20 Takeaways from the Virtual Experiential Marketing Summit

20 Takeaways from the Virtual Experiential Marketing Summit
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20 Takeaways From the First-ever Virtual Experiential Marketing Summit

It’s been a year of firsts for many brands and their shows, and for EM it was no different. Our 18-year-old Experiential Marketing Summit pivoted not once, but twice in the wake of COVID-19 before moving fully virtual for the first time in its history. In the end, thousands of industry attendees converged on an interactive platform, Oct. 19-23, to talk strategy, forecasting, creativity and innovation… comfy pants and “tush cushes” encouraged. 

We supersized the event from three days to five full days of learning, all programmed for attendees to “choose their own adventure” and tune in based on their personal preferences and schedules. The journey included daily group workouts, keynotes from leading executives, peer-to-peer think tanks, an exhibit hall, the summit podcast, midday dj dance breaks, activities for kids, workshops, and late-afternoon entertainment. And lest we forget the dozens of sessions taught by brand-side marketers.

Though there were no group huddles in the hallway, hijinks at the afterparties or post-show movies and nightcaps in the air, the community sparkled on through the screen. We recap some of the best insights and takeaways from the virtual week. And if you missed us entirely, you can still register to check out the whole show on-demand at emsummit.eventmarketer.com.


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NOISE, CROWDS AND PERMITTING

Among the many hurdles event marketers have had to clear this year: navigating the approval and permitting process, which continues to vary wildly by state, region and municipality in the wake of COVID. “This is where, and we work with a lot of creative folks in the industry, their creativity needs to shine through to move us forward for the time being,” says Amir Shayegan, vp-permitting and logistics at New York City-based IDEKO.

Shayegan and Aubri Emery, director-permitting and logistics, talked permitting before and after COVID, and drove home the importance of applying early and preparing to shoulder the burden of liability by signing documents indicating the event is compliant with regulations. What will get you that “yes” faster: Plans that eliminate anything that could attract crowds (think: loudspeakers or tall stages); plans that do involve mobile experiences, community art projects, stunts or film shoots; drive-throughs, decals or distanced projections.

 

THE B-TO-B EVENT SHAKEUP

Members of the 2020 B-to-B Dream Team, produced in partnership with Freeman, discussed how b-to-b event attendee expectations have shifted in the wake of COVID. In the virtual space, event marketers have to work harder at differentiating the content and improving the virtual user interface. And when it comes to in-person, less may be more for the foreseeable future.

“It feels like everybody’s priorities have reacclimated, and where we were willing to travel 50 times a year to go to 50 different events, that may not be in the future for many of my team members anymore,” says Kevin Schwoer, senior events manager at Verizon Media. “It goes back to that localization of events, and being closer to home.”

Partnerships will be more important than ever, according to Lori Ann Pope, head of event marketing, global economic impact, at Facebook, as will be readjusting expectations. “I think for our stakeholders, because they like those numbers that are much higher virtually than in the in-person events, they’re going to ask how to keep those numbers at those levels. Technology is going to drive that,” Pope says.

 

NEW SKILLSETS, NEW ROLES

Across workshops and think tanks, instructors and attendees talked new skillsets and roles for event marketers, especially those related to COVID safety. Among them, the CCO or chief compliance officer, who may or may not be a member of your internal team, but who is a critical member of the event team; and the chief safety producer, an individual on your team that acts as the person who makes sure the compliance officer has everything they need to ensure a safe event. New skillsets include training for brand ambassadors who will not only serve as the face of the brand, but serve as the health and safety front line, too.

 

LEVELING UP VIRTUAL EVENTS

While most event marketers plan to outsource their virtual event production, there has been a steep learning curve among internal event organizations in how virtual events work and the biggest takeaway as it relates to this role that cropped up throughout EMS: the bar will be higher in 2021. Attendees were forgiving in 2020, but virtual events will need to get slicker and more professionalized and even bear more of a resemblance to a broadcast studio than an event in 2021. Event departments are ramping up for that new reality, including IBM.

