If there is anyone equipped to reimagine how people will gather in the wake of a pandemic, it’s an event marketer. Across the industry, the wheels are already turning. The return of conferences and experiential activations, in whatever form they take, will require new strategies, evolved KPIs, precision operations and logistics, and fierce collaboration with venue partners and vendors. And don’t forget about the strong creative.
Event marketers are headed into uncharted waters, and all eyes are on the first events to activate, particularly in the sports world. The 2020 Monster Energy Supercross season, managed by Feld Entertainment, resumed “made-for-TV” racing May 31 in Salt Lake City, UT, with no spectators and an estimated 900 people at the event, according to RacerXOnline. Supercross Live reports it will implement mandated prescreening and testing, PPE, sanitization efforts, social distancing, and it has partnered with Alpinestars Medical Unit to assist on-site.
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Tribeca Enterprises announced that beginning June 25, in partnership with IMAX and AT&T, it will deliver a live event series at drive-in theaters nationwide. The “Tribeca Drive-In” program will offer new, classic and independent movies along with special music performances and sporting events—all experienced from the comfort and safety of consumers’ vehicles. Not only does the effort honor Tribeca’s brand ethos, in that the Tribeca Film Festival was created after 9/11 to rally people together through the arts—and consumers need rallying now more than ever—it signals the rise of an array of community-based, drive-thru-style experiences that could save some experiential campaigns in 2020.
Until there is a vaccine or until the world can fully understand the virus’ impacts and next course, most event professionals believe large-scale events won’t return until 2021. In fact, their marketers are banking on that with many canceling in-person events through next June. But the stage is set for a comeback—a gradual, strategic and creative comeback.
Here, leading event marketers weigh in on how we’ll get there.
RETHINKING THE ‘WHY’
The virus’ impacts may change entertainment for the foreseeable future, specifically as it relates to festivals and special events, which are heavy on socialization and shared food and beverage experiences.
Helen J. Stoddard, head of global events and experiential marketing at Twitter, points to the brand’s annual epic takeover of Marquee Nightclub Las Vegas at CES. Nightlife events may not be in the cards for the next few years, both from a psychological and physical safety standpoint, and also from a cultural standpoint given the market, loss of disposable income and loss of life.
“Assuming that we go back to the same places where we partner on the same sponsorships, how we show up then has to be different. It just has to,” Stoddard says. “I think events with meaning or that are meaningful, that also have fun, are going to trump just having fun.”
Steven Cardwell, vp-program marketing at HBO, reflects back on the brand’s playbook-busting #BleedForTheThrone campaign, executed with a live experience at SXSW for the final season premiere of “Game of Thrones.” The ticket for entry was a blood donation to the American Red Cross. It was bold, it did a lot of good, and yet, it seems an impossible program to pull off in a post-COVID-19 world, he says.
“I think the challenge is going to be how can we social distance at an event? That seems like two very opposite things when events are meant to bring people together,” Cardwell says. “What is an event that’s maybe a singular experience for someone? Pushing the boundaries there is where I’m going to be challenging my team and my agency partners in the future.”
“What might have felt awkward to us before—the idea of talking to a computer and having a meaningful conversation—I think there’s going to be a lower barrier of entry to bring digital into experiences and maybe that’s where we’ll be finding cost savings that can allow for lower throughput.”
HYBRID WILL STAY
Virtual events rose in popularity after the 2008 recession, when travel and event budgets were cut, but they eventually faded away as people realized in-person experiences were more effective. Nearly all the marketers we spoke with over the past two months believe a hybrid model of virtual and live is here to stay. The technology has gotten better, and with an expectation of further economic reverberations, marketers will need to accommodate live and virtual audiences.
“If this has taught us anything, it’s that we will never go back to face-to-face events the way that we know them today. There will always be this idea of hybrid,” says Colleen Bisconti, vp-global conferences and events at IBM. “What attendees are learning is that they can connect and consume content digitally, and so I think people will be more selective about where do I go, when do I go, and for what do I go face-to-face versus what do I consume online. I tell my team this all the time—we’re great event marketers, we’re going to become great digital event marketers, and what does that mean as you think about hybrid.”
The industry is moving toward an era where data and personalization will go into hyper-drive, as will strategies to harness the information and rethink scale. Paul Salinger, vp-marketing at Oracle, predicts more account-based marketing and localized, intimate environments.
“For a number of years, we’ve all been looking at audience segmentation and getting much more specific about the audiences that we’re addressing, and we’re all now starting to think about personalization and people centricity,” Salinger says. “We’re certainly looking at this, but I think people will start to look at very specific audience segments and delivering events to very specific audience segments rather than retaining big mass gatherings.”
This means moving away from massive, “hard to navigate” big conferences, much like OpenWorld, he says, and toward creating “communities of likeminded people we can address with very specific targeted programs. “Being data-driven is going to be even more important as we come out of this, and really understanding and getting the right data, so that we can develop these personalized experiences for people.”
“We’ve been talking about as a company, ‘Is bigger better?’ Maybe not. Maybe smaller, intimate conversations where we’re meeting customers where they are is the right approach.”
Beyond audience segmentation and personalization, event marketers will have to come to grips with the economic reality facing attendees. They may not have the budget to go to your events for the next year or two. Candace Montgomery, vp-experiential at Essence, says her team is focused on listening to the consumer and “giving her what it is she needs right now.”
“Right now could be next week, but right now could also be six months. There’s a deep impact here. And with events, it is a lot of disposable income, so people are directly impacted in their ability to actually spend money on things. What virtual has done right now is create a lower threshold for access,” Montgomery says. “Right now our programs are delivered to the audience for free and that’s, again, to meet her where she is.”
