Jumping into events in a pandemic world

As the world reopens bit by bit, and hybrid events seem to be the new norm, it’s time for companies to revisit events. But, the event strategy of the past is not the answer moving forward. Marketers need to rethink the who, what and why of their events to ensure safety and maximize ROI.

I recently spoke with Katie Goggin, founder of Designer Event Chicago, and Stephanie Goudzwaard, marketing manager with The Agency at Sikich. These two experienced event planners share advice on how companies can create successful, meaningful events in this ever-changing pandemic world.

What is the top challenge companies face when considering or planning an event?

SG: As the vaccine roll out continues and states begin to open back up, it can be tempting to approach events like you have in the past. I think the biggest challenge facing event planners is to ensure the health and safety of all involved. This should be the top priority of an organization. Marketers should work closely with internal management on travel policies and staffing tradeshows and events. Can fewer teammates handle the job? Having too many staff members supporting an event is a common mistake companies make. It’s important to get the right team assembled.

Another consideration here is travel – not only can this still cause safety concerns, but as more places open, travel may become more difficult. Listen to your audience to understand if it is truly important for them to meet in person.

Before and during an event, it is important that you consistently communicate the precautions taken to ensure safety. And, enforcing these precautions onsite is key!

KG: Many companies are approaching events very cautiously – watching the science and state and local regulations. Once they are ready to move forward with an event, they want to go full steam ahead and move quickly. At the same time, vendors – many of whom have downsized over the past year – are being inundated with more requests than they can handle. Finding available venues, caterers and florists is very challenging right now. Further, companies that are custom ordering branded items often need to ship in those products from overseas, which is taking a lot longer than we’re used to.

If a company is even thinking about starting to host events again, I recommend getting started sooner rather than later. The event planning process will take much longer than most organizations are used to.

Are there things an organization can do to ensure guests feel comfortable at an event?

SG: First things first, companies should continue to follow evolving health regulations. Organizations can survey their target audience to better understand comfort levels. Remember – just because regulations may loosen up, doesn’t mean your audience is comfortable with activities or formats that were considered normal pre-pandemic.

Another creative way to facilitate an in-person event without sacrificing guests’ comfort is to go contactless. Rethink the way your team handles registration, check-in, meals and even exchanging business cards to allow for safer interactions.

KG: Communication is key. First, communicate prior to the event the steps you’re taking to follow state and city mandates. Guests will have varied comfort levels, so make it clear ahead of time what is expected from them in regards to mask wearing, social distancing and other protocols.

Then, have lots of signage and communication at the event around mask wearing, social distancing, sanitizing, etc. There are great opportunities for branding with this onsite communication. Companies can put branded hand sanitizer bottles at each seat and have branded masks available for guests.

When thinking about guest comfort, companies should also reconsider food service at events. Make sure everything is in individual vessels with minimal contact required. Avoid any communal options like buffets or family style meals.

What “new normal” things does a company need to consider when deciding on the event space?

SG: Review ANY and ALL contracts with your venues to ensure that, if anything were to happen – such as a sudden need to reschedule or new capacity restrictions, your company and investment are protected. It may be advantageous to work with venues that have flexible cancellation policies and options for outdoor space. When considering a venue, confirm that the event space is large enough for 2x your ideal group size to allow for social distancing. And, just like your team needs to enforce safety precautions at the event, ensure your venue is also enforcing safety guidelines.

Also, while not a totally new consideration, be prepared with a back-up plan in case anything falls through. Then, put in place a back-up plan for that back-up plan!

KG: The bigger, the better. Make sure you have ample room for social distancing at your venue. Also, outdoor space is very popular right now. Consider choosing a venue with outdoor elements (for example, the ability to open windows and doors for airflow).

What about virtual components – is there anything an organization can do to help virtual attendees feel involved?

SG: Companies need to create a separate and unique event strategy for the virtual audience, including different activities and incentives than the ones they deliver to in-person attendees. Consider sending virtual attendees giveaways (like literature or swag) prior to the event to increase the chance that they’ll attend and stick around. You can also set up chat rooms and other virtual networking opportunities to increase engagement.

For virtual components, it’s also important to give attendees breaks in the program. Many people are experiencing fatigue from virtual meetings and events. Schedule dedicated break time so attendees can catch up on emails rather than expecting everyone to be online and engaged for long periods of time.

And lastly, spend more time following up with and nurturing those virtual attendees post-event with materials such podcasts, whitepapers, eBooks and other resources.

KG: The most critical piece of incorporating a virtual component to an event is to have the necessary technology capabilities. Bring on partners that know exactly what they are doing. Oftentimes, this may mean working with a third party to ensure there are no issues with AV, live streaming, sound, engaging on the platform and more. Having seamless technology for virtual event components are even more important than at an in-person event. If someone at home is having trouble connecting, it’s easy for them to just walk away from the event.

Are there any “big misses” that organizations don’t think about when planning an event post-pandemic?

SG: One thing to consider is that even though some people may still prefer to attend larger conferences and events virtually, they may be interested in small group or one-to-one meetings in person. Understand your audience’s preferences and tailor your event strategy to meet them where they are most comfortable. Don’t be shy about creating small groups or hands-on workshops that deliver value in an intimate and safe environment.

It’s also important to determine what your audience considers to be “high-value content,” and then deliver on it. Don’t simply host an event for the sake of hosting an event – or because you finally can, again. Determine the value your company brings to the table, and work to educate and engage your audience in meaningful ways.

KG: With the limited availability of vendors, timing is one key consideration that many companies aren’t aware of or prepared for. The event may take longer to plan, yet at the same time decisions will need to be made quickly. This can be hard for companies that are tip-toeing back into events.

There is also a lot of concern around if now is a good time to go back to hosting events. Some people are ready to be back and in-person, and others are less comfortable. And, it’s the same for vendors – each venue, caterer and florist have varying levels of comfort contributing to an event and may have capacity limits or other safety rules in place.

One way for companies to move forward more confidently is to survey employees, customers and prospects to understand the appetite for events in their specific industry or market.

Do organizations need to rethink how they set goals or measure KPIs around events moving forward?

SG: Absolutely. Adjust your goals – whether it be the number of attendees, MQLs, SQLs, introductions made, cost per lead, press coverage, etc. And, don’t forget to create separate in-person and virtual goals. It’s important to be realistic and not expect your goals to remain the same from one event to the next. Things are changing day by day. Your goals need to change with this environment.

Looking ahead

There are many new challenges and things to navigate as companies revisit their event strategies in a pandemic world. It’s unfamiliar territory, and there can be hesitation around when and how to move forward. But, by preparing in advance and being thoughtful about each piece of the event – including pre- and post-event, in-person and online – companies can get back in front of their clients and prospects in a safe and meaningful way.

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This publication contains general information only and Sikich is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or any other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should you use it as a basis for any decision, action or omission that may affect you or your business. Before making any decision, taking any action or omitting an action that may affect you or your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor. In addition, this publication may contain certain content generated by an artificial intelligence (AI) language model. You acknowledge that Sikich shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by you or any person who relies on this publication.

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