Erin McElroy, program director-digital and event innovation, and Kada Sigl, conference and event manager, both of IBM, walked us through what their team is calling “table stakes” in virtual and what’s “next level”—that production quality is high, tech support is available immediately, content puts stories before solutions, and networking. “We’re looking at gaming, we’re looking at hybrid experiences, we’re looking at VIP experiences and packaging up very targeted personalized experiences,” says McElroy.

 

EMS 2020 Wellness Retreat

The Women in Events wellness retreat served up recipes and inspiration.

 

BRINGING THE JOY

In a fast-paced review of 2020 Ex Award winners, Dan Preiss, senior director-global brand and experiential marketing at Dell, and Victor Torregroza, events program manager at Intel, helped us break down and examine what set the programs apart—and what award-winning events will have in common in the future. One element, as Torregroza pointed out, is joy—something that EMS viewers commented during the session has been missing from many virtual events this year.

“You have to support the business, you have to have sales, but at the end of the day, on the other side of these experiences are people, and who doesn’t want to experience a little bit of joy regardless of the hat that you wear in the world,” says Torregroza. (Read more with Torregroza here.)

 

DIVERSITY, EQUITY AND INCLUSION

DE&I efforts are no longer being viewed as an add-on or an optional program for a committee or a small group within the organization; it’s a business imperative. Experts said we’ll start to see more companies demanding that their agencies and suppliers are diverse or that at least some percentage of their network is diverse. And while DE&I is usually managed from an HR function, it might become the marketing role of the future.

“Approach DE&I in the way that any marketer would: the awareness, the engagement, where we are in the funnel… For us, we’re trying to figure out how our DE&I programming connects to a lift in brand sentiment, and that’s us asking our brand strategy team to please come with us as partners and help us think how we can move that needle together,” says Taylor Nguyen, head of creative experiences, global experiential marketing, Google Cloud.

 

THE ART OF DIGITAL STORYTELLING

FX’s experiential portfolio is rich with immersive qualities, characters and the unexpected. In discussing the pivot of its annual activation at San Diego Comic-Con, keynoter Kenya Hardaway Green, senior vp-integrated promotions at FX, talked about the importance of sticking to a clear creative concept, no matter the platform, while taking advantage of the limitless opportunities through digital. The brand’s interactive FX Unlocked platform offered live programming, fan galleries, gaming and trivia through digital environments across several of the network’s series.

“We were able to be a little bit more specific on the kinds of programs we put together, they could have a longer narrative, more layers, more elements to them that people could take the time to dive deeper into,” says Hardaway Green.

 

CONNECTING THE SILOS

Events teams are working hard this year to meld with the larger marketing organization, working with digital, social, p.r. and even e-commerce to bolster virtual experiential programming. It’s the way General Mills has structured its experiential programming for years, and as Jamey Sunshine, director-experiential at Nestle USA’s Experiential Center of Excellence, described in his session, it has paid off this year.

“The Experiential Center of Excellence focuses on omni-channel planning, because we want to win with consumers—that’s our No. 1 goal—but, of course, we also want to drive business impact,” Sunshine said. “We’ve been working with our cross-functional partners for years to design integrated initiatives, because our goal is to maximize the investment that any brand makes in experiential.”

 

HELP, HONESTY AND BOLDNESS

Fernando Machado, cmo of Restaurant Brands International, which includes Burger King, Tim Horton’s and Popeye’s, described the brands’ three-pronged approach to marketing in the wake of COVID—leveraging the brands as forces of good (free meals for kids and families in need and first responders), helping to mitigate or fight confusion in the marketplace by launching and educating consumers on contactless ordering at its locations, and focusing in on bringing smiles to consumers’ faces.

“In a moment when people are in need for help, if you don’t use your brands to help people or to reach out to people, it’s a missed opportunity—it’s a mistake,” Machado says. “All of the brands who I think market well, including during the pandemic, they always started by not being selfish and greedy, and instead, focusing on the people and communities they serve and coming up with something they can contribute to in a moment of crisis.”

