How to beat virtual event fatigue. An interview with emc3’s Josh King

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say the global events industry has been decimated by the last few months.

With large gatherings banned for health and safety reasons, events of all kinds (including some of the biggest events of their kind like Wimbledon, Euro 2020 and closer to home for us digital marketing nerds, INBOUND) have been cancelled.

Others have been postponed pending government guidance.

But as physical events have gone to the back of mind, virtual events have moved from the periphery and have become as popular as ever.

I’m sure by now we’re all used to using Zoom and staring at our own faces during meetings, right?

To get the inside track on how the events industry has adapted to recent changes, and what the future holds for physical and virtual events, we spoke with Josh King, head of business development at event management and creative agency emc3.

Josh spoke to us about the good, the bad and in some cases, the ugly of how the events industry has dealt with the impact of COVID-19, and we also touched on the need for more government clarity and standardisation for the industry as a whole.

Q – Looking at the situation today, how has the events industry shifted or adapted to deal with the impact of COVID-19

JK – “It’s been an interesting transition for the events industry and I don’t think there can be any denying it’s been hit pretty hard. Some smaller agencies have closed their doors, the world’s best venues are empty or have been converted into emergency hospitals and some amazing professionals have been furloughed or lost their jobs.

“Many businesses across the world had to make the difficult decision to cancel or postpone their events, others pivoted to virtual events.

“We’d identified back in January that the industry was heading towards virtual, so for us the transition was pretty seamless. We aligned ourselves with some great partners who offered virtual event solutions and trained our team at the beginning of the year.  

“We recently collaborated with Drift to produce RevGrowth Virtual Summit, which attracted over 8,700 attendees in six weeks so there is an appetite for good virtual events.

“But some businesses have really struggled. There was a culling of freelancers and contractors across the industry and a lot of people lost their jobs. There was a real lack of altruism and it was quite scary to see.

“I think coronavirus has highlighted some disparities in our industry and across society as a whole and that’s something that needs to be addressed when the dust settles. I’ve heard horror stories from close friends who were let go before the furlough scheme was announced and their employer refused to furlough them despite it being the recommendation from the Government at the time.

“On the flip side, you have seen the emergence of some amazing leaders across the events industry. Anna Marie from AMTEvents is one, who launched a support group for people who have been furloughed.

“Anthony Kelly, one of the co-chairs of Society of Incentive Travel Excellence has been sharing some really helpful content for event profs and Holly Crocker from our own team recently launched a campaign called Boxes for Bravery to support the NHS and key workers in collaboration with some great brands including Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and Candy Kittens”.

Q – How long is it going to take the events industry to recover from what has happened around COVID-19? – Are physical events finished for 2020?

JK – “I don’t think we will see large, multi-day, multi-track conferences in 2020, but we hopefully see some smaller roadshows and events. I think most events will be hybrid for the next 12-18 months, minimum.

“With travel restrictions in place, most events will be more localised and regional with a digital element to them. I’m optimistic because personally I love face to face events and don’t think there is a replacement for the power of human connection.

“I think there is a lack of clarity from the Government right now around what the road to recovery will look like exactly.

“We’ve actually contacted Sadiq Khan in partnership with Team Safety Services, who are health and safety experts, to call for some standardisation across the events industry. It’s important that venues, agencies and businesses across the country have clear guidelines and access to the tools they need to keep the public safe and help our economy and our industry start to recover.

“The events sector is worth about £40-£50 billion to the UK economy according to stats shared by Eventbrite and events create over half a million jobs in this country, so it’s an important sector which doesn’t get enough recognition.”

Q – Everyone has got more used to the idea of digital events in the last month, but how popular were they before?

JK – “You just have to look at the increase in people using Zoom to understand there’s been a huge shift towards digital events. In December 2019 Zoom had approximately 10 million users, now it has over 300 million.

“Hybrid events were becoming more popular and almost all of our own large shows had some sort of live streaming incorporated into them. Whether that was streaming the main stage or live streaming a studio area.

“It’s a great way for brands to increase their visibility and reach, and drive brands awareness and engagement.

“Coronavirus has accelerated digital transformation across the events industry and businesses which traditionally wouldn’t have engaged with virtual and hybrid events have had their hands forced.”

Q – What makes a good digital event? Does this differ from a physical event?

“You still need the same attention to detail.

“There are lots of moving parts to a digital event, and you need to place a heavy emphasis on producing engaging pre-event comms to drive awareness. 

“There’s a lot of webinar white noise at the moment, so it’s important to deliver expertly crafted content, get your positioning right and cut through the static.

“Remember, you’re not trying to replicate a live event. You’re trying to create an engaging, memorable virtual experience.

“There’s a difference and you have to adapt your format to avoid high attrition rates and low engagement.

“You still need to have a clear mission and vision for the event, you need a timeline to create content, record your speaker presentations (if they’re not live) and build your virtual platform.

“You need to consider which is the right platform for your event, you need to choose speakers who will resonate with your audience and you need to make sure you market the event properly.”

Q – We’ve seen stories that digital calls via Zoom etc are more difficult than physical meetings – how can you hold digital events and still ensure everyone is engaging?

“We’ve spent a lot of time researching virtual event platforms to ensure the attendee experience is awesome when we deliver online events – so get your platform right. 

“We spend a lot of time briefing speakers – even more than we do normally. Virtual speaking engagements are still pretty new for most speakers, so it’s important to invest time to make sure sessions are polished, professional and engaging.

“For breaking up longer events, instead of using coffee and lunch breaks, we’ve done things like specially curated yoga and HIIT workouts, we’ve even done cocktail masterclasses where guests can learn to make drinks at home.

“It all depends on your budget of course.”