The date is Jan. 29, 2020. Details about a yet-to-be named novel coronavirus and its potential impact on the world have started trickling in and we publish our very first story on what would become a catastrophic global pandemic. Industry doctors tell us not to panic. The CDC insists there is no immediate threat to the American public—or its businesses. And then, in the blink of an eye, the country—and the industry—is turned upside down.
We’ve come a long way since January, haven’t we? Through all of 2020’s twists and turns, highs and lows, miracles and meltdowns, this industry has emerged stronger and more resilient than ever before. Leave it to event marketers to unearth silver linings in the midst of a crisis. And under the rubble of the last 12 months have emerged trends that reshaped the event marketing landscape in 2020, and will continue to influence its trajectory in the year ahead. So come along with us as we travel back in time to review COVID-19’s impact on the industry, from panic to pivot.
More COVID-era strategies:
- Five Insights on Producing Outdoor Experiences Amid COVID-19
- Sponsorship and COVID-19: Three Insights From AT&T
Just a bad flu
From physicians to your next-door neighbor, people around the U.S. are referring to COVID-19 as a “bad flu,” and industry doctors tell us pointblank: “The flu is a bigger threat than the coronavirus.” Across the country events, including CES, the influential global consumer technology show, and Sundance Film Festival, take place while event marketers keep an eye on the global landscape.
Shocking the event industry to its core, the GSMA officially cancels the world’s largest mobile conference, MWC Barcelona, on Feb. 12. The decision comes down in Domino effect as b-to-b events in the U.S. and abroad are canceled in rapid succession, and major sponsors back out of events still scheduled to take place. The largest threat appears to be overseas. Super Bowl 54 in Miami takes place as scheduled.
The Great Pivot
Lockdown orders are implemented across the country. The Great Pivot begins as event marketers scramble to transform their physical events into digital ones. The industry begins adjusting to WFH life and virtual team-building activities crop up. SXSW organizers say the show must go on but a petition calling for its cancellation—and the local government—say otherwise. The show is canceled shortly before it’s scheduled to take place.
KEY TREND: As b-to-b brands pivot to virtual, they leverage a mix of livestreaming and on-demand content to maintain the feel of a physical event while adjusting to the transition to digital. Later in the year, the balance would weigh heavier toward livestreaming.
“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.”
–Steven Cardwell, vp-program marketing at HBO
Virtual events take off and event marketers embrace their ability to extend the reach of a program. Atlassian pivots its annual summit to digital and attracts 12,000 more attendees than the physical show would have drawn. Klarna launches a virtual drag brunch series to benefit out-of-work drag entertainers. And mail-home “kits” tied to virtual experiences begin making waves.
KEY TREND: A range of brands, agencies and fabricators redirect their resources to produce PPE for healthcare workers while their events are on pause. Agencies begin to form coalitions designed to put experiential skillsets to use on the front lines.
KEY TREND: Brands begin delivering virtual concerts to entertain and engage fans quarantined at home. Programs range from Bud Light’s Seltzer Sessions to Global Citizen’s Pepsi-sponsored One World: Together At Home event.
Beacon of hope
Lockdown orders have lifted in some areas and all eyes are on who will take the first step back into hosting in-person events. The answer is delivered when Tribeca, IMAX and AT&T announce a summer drive-in series to be rolled out in multiple markets. Social media-based events and experiences like CAULIPOWER’s celebrity pizza-making sessions are flourishing. Brands and properties flex their creative muscles with virtual sponsorships—like AdventHealth’s virtual hospitality platform tied to the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series.
The great outdoors
Warmer weather ushers in an array of outdoor experiential programming, officially putting in-person events back on the map. Can-Am activates at the Oklahoma City Farm Show, signaling the return of small-scale trade shows. Cisco Live shakes up the virtual event space with fresh engagement tactics. And brands respond to the Black Lives Matter movement with purpose-driven virtual events.
KEY TREND: Virtual conferences get an upgrade as brands recognize the possibilities in remote productions, attendees start to demand more “live” and the entire industry embraces the new reality of screen fatigue and shorter attention spans.
“The blessing in this, and the opportunity in this, is you can learn as you go and you can shape the consumer experience and brand integration iteratively. When you’re the sponsor, whether it’s virtual or not, you always want to come to a place where there is a true partnership, where the rising tide lifts all boats. And I think that holds true no matter what you’re doing.”
–Maisie Antoniello, vp-marketing at Jones Soda, on a newly inked e-racing series sponsorship
Drive-in and drive-thru experiences are dominating the event landscape as brands continue brainstorming new ways to connect with consumers from the safety of their vehicles. Tribeca’s Drive-In events are in full swing, Continental Tire hosts a drive-in watch party and the CHI-Together drive-in series represents the largest ongoing socially safe events in the Midwest. Historic tentpole events continue to fall, however—San Diego Comic-Con replaces its physical event with an immersive digital platform, Comic-Con@Home.
Return of the pop-up
Pop-up experiences built for superfans begin to crop up again—many produced independently, like a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”-inspired Instagram environment. Launch events get a revival as Ford debuts its new Bronco to the media at an off-roading event. Extended reality begins to take hold as the technology is incorporated into virtual events, like the AIM Independent Music Awards. The massive Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a tentpole of summer in the Midwest, carries on, prompting lead sponsor Harley-Davidson to back out of the in-person part of its sponsorship and, instead, create an app with guided rides to promote social distancing.
“With a virtual hospitality platform, I can invite people from our multi-state division and they can still feel the benefit of the partnership. They can still engage with our senior leadership team. They can still meet and greet with drivers and they can still understand what the partnership value is without having to leave their home.”
–Anna Donaldson, director-sports marketing and strategic partnerships at AdventHealth
Brands experiment with social VR to enhance virtual networking, including HBO, which hosts influencer events on the VRChat platform, allowing attendees to talk and interact with one another as 3D avatars. Mobile tours are back on the road and in full swing, including Mattel’s Barbie Truck Totally Throwback Tour and NBC Sports’ Sunday Night Football Grill Tour supporting essential workers.
Brands mark big moments like election season and Halloween with COVID-friendly physical experiences, further solidifying the return of in-person events. The Experiential Marketing Summit gathers event marketers for a five-day virtual event that tackles current pain points, demonstrates new event solutions and instills confidence in the industry’s trajectory. And the Adobe Max Creativity Conference virtually celebrates global innovators and marketing strategies.
KEY TREND: Reverse activations, wherein the brand comes to the consumer rather than the other way around, gain momentum. Home Depot delivers backyard “hostgate” experiences to football fans while candy companies bring treats straight to consumers’ doors for Halloween.
Events take a culinary turn as brands including Lexus incorporate celebrity chefs and themed courses into their drive-in events. Others, like Ocean Spray and HBO, offer virtual cooking activations that, in HBO’s case, includes a murder mystery twist. And gaming and esports heat up, including Honda’s Twitch-based launch event for the Civic featuring a Fortnite competition between top-ranked players and everyday streamers.
“We needed to be constantly mindful and sensitive about what our customers and partners were dealing with, which was a lot of uncertainty. We wanted to make sure that whatever programming we were doing, whatever messaging, we really had the right tone for the time.”
–Kathy Doyle, director-global Cisco Live conferences
All eyes are on the first-ever virtual CES taking place in January, and how brands will activate around other tentpole Q1 events like Super Bowl. Holiday programs including Johnnie Walker’s sensory “Gifting Boutique” brighten spirits. And Salesforce transforms its marquee event into Dreamforce to You 2020, a free, month-long digital event designed for flexibility and personalization.