 

NO VENUE LEFT BEHIND

YouTube’s Zach Papale, head of experiential and brand partnerships, shined a spotlight on the ancillary ramifications of COVID on the industry by filming his keynote, socially distanced, from The Independent in San Francisco, known as the home base for all types of diverse music and entertainment. He highlighted the brand’s Save Our Stages campaign, a live-streamed festival produced in partnership with the Independent Venues Association that is working to outfit venues across America with the equipment and tools to live-stream concerts from live acts as well as manage an emergency relief fund for venues.

“Independent venues like this—90 percent are at risk of closing their doors forever, and this all ties together when you think about what will be done now to protect our future; what can we do and how can we change our thinking,” Papale says.

 

EMS 2020 DJ Dance Break

Attendees popped out of their chairs to rock out with DJ sly during dedicated dance breaks.

 

EVENT CONTRACT EVOLUTIONS

Contract negotiations in the COVID-era will require flexibility and detail-oriented planning on behalf of all parties involved—including the venues. With the understanding that COVID itself may not be able to trigger a force majeure in the future, negotiations are even more important than ever to account for issues such as attendee attrition and travel bans. Contingency plans will also need to address every level of risk to help stakeholders understand what solutions they’re comfortable (read: potential budget increases) with before entering into any contract negotiations.

“As in-depth as you were before, it’s being 10 times more in-depth and thinking through every possible option, and adding in that contingency,” says Kristina Johnston, meeting planner at LEO Events.

 

BETTER TECH, BETTER EDUCATION

In a session on how to use 3D and AR to boost brand engagement, Wesley Long, assistant vp at AT&T University, noted that while those kinds of technologies were once thought to be too progressive, they’re now becoming essential for brands to understand and implement. One area they’re being used for by AT&T is interactive employee education—particularly during the pandemic.

AT&T has discovered that in some cases, virtual education can be even more impactful than its physical counterpart. Leveraging extended reality training, for example, leads to a 75-percent increase in learning retention and a 40-percent reduction in training time. “Early on, there was a lot of apprehension—could we take something we’re doing live, put it in a virtual platform and make it as equally engaging? And we’ve proven time and time again that we can, and we can cut costs doing that,” Long says.

 

IN-PERSON AS A ‘DIMMER’ SWITCH

The convention center may be a thing of the past as brands begin traveling to where the attendees are, rather than the other way around. Smaller, more targeted events are likely to become the norm, particularly because attendees won’t be comfortable traveling and being part of large groups for the foreseeable future. Attendees’ return to in-person events will be a “dimmer, not a light switch,” as Nicola Kastner, vp, global head of event strategy at SAP, put it. SAP is planning for future in-person events by asking itself a series of pointed questions, including, who are the right audiences and how does the portfolio serve them, how will the balance of digital and live evolve, what is the right number, type, frequency and cadence of events, and how can the portfolio be optimized moving forward.

 

IMPROVING COMMUNICATIONS

If there’s one thing event safety panelists Steve Lemon, director of the Event Safety Alliance, Justin Lefkovitch, founder and ceo of Mirrored Media, and Alison Delzell, svp-experience at The Marketing Arm, could agree on, it’s that a solid event safety strategy is one that centers on setting expectations for attendees. Yes, they want to know that they’re physically safe, but they also want to know that the event’s organizers care enough about their mental wellbeing to keep them informed. Social distancing protocols, PPE requirements, traffic flow and other health and safety concerns should all be addressed ahead of time so that the attendee is confident in what to expect on-site, from registration until they walk out the door.

 

EXPERIENCE DESIGN WITH VIP STYLE

Among the countless aspects of events that marketers have had to rethink in the wake of the pandemic is how social distancing impacts experience design. While the use of signage and floor decals are a given, other strategies like “owned spaces” featuring singular tables that can be assigned to attendees ahead of time are coming into play. Doug Bradley, vp of culinary at McCormick Place, says event marketers must think creatively about the social distancing restrictions and look at this as an opportunity. If a space requires fewer people in order to stay safe, for instance, make it a VIP area to give it that air of exclusivity.

