I READ an article recently telling us of the big hit Covid has dealt to the events industry and the shift to digital. Let me share this bit:
“With no one flying, and gatherings prohibited, the events industry took a big hit this spring. But many companies have simply shifted their budgets to digital events or digital content. Only time will tell if the fall will be a very busy events season, or companies will decide they prefer online events over in-person events.” – Forbes
Will corporate clients opt for virtual events over those that provide face-to-face meetings? That’s what people in the events industry are now asking.
As a marketer who has worked with digital throughout my career, it is an irony. I’ll be frank with you: I don’t think event companies will adopt the digital way in their businesses. Let me explain.
In April, I participated in an experimental project called the Exhibitions Think Tank (ETT) organised by the UK-based MBB Consulting Group.
ETT was an online project gathering more than 150 exhibition industry professionals from all around the world and we wanted to seek answers on how businesses should transform after the pandemic.
Most workgroup sessions focused on digital transformation. A big subject and one for which many were eager to come up with a proposal. At the end of the project, we asked ourselves: “How can we make sure we don’t fall back on the old habits?”
The opinion of my group was: “We are likely to fall back.” And the reasons are as follows:
Incompatible culture and economic model
Innovation is a culture, if not a cult, while the events business is a very practical one. Short-term gain is a mismatch for innovation.
If an exhibition company wants to build an innovation culture, it is highly likely the company will face the innovator’s dilemma and struggle between catering for short-term economic gain and a high chance that technologies they adopt won’t actually work for them.
In fact, a plan of innovation takes years to make profitable returns. For an exhibition company, the sales of square metres in booth space is a safe bet with good profit margins.
Covid-19 is not a long pause in business events, at least not long enough to push everyone outside the comfort zone yet. And I don’t see an immediate urge among organisers to drop the square-metre sales model to reinvent the wheel.
I am not suggesting that face-to-face events should not go digital. Instead, the digital experience is hardly comparable to a face-to-face event – and now is not the right time.
It is true that online sourcing and virtual marketplaces are close enough to present an alternative to trade exhibitions. I must also admit that in the past 20 years until now we have continuously seen innovations launched by exhibition companies. Unfortunately, practically all failed due to lack of patience, short-term commitment, and various technical glitches.
The early days of virtual exhibitions can be traced back to 2003, when the Linden Lab launched the online role-play world application called Second Life. Seven years later, the iconic computer show COMDEX was relaunched as a virtual event.COMDEX rendered a real business exhibition in a digitised virtual environment. Since then, not much else has changed. The simulation provided in the virtual world cannot reproduce an experience close to the physical world.
Wearing a VR headset to interact at an exhibition might look cool for some and appear dumb to others. Virtual reality is still an unnatural experience. Also, the technical infrastructure required to provide the virtual experience isn’t easy for the exhibition industry. Neither are the people and the knowledge there.
Most virtual exhibitions are provided by third parties, which essentially creates a dependency on that type operation, and organising a virtual exhibition is not as smooth as for a physical show.
Enhancing the event experience is more important than digitising the show
So, why not to start a digital team to reinvent your business for the future? This question is so yesterday.
Innovation is not just I.T. The event business is still a content business. Many in the events industry are praising transformational events like SXSW, Burning Man, TED Talks, and the music festivals such as Tomorrowland.
All these events are not very digital, but the organisers certainly know how to integrate digital content into the event experience.
The experience and the participants’ journey in those festivals are truly transformative with both engagement and interaction integrated into all the audience’s touchpoints. While audience engagement has many personal, creative touches, they are not organised as mechanically as virtual events with roles played by robotic avatars.
When the pandemic is over, the event industry will return to face-to-face events. Virtual shows will be abandoned and more digitised content engagements such as live-streaming will be added the face-to-face experience.
Innovation will still play an important role in enhancing the event experience, but won’t replace the human touch of events. Same as when social media become part of our daily routine, it didn’t keep us from interacting with each other face to face. Poking me on the screen doesn’t even resemble a hug.
Eddie Choi is managing partner of Mills Design, an experiential agency with offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Mills’ clients include Google, Alibaba, Airbus, Dow, and BASF. Eddie remains on the board of Milton Exhibits Group