Today we announce that Rob Nathan, Media 10's Marketing Director joins the TEC team as a monthly contributor, and in his first post looks at the emergence of "Virtual Events", wondering whether or not they'll ever replace the "real thing". 

I’ve Seen The Future…and I’m Not Going.

It was a great relief to many to see McDonald’s opening their drive-thrus over the past few days. The queues spoke for themselves, some snaking for hours around the adjacent streets.

During lockdown social media came to the fore and for those craving a burger we saw some creative households coming up with their own versions of the Big Mac or McNuggets – and didn’t they look great? However, imagine shouting out to the kids, “Kids, come quick! I’ve got a Big Mac waiting down here for you.” The abject disappointment must have been palpable. It looked a bit like a Big Mac, but it wasn’t a Big Mac – it didn’t come in the little cardboard box, accompanied by the cardboard punnet of over-salted fries, it didn’t come in a brown paper bag, there was no little tub of ketchup.

And above all, it wasn’t from the ‘Golden Arches’…it was cooked by mum or dad in the kitchen. For something as simple as a burger that costs a few pounds, the experience was just not the same – it was nothing like the same, and although it looked like a Big Mac, you can’t replicate the experience of something so simple, so mundane that we took it for granted.

So, what has this tangential story got to do with live events? Well, as with the experience outlined above, we have seen many event organisers attempt to turn their event ‘virtual’ in recent weeks. I absolutely tip my hat to anyone that has tried the virtual route and I see that LinkedIn is awash with stories of success, of how people have worked tirelessly for weeks to get a virtual event going. All extremely admirable and a seemingly good use of the employee’s time when the industry is in limbo. Or is it?

Is a virtual event really that virtual? Do you virtually transcend into the halls of an exhibition centre? Do you walk around virtual aisles and take in all the all the products on offer, or is it more like a series of recorded seminars and hastily organised e-commerce platforms? If so, can we really claim to be a virtual event? So, let us take the McDonald’s example on a notch…” Kids, great news – we are going to the Ideal Home Show today!”. Imagine as excited children grab their coats and stand by the front door, questioning why lockdown rules have ended so abruptly. Then you have to explain to them that, no, we are not going to Olympia like last year, with the excitement of travel and seeing the stands and the celebrities and smelling the food and queuing to go in show homes…no, this year’s event will be taking place on the kitchen table, huddled around daddy’s work laptop. And look, mummy has made you a Big Mac too, but don’t spill any special sauce over the 19” monitor.

Of course it’s not a virtual exhibition – a ‘virtual’ Ideal Home Show would be a series of demonstrations (webinars to my B2B colleagues) by celebrities and experts, bolted on to an immersive e-commerce platform. It would have 600 exhibitors – all ready to talk to when you wanted, all ready to offer advice and haggle over deals and make you feel good about your purchase. It would allow you to walk through show houses and room sets and the whole 2 to 3-hour experience would be fun. Remember the research finding we all do…number one reason people attend consumer events; FOR A GOOD DAY OUT. 

Until I can pop a VR headset on and transform myself to the exhibition halls of West London or better, Las Vegas and share a post-event drink with colleagues (who are also ‘there’), then it’s not virtual. However, it is something; that is the important thing to take from this ramble, I am not saying what you are doing is a waste of time, I am saying the opposite, that the learnings are incredibly useful  – take what you have created and build on that success. But what you have created is not a direct substitute for the big cash cow that you can’t currently run.

In recent weeks I have seen various statements from organisers claiming 2,500 ‘visitors’, one said they had 10,000 to a 2-day virtual event and another claimed 15,000, gold stars to you all. The point that I would raise is, if you have been so successful with participants then why not run the event again next week? I know they take a lot of organising…but once set up, plan for the next one, keep the momentum going.

This all leads to the question, why are virtual events on certain dates? Combine my previous point about success in numbers with the fact that I said that these events were something and look, you have a new product. I’ll try to simplify; if I launched a new podcast or vodcast or YouTube channel, I wouldn’t be calling it the [insert name of show] virtual exhibition. I would be calling it something else, because calling it the [insert name of show] virtual exhibition that takes place on 13-14 June is telling people that you are trying to replicate an exhibition. What you have actually created is a new brand extension and then you have a whole shiny digital revenue stream to grab hold of. The statement I hear a lot is, “we couldn’t run the event in 2020 because of COVID-19 but we ran it virtually over the same 3 days and we will be back in 2021”. This frustrates the life out of me – it’s all very well patting yourselves on the back for a job well done and the sitting back and waiting for next year’s edition – no, what you did there was dip your toe into the world of digital and ticked it off your list. Now take the positives from that experience, take the fact that you got 150,000 visitors to your on-line extravaganza and go and build a digital empire. 

The reasons why this might not be happening is 2-fold; firstly, people are scared of leaving their comfort zones of exhibition and exhibition halls – the virtual edition was trying to replicate something that can’t be replicated. Secondly, those 15,000 people were actually 150 people and you ended up losing a lot of time and money on something that people don’t want. You know why? Because people don’t want to replicate their burgers, they want the real thing. I’ve logged on to a couple of virtual exhibitions over the past few months…one had 108 viewers when I was tuned in (middle of the day, Saturday), one had 5 (middle of the day, Friday) and one had 155 (evening, Thursday). I wonder if the organisers have sat back and thought about how to get more people on-line? Well, why not unpackage the virtual exhibition theming and serve that content over a period of time. 

If I was told that the event I was interested in was 13-14 June but that weekend was not convenient then why should I miss out when the whole concept of virtual is that you can serve it up any time you like. Again, let’s look at practical everyday parallels – we used to watch TV at a certain time for our favourite programmes (Grange Hill, 5.10pm on a Tuesday, for example). Now, it is unthinkable that any progressive broadcaster is going to serve up prescriptive viewing, that if you’ve missed because you were not sitting at your desk, you can’t see again. The caveat to that (and where the big money is) is Pay Per View…hmmm, so I can deliver my event content at a non-defined time but the big stuff (keynote talks, launches, etc.) I can monetise, or at least get people to register for. See, simple really. All this material you will create from your new series of digital products is what search engines crave, you are creating Google juice. Unique, relevant content that you embed into your websites and watch as your digital proposition soars in value.

Now I don’t want to end all of this by you thinking that I am anti-virtual events. I am not (I hope I have made that clear) – they are the future for the likes of medical consultations, schooling, product launches, etc. but what we shouldn’t be doing is thinking that in our world, the live event world, that we can replace the very essence, the whole reason for our existence with a hastily curated selection of webinars and a bolted on e-commerce platform. 

I’m actually wearing my tin hat as I write this as some of my dear (now ex) friends in the industry are currently hosting or planning virtual editions of their events. I need to re-iterate – this is fantastic, and I know you will all get 18,000 on-line visitors and make huge profits out of sponsorship and exhibitor kick-backs. BUT, and that is a big but, if on the off chance that your virtual event took a load of work to organise, didn’t get an audience, didn’t make any money and just kept the wheels spinning until 2021, then take the kernel of the idea and think about what you have actually created; no more virtual main stages, no more prescribed dates, no more trying to replicate a concept that is impossible to emulate. Instead, take the fact that you have an audience, people with a lot more time on their hands, people with a thirst for your brand and build a suite of digital offerings that can complement the big shiny live event that will be back, bigger, better and more successful as a result of your brand extensions at some time soon.

Who’d have thought I could write 1500 words whilst waiting in the queue to buy a Filet-of-Fish…

Rob Nathan