 

EMS 2020 Paco Collazo Selfie

Attendees let us into their home offices to view their must-haves for productive remote work.

 

GETTING EXECUTIVES IN ON THE FUN

The most successful virtual events haven’t “lifted and shifted” their program; they’ve developed creative new solutions. Like Walmart, which discussed the pivot of its holiday meeting to virtual, describing how it implemented elements like a gamified trivia experience woven throughout the event and a game show featuring the brand’s chief operating officer and chief customer officer—yes, even the corporate rock stars need to get in on the pivot action.

“There are elements that need to happen no matter what—attendees need to hear from the ceo, they need to hear from the chief operating officer—you just have to put on your thinking cap and do it a little bit differently,” says Jenifer Bice, senior director-event solutions at Walmart. “Everyone is Zoomed out, so we came up with more interesting ways to deliver key messages.”

 

CONFERENCE THEMES THAT MATTER

A theme sets the tone, whether your event is in-person or virtual. Ripple’s Monica Long, general manager of RippleX, and Manifold founding partner Kelly Long, discussed the importance of leveraging a theme in the context of Ripple’s global fintech conference, Swell. With many attendees at the forefront of the burgeoning cryptocurrency industry, the conference theme was apt: “A New Reality Unfolds.”

Importantly, there was never a creative element of the conference that didn’t map back to the theme and the story the brand was trying to tell. Even the origami-making stations that attendees experienced aligned with the theme (it’s the art of folding paper, after all). You can get elbow-deep in the details of production, the speakers pointed out, but if you forget why you’re there and what you’re doing, the event’s messaging won’t translate.

 

KEYNOTES IN THE VIRTUAL WORLD

They won’t be delivered within a packed general session room any time soon, but the principles of an impactful keynote, whether in the physical world or not, haven’t changed. Autodesk cracked open its playbook and described its multi-pronged approach for a compelling keynote program: Involving decision-makers in the production process from the very beginning—and incorporating their style into the production—zeroing in on the “action” the brand wants attendees to take afterward, and thinking about the keynote as part of a multi-year storyline.

“When we had to pivot and everything was turned upside down, having that top-down alignment really reduced friction and really reduced all the churn that can happen over opportunistic content and things that are cool ideas but not necessarily well aligned with what we’re trying to achieve,” says Jessica Schonwasser, director-brand activation at Autodesk.

 

 

THE NEW LUXURY CONSUMER

In a session about the new luxury consumer, Christine Ngo Isaac, consumer engagement director at Hennessy, discussed the brand’s “poly-cultural” approach and said brands are increasingly recognizing the power of multicultural luxury audiences, and that consumers still value the heritage of luxury brands, which makes it easier for marketers to tell their brand story.

“I’m a woman of color,” Isaac said. “I grew up listening to hip-hop and some of my earliest and most vivid images of luxury was from seeing Louis Vuitton and Dior on musical artists in the ’90s,” says Isaac. “I think that’s indicative of the poly-cultural consumer and their interest in luxury goods and also the fact that I am now one of the marketing leads for the premier cognac brand in the U.S. and driving that agenda, I think it shows you the progression of the luxury consumer to today.”

 

LEARNING TO MOVE QUICKLY

Modelo has found itself moving faster on campaigns than ever before in the wake of COVID—a practice that’s here to stay. Ryan Anderson, director of brand marketing at Modelo Especial and Modelo Negra, broke down the brand’s cause marketing platform, The Fighting Chance project, which included a partnership with Grammy Award-winning artist Anderson .Paak, iHeartMedia and the International Rescue Committee. He described how the team has been able to “tear up all the old ways of working.”

“Before this year, we would have been pretty averse to making quick decisions as we are now. A recent example—we just created an advertising spot in about two weeks. Normally, it takes us about a six-month process to align on the creative, the storyboards, the director the pre-production,” says Anderson. “It was a necessity. We need to be more relevant and we can’t always have that six- to 12-month planning because by the time you get there the world has changed so much.”

This story appeared in the December 2020 issue

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