Workplace Events (Part 2)

Workplace Events are set to be transformed in a Post-COVID-19 World

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In September 2019, I wrote a post to share what Work&Place had learnt about the workplace event industry, based on our experience of being a media partner in 2018/19.  You can read that post here.  At the time, the industry was growing in confidence and creatively evolving the physical event format.

No-one knew about COVID-19.  But that ‘Part 1’ article had a few prescient comments, such as:

“Could conference organisers make more income from selling remote access… over video conferencing?  This is the sort of service that companies like aim to make mainstream.  But that would present considerable additional upfront expense for organisers who would – to be effective – need to turn event sessions into television level audio-visual stages.”

With much still uncertain,  this July 2020 post is more of a ‘check in’ on the current evolving situation.

With help from ..

To help me with this post, I interviewed four leading event organisers who have significant on-going commitments in this area and will have to ‘lay bets’ on the future of workplace events.  Acknowledgements and my thanks go to:

How has COVID19 affected 2020 events and beyond?

Simon Berger comments:

 “Dramatic would be an understatement but we are ‘glass half full’ and whilst the disruption caused is huge and the mitigation involved with clients and venues a headache, we can do so much better with digital and we can reach more people – the events industry is being forced to wake up to digital and find positive ways to run events and eventually ‘include’ more digital options in all events.”

Key challenges presented by a move to ‘digital’ explored here are:

  • The need for existing teams to learn new technology, processes, and skills.
  • The search for a new, sustainable Business Model.
  • Delivering an engaging, valued Attendee Experience.
  • Meeting the needs of Sponsors.

Time to learn new technology, new skills

Just basing an online event programme around a series of Zoom invites is not considered a solution.  There needs to be a complete end-to-end reappraisal of the enterprise and user experience. This means an urgent and focused assessment of new platforms, roles, skills … more or less everything to set up a new business.

Online Event Management SAAS Platforms are coming of age, with many combining event session content management, delegate management and social media.  Prices vary widely from Euro 5k to 50k per annum.  What I am learning from studying purpose built online event management platforms (such as is that they actually provide beneficial features that are not present in physical space.  They are a real game changer.  More on that subject in Part 3.

Clearly, there is a lot to be learnt and this is where the established event organisers have an advantage.  They have a core of members and a trusted community to give them a little more breathing space to ‘get it right’.

Jeremy Wise puts this in context:

“We are lucky to have a customer base of returning delegates and speakers that trust us when we say that the online version will get you those same insights as the 2019 edition did.  However, a huge challenge for any business going through change or delivering a product is gaining that trust of new faces that may have not worked with us in the past”.

Presentation Skills

I have attended some 2020 online event presentations where it is clear the presenters have had no training in how to set up their AV, backdrop, etc.  This is a real problem because delegates who have been moved by their event organiser to an online event for the first time and attend a substandard presentation (let alone event as a whole), will be put off signing up for future online events – irrespective of the improvements that will inevitably follow in the coming years.

Speakers will also need to be trained and given close guideline as to the presentation requirements.  Lara Paemen (IFMA Europe) sets high standards for IFMA presenters and does ‘try-outs’ to determine if the person is right for the format and has adequate video presentation experience.  Simon Burger (MAD) is considering pre-recorded presentations to ensure quality and consistency.  Maggie is not so sure ‘pre-recorded’ would be acceptable to her Workplace Trends’ audience.

Lara also observes: A webinar of half a day it is exhausting – even if the sessions are 20 mins long”.  How will this ‘presentation fatigue’ be managed for presentation team and audience alike?

Toward a new Business Model

No one really knows what business model will work for the Workplace Sector.  The event organisers and the sponsors are to a greater or lesser degree unfamiliar with the economics of the online conferencing industry.

What is clear is that the price point for attendance will be completely re-evaluated.  For example, attendance at a CoreNet Global Summit usually costs about USD 950 for a 2-3-day event.  The online event is about USD 140 (see here) but with no dinners, refreshments, networking opportunities, etc.  So any like-for-like price comparison is difficult.

