No need to ponder, worry about, or even guess what the future holds for the event, conference, and trade show industry: the future is already here, and all we have to do is turn the knobs on our imaginary event time machine to see what the events and trade shows of 2025 will look like. And how do we know? Because COVID-19 has brought the future right to our doorsteps – it has given us a window into 2025. Many key aspects of the events industry will mirror what’s already happened or is happening right now.
Retailers, restaurants, music, entertainment, the automotive industry, and every sector of the economy and society that is making it today have accelerated the technology, tools, training, strategies, and business models necessary to survive. And most of these changes will stick and forever change the organizations that have been adaptive and smart enough to speed up what was inevitable. These changes are made possible by several factors, including, digitization (CDs to Spotify), asset-light business models (Airbnb, Uber, Venmo) and the adoption of new infrastructures such as cloud computing, fractional ownership models (shared warehouses, gig workers), and collaboration capabilities (Slack, Zoom, Google Docs).
Here’s a glimpse into what you can expect from the acceleration of the above forces and others that can give you a head start in how you can design, plan, invest, and implement your events and trade shows going forward.
- The end of friction. I’ve often said that if you ran your events through an X-ray machine, you’d find a lot of what happens at an event showing up as three colors representing what might be thought of as heat-mapped aspects of what's working and what's not. You'd see red (bad), yellow (not great but acceptable), and not as much green (what your audiences love and what keeps them coming back) as we’d like. Most of the red and yellow ARE the result of friction. Friction is represented by the aspects of your event that reduce efficiency, cause frustration, and add costs. An example of friction outside of the event space is the experience of calling a customer service line: endless automated voice prompts, the unwillingness to let you speak with a live agent, and voice recognition software that is so sensitive you can’t respond in time.
Event friction typically starts with an antiquated registration system that can take up to 10 steps before your attendees can pay. Another source of friction is in the form of marketing messages to attendees that don’t recognize them as current and past attendees, and don’t offer new value. Long lines, overcrowded rooms, too much programming not thoughtfully tailored to an individual’s needs, and too much time spent indoors in dark, cold rooms that are not organized coherently for the audience. There are new and better ways to design the events of the future with less friction and more effectiveness that lead to better outcomes. Think about this: you can now buy a car from a vending machine. Talk about taking the friction out of the dreaded car-buying process.
- Dematerialization. This is a $10 word for what can be described as the shift from physical and tangible “things” (products, services, assets) to a “less is more” minimalistic and experiential future. Most events were organized around conference centers, hotels, trade show booths, hallways, rooms, and chairs that enabled the logistics for why people attend events (connections, collaborating, learning, buying, selling, inspiration). How could you “dematerialize” your events? What would open up the environment, reduce the friction, and allow for more of what people want and less of what they don’t? How could you reinvest your budget towards an open architecture – more of a sandbox approach? How could furniture, outdoor spaces, larger, less-structured physical spaces, and more human-centered trade shows and meeting rooms serve your audiences? We still need navigation, we still need comfort, and we still need ways of moving large groups of people. It’s time for a big re-think. How we think about offices, travel, shopping, movies theaters, and restaurants has all changed. Why should events and trade shows simply go back to how they were before March 2020?
- Virtualization. We now know that there are lots of positives to virtual events. Cost reallocation and cost reduction for event organizers from the elimination of physical venues; cost savings for everyone resulting from the inability to travel; the increasing effectiveness of virtual event technology platforms; shorter, more efficient programming schedules; reduced costs of paid speakers (in many cases); the ability to host and execute virtual hosted-buyer forums; real-time audience polling (allowing for massive audience “mind-reading”); and the ability (still not optimized but improving) to use social media (especially LinkedIn and Twitter) to augment virtual events.
Progress has been made in other similar industries such as concerts, worship services, sporting events, academia, financial markets, and, of course, retail. Retailers now allow us to have close to a seamless virtual shopping experience where we see ourselves in 360 degrees on a screen allowing us to decide what the clothes look like, how the cosmetics will work with our complexion, and how the car we buy can be purchased without ever visiting a showroom. Liberal return polices, easy and free shipping, convenient reorder subscriptions (Nespresso coffee, pet food, and hundreds of other products we use regularly), and easy, one-click ordering have made virtual shopping and buying even easier. Blending in-store retail shopping with online options provides many lessons for the event and trade show industry. Will you be ready when we can blend virtual and in-person events? It’s right around the corner.
- Sustainability. If we can remove the friction from events and dematerialize them to some degree, we can begin to reduce the carbon footprint, reduce the waste, and blend digital and in-person events to accelerate the progress we all want and need to make sure all events are eventually carbon-neutral. Carbon credits are being used effectively by very few event organizers, and carbon-reducing strategies are accelerating by many forward-thinking, non-profit CEOs. Reducing food waste, going paperless, choosing eco-friendly venues and cities, and reducing local transportation emissions in your chosen cities are a good start. Virtual events are certainly not 100% carbon free, of course, but they are orders of magnitude more sustainable than a 100% live, in-person event. A good place to start is to consider what your organization, your members, and your industry or profession want to be known for in 10 years when sustainability moves from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a mandated must-have. Pandora’s box is now open. Japan just announced its plans to end the sale of gas-powered cars by the 2030s. A canary in the coal mine (pun intended) in the home country of Toyota, Honda, and Nissan.
- The network effect. Events, regardless of in-person, virtual, or omnichannel (the blend of all event delivery media channels), are about the network, not necessarily networking per-se, but the synthetic, organic, and beautiful network effect of people, ideas, problems, solutions, aspirations, and inspiration fusing, colliding, debating, and resolving all in a chaotic and perfectly organized network of neurons, emotions, needs, and wants coming together to synthesize, distill, learn, and ultimately make progress. At its core, your organization is a network of people, processes, products, systems, technologies, and experiences that are designed to create the efficient connection, community, and commerce that the industry and the professionals you represent hire (pay membership or registration fees) your organization to do for them. So, how will your events portfolio perform this desired network effect for your community at your events over the next five years? How will the social networks, virtual event platforms, internal databases, and network technologies converge into a single network strategy that provides the simplicity of use, power of the network, and frictionless experience that your audiences will come to expect?
Now... time to take a breath, step back, and think about how these five forces will impact your organization, your members, your core value proposition, your events, and your overall business model. It’s not as daunting as it sounds. Everything you need to think about or do is being thought about or has already been done. The only way to catch up and lead is to leverage the learnings of the past 10 years, the wisdom of today’s winners, and to ensure you don’t take on more risk by trying to do it alone.
If you want to go fast alone, if you want to go far, go together.
We can help you go far and faster than you can go on your own.
This is going to be an exciting and successful year for those leaders who take the steps now, in early January, to chart a new course.
Founder & CEO
360 Live Media