When the Covid-19 boom dropped last spring, those who didn’t cancel their meetings outright shifted to digital, in some cases almost overnight. Some planners found their jobs, even their entire departments, dissolved as the on-site event landscape dropped off a cliff. Others scrambled madly to add the “digital event specialist” hat to their already crowded professional wardrobe. And many found themselves suddenly working with internal departments, outside vendors, and tech platforms they barely knew anything about just months before.
Today, the vaccine rollout is gaining steam, especially in the U.S., and planning for in-person events in late 2021 and 2022 has begun. But that doesn’t mean the meeting profession will be able to party like it’s 2019 anytime soon. Many organizations, impressed with the reach and practicality of digital events, are considering how virtual and hybrid experiences may work into their long-term strategy in addition to what they traditionally offer on site.
However, while audiences in 2020 were often forgiving of the glitches in a quick-pivot virtual event and simply grateful to have a way to gather and learn, now that engagement bar is higher. Online attendees, sponsors, and exhibitors want interactive experiences, high production values, and opportunities to network across in-person, digital, and hybrid environments.
With digital increasingly seen as part of the long-term meeting landscape and expectations of quality rising, meeting professionals and meeting departments are developing new competencies and processes they never imagined. As Paulina Giusti, senior manager of meetings and events with event-technology company Cvent, says, “Upskilling is no longer just an option. It’s a necessity.”
Learning from the Year of Covid
“The sudden halt of in-person events brought on by the pandemic made meeting professionals across the industry realize that our core skill sets—i.e., building and executing on the event experience—needed to transform in a radical way,” said Giusti. Her company hosts the annual user conference Cvent Connect, which in 2020 went fully digital and in 2021 will be hybrid.
“Quite quickly, we had to rethink and reimagine our in-person events and learn how to turn the 2-D online webinar model into something dynamic, engaging, and memorable in the virtual environment,” she said. Cvent was able to draw on its global team of event planners who were experiencing everything its customers were also experiencing, “so we worked hand in hand with our technology team as they built out our brand-new virtual platform and tools.”
RELATED ARTICLE: Three Essential New Meeting Roles
But building the platform was just the start: In addition to learning these new technologies, meeting professionals had to learn how to be event producers, video editors, recording specialists, and online presentation coaches, she says.
Rebecca A. Williams, CMP, director, scientific meetings, with the Society of Surgical Oncology, and her relatively small team of 15 converted last spring’s International Conference on Surgical Cancer Care to virtual in August, and again this year on March 18-19. SSO also has three smaller meetings with a specific focus, which have either taken place virtually or have been postponed.
“Even across these four meetings, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer for how the organization has been able to adjust,” Williams says. “Some events may continue to take place virtually indefinitely; others may combine a virtual component with an in-person hands-on lab element; while others will need to happen in person.” The biggest challenge for the department, she says, is managing multiple elements simultaneously and their budgetary impacts. “Hybrid is a great option to maximize your attendee reach, but it can more than double the planning and execution resources needed. In addition, the return to in-person events will include navigating new safety protocols for the foreseeable future—meetings of the past feel a bit easy in hindsight!”
New Chairs at the Planning Table
The shift to digital events requires a very real shift in the makeup of the events team. As Carol McGury, executive vice president, event and education services for association-management company SmithBucklin, says, “the industry needs individuals who can navigate the technological and experiential needs of hybrid and virtual events, while also implementing critical thinking to ensure you can adjust your event plans to address health, safety, and social-design standards. The stakes have gotten higher.”
SSO’s Williams says her team works with its vendor partners for registration, IT infrastructure, branding/design, and the virtual meeting platform itself. “With this year’s added elements of pre-meeting sessions, social events, sponsor engagement, enhanced site branding, and more than doubling our educational offerings, we had to work closely across all departments and teams to ensure a cohesive attendee experience and content offering.”
Make Way for Marketing
Moving forward, one key team member must be a person with solid marketing expertise, says McGury. “Your marketing professionals should know how to develop the right messaging and communications that resonate with your audiences and reflect your shift in event delivery. With the push for virtual-event attendance during the past year, we’ve seen a need to re-educate audiences on the value of attending. Networking in a virtual environment is limited, so working with marketing professionals to emphasize the education lineup is critical to drive registrations.”
Some organizations are fortunate to have marketing departments they can turn to for help. “We have never worked more closely with our marketing leadership team as we have over the last 12 months,” says Cvent’s Giusti. “In this virtual environment, meetings and events are more intertwined to marketing operations than ever. Key decision-makers, including marketing executives like chief marketing officers, are now becoming involved in the process from start to finish. They’re providing insight and guidance on everything from desired data flows from events to our CRM systems and communication strategy, to marketing our tech-stack integrations, and more. The expansion of virtual and hybrid has redefined how planners track and measure event performance and how we utilize data such as engagement metrics to inform ROI and support our marketing goals. Truthfully, we wouldn’t have gotten through the last 12 months if we didn’t maximize these partnerships with those outside of our team—and those relationships will continue long-term.”
She adds that developing closer relationships between planning and marketing means learning each team’s unique point of view and skill sets. “While planners and marketers are both critical components of an integrated total events program, there’s no question that they approach their tasks through different lenses,” Giusti says. For example, while planners typically focus on ensuring that individual event experiences are engaging and impactful, marketers conceive of events programmatically and view them as part of the marketing strategy alongside other tactics and channels.
“As meeting professionals, we’re used to having many different stakeholders—but building long-term relationships with those outside of our core team means that extra time may be needed to understand their roles and communicate the reasons why the relationship matters. Like any relationship, it takes work.” says Giusti. “Blending these two teams might mean that planners will need to adopt lessons from data-centric marketers who have an in-depth understanding of traditional digital events, while marketers can draw upon planners’ backgrounds in curating attendee-centric engaging experiences.”
