The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was a sudden jolt to organizers of face-to-face events, and perhaps none more so than Informa plc, the world’s largest exhibitions firm, which has been forced to cancel or postpone more than 450 live events originally scheduled for the spring and summer.
But even as states and municipalities lock down, the need to connect buyers and sellers endures, leading organizers across the industry to turn to virtual events as a means of keeping constituents engaged and recouping some lost business.
“The appetite for communities to connect online is tremendous,” says Rick McConnell, president of North America for Informa Markets, the company’s exhibitions division. “You’re not traveling, so your ability to control your calendar is a little better, and your desire to connect and network with industry professionals never goes away.”
One obvious solution that’s emerged has been webinars, a familiar product, of which Informa Markets is producing around three-times as many as it traditionally would have. But these are just one element in what McConnell describes as a spectrum of digital products, ranging from podcasts and videos at the most basic level all the way up to the most complex and difficult experiences to translate online: full-scale, virtual trade shows.
The latter are a relatively new offering, driven mostly by necessity, with events of any kind unlikely to return until the Fall at the earliest (even August now feels “queasy,” McConnell says). But perhaps most importantly, these online gatherings are laying the groundwork for the exhibitions industry’s path into the future, which Informa believes will increasingly center around hybrid live and virtual events.
“Going forward, the power of coupling a live event with a better built-out virtual experience is what we’re all about,” he says. “It’s a really difficult time to be in live events, as we all know. But once the dust settles, you’re going to have a much richer community connection through virtual vehicles coupled with a really great live event where it all culminates. That is the way the business is going to run in the future.”
Unlike in-person trade shows, which can often carry registration fees in the thousands of dollars, these virtual events are primarily modeled on sponsor or exhibitor revenue alone, McConnell says. Attendees are charged only a nominal fee to register, if anything at all. The strength is in branding and lead generation, and the potential to provide a greater return on exhibitors’ investments when coupled with live events down the road.
“We try to package sponsorship offerings around branding opportunities, lead-gen and education, and then how we facilitate networking where you can actually go into chat rooms and have one-on-one conversations,” he adds. “People ultimately want leads. That’s why they go to trade shows and that’s why they go to virtual trade shows.”
While a virtual interaction can’t ultimately replicate the value of a face-to-face connection, organizers’ abilities to facilitate business in an online environment are growing more sophisticated.
One tactic Informa has been using is collecting demographics on both attendees and exhibitors, including the types of customers or products they’re looking for, as part of the registration process, then matching buyers and sellers together at the virtual event. At higher levels of sponsorship comes access to a greater number of leads generated by common demographics. It’s not a new strategy necessarily, but one that’s taken off as tech solutions have quickly advanced in recent months.
“If you filter it the right way, in some respects it’s like programmatic advertising,” McConnell says. “A face-to-face lead is probably the best lead you have, so it’s not perfect, but if the matchmaking software is right, then you really are able to give qualified leads based on the criteria they’re looking for. You’re making that match, and then enabling them to connect at a later time.”
Another benefit of the “virtual marketplace” is flexibility in programming, allowing events to be spread out over longer periods of time and also affording organizers the ability to connect communities throughout the year, not just over a two- or three-day period.
The beauty for companies such as Informa, McConnell says, is that just like live events, virtual summits are best underpinned by content engines backed by editors, marketers and salespeople who have strong connections to and a deep understanding of the industries they serve.
“We’ve built our business around the specialists in the market, and that’s the key to our success.”