By: Robyn Davis, Exhibitors WINH LLC
This year, I attended CEIR Predict for the first time. As someone who both deeply cares about our industry and is really into relevant data points, this event was a fantastic fit! Although there’s no way to know what will happen in the future with 100% certainty, getting a variety of (sometimes conflicting) expert opinions was a great excuse to imagine what might happen and how I’d handle each scenario.
One of the sessions that I enjoyed the most (“How to Think like a Futurist,” presented by John Gerzema) shared data collected by Harris Poll from April 2020 (and before, in some cases) to September 2020. Specifically, the final part of that session, on the “Future of Conferences,” gave me a number of relevant insights to consider… Whether you missed the live session or are always open to another perspective, here are two of my biggest takeaways for event organizers:
- Although a lot has changed, the top reasons professionals have always participated in business events are (still) major motivators today… and, now, to an even greater extent than before!
The Harris Poll asked “how has the importance of each of the following aspects of business events changed for you?” – I gravitated to the categories that reported the highest “more important” ratings and, for those, the top three include:
- Community (connecting with friends or colleagues in my field) – 38% said more important
- Networking (meeting influential people, building relationships) – 37% said more important
- Knowledge transfer (industry training, content, product information) – 37% said more important
Seeing these categories rank so high wasn’t a huge surprise to me, as relationship building and education have been topping the “why attend business events” list for as long as I’ve been in the trade show industry… but, this data tells us more than that, in my opinion.
As event organizers, you set the tone for participant expectations with your programming, marketing materials, etc. You know what they want and have been delivering on that for many years. Now, even though almost everything else feels like it’s changed, you still know what your participants want and you can use your experience to better serve your community now.
To capitalize upon that knowledge, use this list of the top “more important” categories as a checklist for your upcoming events. Whether they’re in-person or online (more on this below), get specific on how your events provide these benefits to participants. Tell them:
- How you create community
- Who attends your events (share the specific demographics from past events and note who you’re inviting to your next event)
- How participants can find and connect with those they know (offer tools/templates to help professionals share that they’re participating in advance, identify opportunities for special interest groups to “meet up,” and note any easy ways to find colleagues or friends who are also participating)
- How you facilitate networking
- Which influential industry professionals will also participate (list speakers, sponsors, and/or award winners prominently in your promotions and offer special opportunities to meet industry VIPs)
- How can participants find and connect with those they don’t know (suggest convenient places/times to engage with others and offer training to help them feel more confident approaching new contacts)
- When can participants spend more dedicated time together (explain whether you have dedicated opportunities for relationship building at your event or you suggest that participants schedule additional conversations “offline” instead)
- How you facilitate knowledge transfer
- What educational opportunities are available (listing everything from longer, more in-depth workshops to mini-sessions hosted by exhibitors)
- What content is available (noting whether this is a part of the event – like session handouts and exhibitor collateral – or shared through your social media channels, email blasts, and website)
- Where participants can obtain the product information they need to grow their businesses (introduce your exhibitors, sponsors, and product-related awards, and re-share these often so they aren’t overlooked or forgotten)
Highlighting your top “most important” event components will help participants recognize the value of participating and give them something specific to look forward to. Although the way in which you help participants accomplish their goals may need to change, you can take comfort in knowing that all of the hard work you put into brainstorming ideas to enhance or optimize those key areas is still relevant.
- Although participant motivations haven’t changed too drastically, their expectations have been “recalibrating” according to event type and timing.
The Harris Poll asked respondents “…what is your expectation of an in-person event vs. an online event?” – in this section, I was most interested in how the responses changed over time for each event type.
Let’s start with in person events: from April to September, expectations have been lowered in every category but one (defining corporate goals). This made me think of a statistic shared earlier in the presentation: 82% of Americans said “I would forgive a company for at least trying to help, even if they don’t get it right.” That statistic refers to speaking out about social issues, but I think the bigger takeaway (and the likely connection I identified between those two stats) is one of alignment and understanding. Social issues aren’t new, just like in-person events aren’t new; but, what’s “normal” in our approach and level of responsibility for each one has been changing.
So, as funny as it sounds, for many event organizers, hosting an in-person event may feel less familiar than hosting an online event; and, it may even seem overwhelming to try to navigate all of the new procedures that make hosting an in-person event comfortable for participants. The good news is that participants seem to get this – they recognize that you’re trying and they are willing to give you some grace for that reason. In other words: right now, it’s okay to make some mistakes, whether you’re speaking out about social issues or getting back into the swing of hosting in-person events, as long as you keep your audience’s best interests in mind… so take advantage (especially because, in my opinion, that understanding spirit is unlikely to last long)!
That brings us to online events: the data showed that, in every single category, expectations are higher for online events now than they were several months ago. For me, this resonates with what I’ve been hearing from my connections – between “work from home Zoom fatigue” and ongoing struggles to create value for their companies (without access to their normal sales and marketing methods), online participants need organizers to help them achieve more. In my experience, they’ve become less forgiving online because this format doesn’t feel “new” anymore and they simply can’t justify the time and expense of continuing to participate in online events that aren’t working.
In other words: when it comes to online events, as much as participants want to support their organizations (and some may continue to do so, begrudgingly, even if you aren’t meeting their expectations), they really do need you to do your best. Our industry has had several months to get acclimated to the concept of online events (not to mention the years online events had also been happening, prior to this pandemic) – which may not feel like a long time if you’ve only been working on one or two events in that time, but with so many people hosting so many online events, practically every day, the novelty is quickly wearing off for participants.
So, whether you feel like a pro or you’re just getting started, there are resources available to help you avoid some of the common challenges associated with this format and create a better experience for your participants… you just have to choose not to let yourself get comfortable, always striving to make your next event better than your last!
In the end, I learned (and confirmed) a lot at CEIR Predict. The above takeaways cover about five minutes of one session from this year’s event. If you can spare the time, I’d encourage you to stop and spend at least that long thinking about your future today. Ask yourself:
- How can you use what you already know (and have been doing well) to better serve your participants moving forward?
- Are there any areas in which you need to cut yourself some slack (your best is enough!)? Are there any areas you need to challenge yourself to continuously improve (there’s always room for improvement)?
We can’t predict the future with 100% certainty, but we can take smart, strategic steps to create the best possible future for ourselves and our communities.
Through her company, Exhibitors WINH LLC, Robyn partners with event organizers to teach their exhibitors the strategies required to win at trade shows, ultimately improving exhibitor engagement, satisfaction, and retention through her award-winning exhibitor success programs. To learn more, visit her company’s website (linked above) or request to connect with Robyn on LinkedIn.