The loss of networking opportunities is front of mind.  Jeremy Wise comments:

The loss of {networking} is prominent and should be reflected in attendee pricing …  As long as the event … doesn’t lose the in-depth and usable content that can be brought back to the workplace, the event is a success.  At the end of the day, that is why people are tuning into industry events. There is also something nice about having the ability to take in the same knowledge from the comfort of your home. ”

Clearly then, some elements of the old business model are dead (exit the sponsored dinner).  But these are being replaced by others.  A key opportunity is the ability to attract delegates who previously could not either take the time out, travel or who only want to attend for focused educational reasons.  For example, IFMA Europe attendees were 50% from the Netherlands and then the rest from over 40 countries. That other 50% has the potential to grow significantly.

What do Sponsors look for?

[I did not have the opportunity to talk to the sponsors, so the following is supposition and inference for now.  I will catch up with this group in a ‘Part 3’ article].

For sponsors, going ‘digital’ moves the marketing budget to the online marketing team.  So, at first glance, sponsorship for online events is going to follow the metrics of online advertising (think ‘clicks and likes’ on streaming channels such as YouTube).  But that might not be the case.  My hunch is that the real prize is the ability to create and validate prospects through meaningful dialogue within the platform.  Some systems are better at enabling these opportunities to arise than others and a lot will depend on how well the overall event is produced.

What do people want from online workplace events?

Here are my takeaways from talking to the interviewees and reflecting on my experience of attending online events.

  • Seamless Event Platform – We got used to events having great facilities and concierge services. We need the same in the virtual world.  The online event conferencing platform needs to be professionally managed and seamless ‘end-to-end’.
  • Relevant Content– The challenge of staying relevant and educational remain. Curating the content and its delivery is central to the successful event (as it ever was).
  • Great AV Quality Delegates deserve professional AV quality (broadcast or pre-recorded).
  • Manageable presentation lengths – Keep the sessions short but complemented by notes, slides etc. Short sessions increase engagement but do keep ‘learning outcomes’ in mind.  Add in reasonable breaks between sessions.
  • Make Speaker-Audience Connections – Allow audience to connect to speakers. At a minimum, the delegate must see the speaker and their presentation at the same time. Think TED Talks.
  • Provide Networking Opportunities – Are there networking opportunities and if so, how does that happen (in a good way)? Events that have them will inevitably be more engaging, and (all other things being equal) lead to higher Net Promoter Scores.
  • Feel a part of a Community – You need to figure out how to bring a sense of community into the event. Try these two features …
  • Encourage group learning – If your physical conference included ‘break out sessions’ allowing more intimate discussion you will need to master coordinating separate web discussions of 8-10 people to keep the classroom style theme consistent.
  • Use real time surveys – Embed real-time audience survey questions in the presentations. Encourage and allow time for feedback.  This will create a new kind of engagement and presentation.

Phoenix Rising

If we look at how other industries have been affected by the move online, we can assume that big trade events will suffer, and smaller niche events will thrive.  Digital success will depend critically on:

  • High quality and delivery of content
  • Great user experience of the event platform
  • Demonstrative benefit to advertisers and sponsors

A whole new world is opening up in terms of potential audience and speaker selection.  The search for speakers will be wider and – with price points dropping – the only restriction on target audience is language and time zones.  Traditional barriers to entry will be removed, new players will emerge, and incumbents threatened.  We have yet to find out how the uptake of online events splits out along generational lines.

Event organisers have now entered a period of experimentation and cautious investment, of trial and error, reliant on strong feedback channels and critical assessment.

“… We are behaving like a brand new startup, working in sprints, making an effort to be lean, not planning too far ahead, working on customer development. It feels like year one again! This is invigorating and stressful in equal measure.”   From Alexander Theuma’s May 2020 LinkedIn post here 

The current view appears to be that it will take 3 to 5-years for the industry to arrive at a design that balances the competing needs of delegates, sponsors and long-term profitability.

Next steps

For now, all events Work&Place media partnered in 2020 have either been postponed for the foreseeable future or moved online.  At this time, we know of no new events being planned that are physical except in the USA (and that might change soon!).  For example, IFMA Europe have no expectation to hold the March 2021 event.

It is quite possible that there will be very few physical events until a vaccine has been found. But even then, attendance rates may be so low that there is no viable business case without a strong online component.  So, hybrid events will become the norm. I think that will be a good thing.  More inclusive, wider choice, better connectivity, lower price options.

In the meantime, do try out a few online workplace events – there’s a list on the Work&Place Home Page here.

[In Part 3, I will explore how the events industry players are answering the challenge through their selection of online event platform and how event sponsors’ needs are being met].

Image Credit: Gozde Otman on


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