Events will return, but differently

The event business will change profoundly after the pandemic, when events return from their hiatus. But not all events will survive.

18 months into the pandemic, it’s clear that big events will eventually return. Obviously, some of them have already done so. But it’s also very clear that those events will be different. The pandemic permanently changed the event business and accelerated trends that had been in progress before Covid. The overarching theme here is the unbundling of events. Over the last year and a half, we have made significant progress in rendering different elements of the old event bundle in digital form.

There was a lot of forced trial and error, and most industries had to either learn what it means to do without their annual or bi-annual industry gatherings, or try digital versions of them. The hard business reasons for physical events have been successfully challenged, weakening their business models. That alone will force some events out of business – they won’t return, because their business model has been too disrupted.

Let’s consider business events first. We’ll look at the entertainment event industry below.

It’s significantly harder to justify the cost and effort of big industry events after 18 months without them. Mere routine won’t cut it anymore, and the question of return on investment (ROI) is becoming ever more pressing. Many CFOs will ask hard questions, and whoever wants to spend money on events will need compelling answers. This affects all aspects of the traditional event business model, from participants to sponsors to exhibition fees.

How to unbundle events

Countless new and not-so-new digital formats, from the classic webinar to the more advanced digital event platforms, have replaced some parts of the physical event experience.

  • What used to be more or less exclusive content of events is now available in digital form. Business models will feature memberships and subscriptions, i.e. the Pay TV model. This can also be combined with exclusive physical gatherings.
  • Networking is harder to render in digital form, but social media in general, and LinkedIn in particular, are leaving less room to breathe for physical events. However, there will be a niche for this. In digital as well as physical form, it can be part of the membership bundle. Expect the rise of business clubs.
  • Trade shows will face a lot more scrutiny with regard to their ROI. But there is some value in a marketplace where everyone can meet everyone else at the same place and the same time to do business. Of course, this part of the business remains under pressure from digital platforms, marketplaces, and aggregators, which thrived during the pandemic.

The fourth part of the event bundle is what Brian Morrissey calls boondoggle, and that’s hard to digitise. Boondoggle is the future (and the past) of physical events, and digital events as well. What does that mean? It’s all about the event experience. People went to events in the past and will continue to do so in the future because it’s a great experience. And if or when it isn’t, they won’t return.

New competition

That’s the reason we had music at industry events for years. Today, even business events are part of the entertainment industry. But here’s the thing: it’s hard to convince your CFO to spend money on having a great event experience if there aren’t more tangible business reasons. If it’s supposed to be a business event, be it physical or digital, at least one element of the former bundle (content, networking, trade show) needs to be there.

Digital and physical events are now competing with each other. For both, the experience is crucial. The field of competition has changed. These days, there are almost always digital or physical alternatives. If the physical event experience sucks, there certainly is a better digital event, and vice versa. People will choose the better experience on an ad-hoc basis.

Hybrid events will be either physical events with digital components or digital events with physical components. To illustrate this point, let’s look at big entertainment events like the Bundesliga. In a nutshell, it’s a series of physical events that’s also available in digital form on TV, as a subscription. These days, the Bundesliga finds it both hard to attract enough physical attendees and TV watchers, even as the pandemic still restrains stadium attendance.

How events return: differently

At this point, it’s hard to understand the reasons for this. Some questions we need to ask:

Many event organisers currently face questions like these. Events will feel various pressures to change, and even the Bundesliga will return in a different form after the pandemic dust finally settles. Since the Bundesliga isn’t a business event for the majority of attendees – there are no business reasons for attending – the experience is even more important.

And the same is true for the workplace. Since the office has become optional, going to the office, to meet co-workers and do workshops, is turning into an event as well. Again, the experience is key. Companies that understand this will gain a competitive edge. The experience threshold will vary among different employees, as it varies between different event attendees.

New business models

What some view as a great experience, others will see as mediocre or even regard as a failure. Thus, the amount of personalisation of both physical and digital events will only increase. And the balance between the two is also subject to personalisation.

Since communities inevitably feel and spur the need to meet physically, at least from time to time, there’ll always be a physical component in the events space. For the event business, this leads to offering different, personalised combinations of physical and digital gatherings, and to membership-based business models. Instead of buying tickets to single events, people will subscribe to a community package.

Here, we’ll see different layers, and the premium layers will ask for both a recurring membership fee and one-off event tickets. The hybrid event business model is less about single, hybrid events and more about a hybrid mix of digital and physical experiences, catering to the personal preferences of community members.

Photo by Nacho Capelo on Unsplash.