEIR How to Grow Attendance Series reported that marketers use an average of 14 different channels to market an event. I don’t think that will change much, but what will change is the value propositions of our events. It is not enough anymore to talk about education sessions, or networking or how full a room or show floor will be. If you weren’t an agile marketer before, you need to learn how to be one now. Decisions are being made on the fly, which is ok, but not sustainable long term. Doing more with less has never been more important and stressful for a marketer. One of the things I love the most about IAEE and its members is that we all lean on another and are willing to share what’s worked and what has not. There is a real passion for exhibitions and events and I am confident we will come through this time a bit bruised, but intact. I love to talk marketing, so if you have a question, give me a ring.
You can contact Nicole Bowman, MBA at firstname.lastname@example.org or 972-687-9207.