C4 Professional Marketing Luncheon: Exploring Event Readiness

As we begin to kick-start in-person events after over 2 years of virtual-only, we have to ask ourselves: is the market ready? Channel marketing professionals and leaders attended a recent C4 Luncheon and discussed the shift back to in-person events, how the industry is responding, and what to expect moving forward. Fawn Annan, C4 Chair, led this lively discussion.

A cautious return to live events

We surveyed participants to see how many have already attended or hosted live events in recent months, and the response to those events. The almost unanimous feedback was the appreciation and desire to attend long-awaited in-person events and meetings, as channel partners are hungry for the ability to network and connect in person. 

Participants offered examples of how events addressed and mitigated varying comfort levels around physical proximity and closeness, such as colour-coded visual indicators – nametags, lanyards, bracelets – to represent how participants can approach and connect with each other appropriately and safely. 

An interesting conclusion was the less-than enthusiastic response specifically to mid-sized events. While excited to return to smaller, intimate events, or large, annual gatherings – there was less importance placed on the mid-sized events in terms of budget, travel, or time away from work. It seems as though mid-sized events may be on their way out in a permanent way. 

The Canada / United States divide 

While local gatherings seem to be getting more positive feedback in the Canadian market, there was a notable difference when attracting attendees in the Canada vs US markets. Depending on the state where an event is being held, some are more conservative around gatherings and restrictions, and can affect the ability to hold the larger events due to physical closeness. 

Additionally, travel restrictions and differentiations from state to state (or from Canada to the US) are limiting attendees of key people – even hosts – to larger global events. Due to travel conflicts, many have been incorporating hybrid in-person / virtual events but are not sure if this is something that will be sustainable going forward, as many do not have the platform, budget, or resources to support the hybrid structure. 

The cost of in-person events

Some members did not anticipate in-person events to pick up so quickly this year, and the costs associated with attending, or creating, these events has increased substantially. Members offered a ballpark increase of anywhere from 25 – 75% increase for costs associated with in-person events, including: vendors, event venues, flights, hotels, and more. 

Ideally, an increase in cost or expenses associated with in-person events should be balanced out with the ability to garner leads. Unfortunately, though everyone is excited to see each other, many members are noting these gatherings are not quite as business-centered just yet to the point where you can build a sufficient ROI. It’s predicted that the actual business discussions associated with live events will likely start to take better shape towards the latter end of the year, after the initial excitement of gatherings has died down. Again, the option to hold events on a more intimate or small scale was identified as a benefit, as they are much easier to organize and budget for. 

Encouraging engagement and attendance

While there was definite enthusiasm expressed for live events, the impact on attendance is already proving to be an issue – making it hard to plan accordingly. One member explained that, when focusing on smaller group events for the sake of comfort levels, it becomes very noticeable when even a small handful of people don’t show up. Consistency in attendance is particularly an issue, with members citing that sometimes events will garner only around 50 per cent attendance, while others will be over-attended by about 110 per cent. One contributing factor is that many are competing for attendees with other organizations that are also doing similar in-person events and activities, with attendees picking and choosing what is “worth” physically going to where comparable events are concerned. Registrants still believe it is ok to register and not show up – a phenomena during the pandemic that we hope goes away.

The discussion moved to advice in regard to how to make live events more engaging for those who do attend – creating engagement in a more natural and authentic way where content can flow more easily. Offering a glass of wine and staying away from PowerPoint presentations were two heavily suggested tactics to encourage conversation, as well as pivoting marketing investments in order to structure events to accommodate comfort levels, as mentioned prior. Driving to more intimate events for partner relationships and existing clients was also discussed to promote both attendance, and participation. 

Considering a hybrid approach

Also unanimous was the difficulty in finding a format or platform to host a comparable experience for a combined in-person and virtual event. Many expressed that participants are no longer retaining information from PowerPoints, and the in-person portion allows for much more engagement and focus – rather than the distracted, multi-tasking participants we are now often seeing on the virtual side. Members expressed that even their own internal teams do not enjoy the format of virtual events, and therefore they have not seen as much success in recent years.

The hybrid format allows people the choice of how to engage in events which suits them – a crucial consideration given the hesitations and budget restrictions associated with the return of in-person events. In fact, digital events can actually be more inclusive for that reason – not everyone has the budget to travel, take time off work / out of office, etc. There’s nothing wrong with digital events – COVID and the need for virtual-only has shown how far the pendulum swings, as too far one way or the other is not good. And of course, accessibility from an inclusion point of view as venues are not always ideal for those with disabilities.

Luncheon members agreed there will be a future of events that shows us a hybrid model that is effective – it’s all about how you do it, how often you do it, and the considerations you are making for your audience. We have a chance to reinvent ourselves – we will never get back to what we knew as normal, and the faster we adapt to that fact, the better. 

Moving forward with event readiness

As the cadence of live events continues (and increases), we have to evaluate what is working, what is worth holding onto, and what needs to be introduced as the new normal. Quite usual for Canadians is the effect of the weather on event attendance – inclement weather can affect travel plans, or even the desire to attend at all. Additionally, we have to see what the fall will bring in terms of COVID, as a new wave is currently being predicted in the news to rise around September – which could result in a pivot back to a hybrid or virtual-only model. 

Regardless of the type (in-person, virtual, or hybrid) or size (intimate to large) of events, it was noted that if your content is of interest to your audience, the event will work. Specificity matters. The topic of discussion and the audience must be aligned for a successful event. It is worth asking yourself: why MUST you come to this event? What’s in it for the audience? By identifying the goal of the sales funnel and the specific target audience, you will be able to cater the event accordingly for a more successful event outcome overall. 

A key takeaway was to treat digital, or hybrid events like in-person events, and consider the frequency in this manner as well. For example, you wouldn’t expect people to attend a live event weekly, so realistically you shouldn’t be holding one digitally and expect the same response. Set internal expectations to what events will look like moving forward, and bolster events with outside help, including: guest speakers, keynote hosts, opportunities for engagement, discussion, and storytelling.