Nicola Kastner, global head of event marketing strategy at SAP, describes an agency partner meeting with Freeman, in which the team reflected on how long it takes for habits to form and how, by the fall, these digital habits will be firmly implanted in peoples’ routines. Attendees will have adjusted to a new life of convenience given that technology “has fundamentally changed it forever,” she says.
“As you think about that and think about how does that pivot to our space, and my space in the b-to-b events industry, it’s thinking about how do we create scale, and how do we also, at the same time, create those personal connections and all of those things that events stand for, and that we are able to drive as value in our business, how do we find the right hybrid?” Kastner says. “We’ve been talking about as a company, ‘Is bigger better?’ Maybe not. Maybe smaller, intimate conversations where we’re meeting customers where they are is the right approach.”
Cardwell says his team at HBO will be looking at how to incorporate technology that consumers are now comfortable with using, like video conferencing and
“What might have felt awkward to us before—the idea of talking to a computer and having a meaningful conversation—I think there’s going to be a lower barrier of entry to bring digital into experiences and maybe that’s where we’ll be finding cost savings that can allow for lower throughput,” Cardwell says. “The consumer behaviors have probably never changed so quickly in such a short period of time, so I think there’s a lot of learnings we can use from this period in not only how we plan the next three months, but the next three years.”
For Nestlé, the explosion of e-commerce and virtual represents new behaviors from consumers and avenues to engagement and purchase that they’ll expect from brands going forward. It’s up to the brands to embrace it and activate on that, and data will help in that push.
“As an industry we’ve done a good job over the last few years of quantifying the impact of our work,” says Jamey Sunshine, head of experiential at Nestlé. “I think with the work we’ve done at Nestlé, and together with our insights team, we’ve been able to better quantify that and provide that link to sales, and understand consumer preference, and because of that there’s a higher value on experiential. We focus on creating integrated programs through an omnichannel lens and while events live within that, these are really meant to be integrated initiatives that touch different parts of the marketing mix.”
With large-scale events on pause, for now, community-based events and roadshows may rise to the top—bringing experiences and events to people rather than expecting them to come to the event. For the large-scale events like festivals that do activate, space and sanitization will play a key role.
“As a festival owner, we have over a half a million people that come to Essence Festival, and so public safety isn’t a new concept. As you’re building the festival, it’s part of what you’re doing,” Montgomery says. “However, as we think about hand sanitization stations or sanitizing all of the areas at the end of the night before we open the show the next day, or even thinking about line queues, social distancing within the line queues, the bar—that’s the kind of scale and thinking festival owners are going to have to do, and thinking about how we treat that in real time.”
Partnerships with venues will be key to addressing these new challenges, according to Bisconti.
“I think the other thing is being very mindful in working with the venues to understand what changes they’re making, or what changes our attendees expect that the venues would be making when it comes to their safety,” she says. “For all of us this is going to change, so even when we do go back to having relevant face-to-face meetings, I don’t think they’ll be at the size we’ve seen. I don’t think the interaction and environment will be the same for a long time, so how we, as event marketers, plan for that is important.”
“We focus on creating integrated programs through an omnichannel lens and while events live within that, these are really meant to be integrated initiatives that touch different parts of the marketing mix.”
BUDGET AND ROI
The guidelines and changes to the on-site experience are going to impact the budget with more safety measures to implement, less room in the budget for the bold stuff and potentially fewer interactions with people. For a brand like HBO, which leverages exclusivity in its experiential strategy, throughput may not be its biggest worry, but the experience is.
“Events have so many hard costs involved just to turn the lights on and when you add in more lines to a budget for these kinds of precautions, it starts to maybe take away from budget that might have been used to plus-up content or have talent or some type of bell and whistle,” Cardwell says. “We’re going to have to have a lot of conversations with our agency partners and with festival organizers to really understand how they’re viewing this and how we can fit in and still have an impactful presence there.”
For Stoddard, one of the issues not being discussed widely enough is psychological safety. There’s no comeback without people that feel safe enough to attend, even if it means a company has implemented physical safety measures like social distancing, individually wrapped food and has swapped swag for masks, hand sanitizers and wipes.
“Just because the part of the country that the conference is being held is open, doesn’t mean people feel good about getting on an airplane to go there,” Stoddard says.
Facebook has redirected its team to focus on “reinventing” how the brand creates connection and community. It’s a direction event teams need right now, according to Julie Hogan, global face-to-face marketing director at Facebook.
“Experiential as we knew it is no longer, and I think, by the way, there’s a grieving process that goes along with that. I know our team has experienced it over the last few weeks,” Hogan says. “I think acknowledging the way in which we created events and experiences has transitioned. We’re now at an inflection point and we have an opportunity to embrace that, to exercise these new muscles and really explore new ground.”
And if there is a silver lining to all of this, it’s that experiential could be entering its most creative, and most strategic, period yet. The brand experience will come to life in ways we could never have imagined possible.
HBO is already looking at current trends and figuring out what the next pivot is from there—from things like Zoom fatigue and content overload. Cardwell says his team is exploring the idea of “micro experiences,” like mailing kits and pairing physical with digital.
“This is going to force us to be much more innovative and creative, and I think we were already on this path of trying to figure out how to think about the marrying of digital and real, and this is just going to accelerate things,” he says. “I’m excited to see what brands and other people do, because I think we’re going to see some really creative things in the next six months to a year.”
A recovery, but more importantly, a renaissance, is on the horizon.
Featured photo courtesy: iStock/erhui1979