Another team member who is now critical to success is the technical event specialist. That may be someone from the internal IT department, a tech vendor, or a digital-event professional hired into the meeting department, says Betsy Bondurant of Bondurant Consulting. Giusti adds that “the prevalence of digital and hybrid events means that technology and IT departments need a seat at the table; there are more opportunities to identify, measure, and track various data points as well as plan and prepare for the complex event set-ups needed for virtual and hybrid events.”
The IT professional can no longer be viewed as a supporting player, as they traditionally were for in-person events. “Having a relationship with IT is key in the digital landscape,” says Melissa Vilders, events strategy lead, for SAP. “They are the core team helping you choose a venue, otherwise known as a digital platform. They need to understand your requirements and they need to help you understand the limitations of each platform.” She adds that they also are “our main contacts for contingency planning, which is so important in the digital era. We are at the mercy of the technology, and we need to have a plan in place in case the technology is not responding.”
Also, planning departments may need to look beyond IT and marketing for expertise outside of their traditional arena, especially in the gray zone between pandemic and post-pandemic. As Bondurant points out, for in-person meetings, your organization’s decision around masking requirements, health checks, and “vaccine passports” used to prove an attendee has be inoculated or has recently tested negative for Covid-19 could mean new collaborations with the human resources and legal departments—and even your diversity, equity, and inclusion team.
Individual Upskilling: Essential Skills
While some organizations have a range of departments to pull from to fill in the skills gaps created by the rise of virtual and hybrid events, individual meeting professionals are also upskilling themselves to meet the new challenges.
Take Melissa Vilders, who has been part of the SAP Global Events team for eight years in a variety of roles. She was on maternity leave when the pandemic first hit — “to be candid, I was hoping things would return to normal by my return,” she says — but of course, they did not. When she came back to work last summer, “I jumped with both feet into the unknown of digital programming to take on the 2020 SAP TechEd program with zero knowledge. But what better way to learn than immerse yourself and learn as you go?”
She quickly realized that digital programming would require adhering to stricter deadlines and more of a television-production mindset. “Your viewers are not in a venue with you for a week. They are at home and will turn off their computer fast if you don’t keep their interest.” Simply reproducing the fun in-person activities online won’t work. Unfortunately, “you can’t just take what you know and try to make it digital.”
One area Vilders had to delve into was data analytics, and the fact that those analytics change over time. For instance, “the first few weeks of the pandemic everyone was so excited about getting on a Zoom party. Now, not so much! Digital fatigue is a real thing.”
SSO’s Williams adds, “We’ve all learned that when it comes to going virtual, you don’t know what you don’t know until you’re in the middle of it. One of my biggest learning curves was how long different elements of a virtual meeting can take to design, build, and come together, and how complicated seemingly ‘easy’ things like an attendee-participation contest can turn out to be. Even the presenter experience is different in terms of deadlines, pre-recording, and engaging in the live session. Everyone has been shifting and learning something new at the same time.”
She says that her team’s project-management skills have been strengthened immensely this year out of pure necessity. “The past six months were hectic for our small team with planning and executing two virtual events along with regular online education, membership renewals, and marketing initiatives. With SSO 2021, we had an abbreviated planning timeline and tried a lot of new things. Planning for each element took teamwork, delegation, and coordination with our partner vendors. Our team is much stronger for it.”
Learning a New Language
One area of now-essential knowledge that some planners may not be thinking about is terminology, especially when you’re getting involved with event technology and data analytics. Melissa Patruno, who parlayed her newly acquired Digital Events Strategist designation from the Professional Convention Management Association and intense deep dive into online courses on everything from project management to how to use Google Sheets into an executive producer position with meeting management company Bishop-McCann, says, “You need to be able to define your terms in a way that ensures everyone is talking about the same thing.” Ditto for broadcast-related terms. “It’s an amazing to me the amount of defining I have to do.”
One particularly misunderstood area is digital-event production, she adds. “I may say it’s a ‘rough cut,’ but some people hear ‘final, polished piece.’ Clients need to understand the steps involved in the digital-event production process.” That includes timelines, which also are different when it comes to digital production.
Cvent’s Giusti agrees that understanding and adjusting timelines is a lifesaver. “As many of us have discovered, successful virtual and hybrid events require a significantly greater amount of pre-production than many in-person events—and thus warrant more generous timelines,” she says. “So much of the end-user virtual experience is grounded in under-the-radar factors—for example, sourcing studio spaces and videographers for pre-recorded programs, editing camera angles and virtual presentation cues, or developing compelling interstitial content to keep attendees engaged between sessions. While this extra time commitment can be taxing, the value of getting those production values right and crafting memorable experiences for attendees is crucial in this competitive landscape.”
Keep the Momentum Going
“While 2020 was the year of rapid technology adaptation and adoption, I think 2021 will be about establishing and maintaining these new inter-departmental partnerships,” said Cvent’s Giusti. “Managing the successful integration of the marketing and IT departments with the core event planning team will likely be the biggest, but most rewarding, challenge that meeting planners face moving forward. Bringing each team’s goals, methods, and tools into alignment takes time, patience, and work, but it is vital to ensuring you have a comprehensive total event program strategy that can compete in today’s diverse meetings environment.”
“I want to encourage planners who are feeling overwhelmed by the learning curve that they can do this,” Giusti says. “Now that most of us are well beyond where we were in the early days of the pandemic, it’s crucial to take a step back and appreciate how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learned, the new people we’ve met, and all the new attendees who’ve been able to experience our events through the virtual lens.”
Adds Williams, “Stay open to new ideas and try not to get overwhelmed. There is enough time, and everything will get done. Breathe.”