In-Person Events Are Starting Back Up. Now’s Our Chance to Make Them Better

Unisphere in Queens, NYC during Coronavirus
Credit: Andrew Kelly - Reuters /

By Latané Conant

After more than a year without them, in-person events are starting to tentatively make their way onto our calendars once again. According to an April 15, 2021 survey of meeting planners, 80 percent plan to hold their next in-person event in 2021. And that means that those of us who sponsor events are thinking, and in many cases rethinking, what role event sponsorship will play in our marketing plans for 2021 and beyond.

The truth is that while the sudden disappearance of in-person events threw our 2020 marketing strategy into a tailspin, it also had some benefits. There’s the obvious one, of course: hundreds of thousands saved on sponsorship fees. And as Forrester pointed out, the switch to virtual events netted “broader reach, better attendee data acquisition, and extension of value beyond the physical date.” But it also had a benefit that may extend beyond the end of this pandemic: It forced us to see events and event sponsorship with a fresh perspective, warts and all.

The long shutdown of in-person events has presented one of those rare ctrl-alt-delete moments — an opportunity to do a hard-reset on an entire industry. And in CMO Coffee Talk, a community of 500+ marketing leaders I help moderate, many CMOs are realizing that, while sponsoring trade shows, conferences, and events has long been a mainstay of our marketing strategy, there’s a lot we’d change if we could.

And in this moment, as in-person event planning is beginning to ramp back up, we believe we can make changes that will affect the events industry — permanently, and for the better.

We recently collaborated to discuss what CMOs expect from event producers moving forward, how events (and event sponsorship) could change to provide more value, what safety protocols would need to be in place before we’d consider participating, and more. In short, we came up with a list of changes we want to see before we commit to participating in in-person events in the future.

What follows is the result of our collective reset — what we call The Event Sponsors Bill of Rights. Is it idealistic? Sure. Is it to be taken literally, word for word? Of course not. But maybe it will inspire us all to start rethinking what’s possible with events so we can start to make some meaningful changes before they’re back in full-swing.

Right to Meaningful Content

Conferences and events bring together some of the brightest minds in any industry. So why do attendees spend endless hours suffering through second-rate content that often serves as an infomercial for the presenter’s company? Going forward, event producers should commit to “ensuring content tracks are not simply promotional pitches,” says CMO Coffee Talk member and Chief Revenue Officer of VanillaSoft Darryl Praill. “That undermines the event value and impacts the sponsor’s brand.”

Also, event speakers deserve some additional rights going forward as well, such as the right to record our own sessions to share after the event and the right to collaborate with other speakers on thought leadership content, says Olivia Skiffington, VP of Demand Generation at Unioncrate.

Right to Quality

As marketing leaders, we have high standards when it comes to event quality — not because we’re Type A (okay, maybe that too), but because every event we sponsor is a reflection of our brands. Helen Baptist, Chief Operating Officer at PathFactory, points out that if food and beverages are included in sponsorship, the sponsor should be included in the selection process and the positioning and distribution of the food.

Sara Ramlo Larsen, VP of Marketing at Wolters Kluwer Health gives this idea some teeth, suggesting we should “peg pricing to attendee event satisfaction scores (and discounts if scores aren’t met).”

Right to Genuine Connection

The whole point of conferences and events is to meet, network with, and learn from colleagues in your field. So why do so many event planners put up roadblocks that make meaningful connection difficult, if not impossible?

“In order to provide meaning to both attendees and event sponsors, event hosts must hold true their responsibility to connect attendees with sponsors who can help them achieve an objective,” says Andrea Lechner-Becker, CMO at LeadMD. “To do this, hosts must understand attendees and what their attendance at the event aims to achieve. Hosts must further acknowledge their responsibility to share this information with sponsors to facilitate a more meaningful experience for attendees.”

Connection can’t be predicated on booth traffic, Lechner-Becker emphasizes. Instead of booths (which she describes as “terrible, resource destroying, wastes of invention”), event hosts should get creative in designing unique experiences that inspire attendees and lead to genuine connection.

Right to Diversity

Open up the presenters page of most conferences, and you’ll likely see a sea of white, male faces. In fact, a study published shortly before in-person events ground to a halt found that two-thirds of all conference speakers are men. This does a disservice not only to women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups, it also harms the industry as a whole. Conferences and events are an opportunity to learn and grow from diverse perspectives, and we’re missing untold opportunities when we always hear from the same slice of the population.

In the future, we demand that the speakers at events and conferences more accurately reflect the demographics of the industries they represent. This may require an overhaul of how speakers are recruited, but it’s necessary if we want to make events equitable and relevant going forward.

In addition to demographic diversity, Skiffington points out that we need to have diversity in the types of businesses represented. She argues for “helping smaller, upcoming companies access sponsorships and not get priced out. Have options for breakthrough start-ups to be able to compete with the Fortune 500s.”

Right to ROI

Event sponsorship is not cheap, but we all do it because, well, we all do it. But now that this break in sponsorship spending has given us a pause and reset, we all agree on one thing: If events don’t start to provide predictable ROI, we’re not going to resume sponsoring them.

Baptist believes event sponsors should provide an ROI calculator that spells out what value we gained versus what we paid. And remember that ROI doesn’t start and end when the event does. In fact, pre-event planning and post-event follow up are actually the most critical aspects of ensuring good ROI. Event hosts should work with sponsors to create integrated, ROI-focused plans that include the actual event, but also elements like content syndication, follow-up webinars, video replays, direct mail drops, and more. We need a complete, end-to-end solution to ensure our investment pays off.

Right to Data

As event sponsors, we need data for informed decision-making, before, during, and after the event. When deciding whether to sponsor an event, we need data to let us know if attendees fall into our ideal customer profile (ICP) and focus accounts. And before the event starts, we need the ability to ICP match so we know which customers to focus on, rather than crossing our fingers and hoping we bump into them on the show floor. During the event, we need information about attendees “in near real-time, rather than days later when the leads are cold,” says Praill. After the event, event sponsors have a right to fair sharing of leads who opt-in of course, argues Fara Hain, VP Marketing at Run:AI. “If we sponsor any aspect of the event, we are entitled to the leads from that part of the event. A speaking spot should guarantee access to the leads who registered for and attended that session,” she says.

Right to Good Technology

As a society, we’re pretty deep into apps that help us connect. Whether it’s on a personal level (think Facebook, Insta, Tinder) or professional (LinkedIn, anyone?), we are big fans of using apps to network, share ideas, and deepen our connections. So how is it that big event hosts — even in the tech industry — haven’t managed to come up with an app that can help us do all the same things with our fellow event sponsors and attendees? Events of the future really need to up their app game so that we can share content onsite, schedule meetings easily, and foster connections between attendees and sponsors.

If that’s too much to ask, maybe we could at least get working wifi that’s available throughout the event center and that can actually accommodate 20k people all logging on at once?

Right to Advise

Event hosts need to stop seeing only dollar signs when they look at their sponsors, when in fact we are experts in our fields who have the capacity to help make the event more valuable and successful for all involved. In the future, we want to be seen as valued partners and advisors — perhaps even serving as “an advisory board that event producers could come to for help in developing and defining the events and helping to decide on speakers, themes, and topics,” says Christina Del Villar, an independent marketing strategist.

Right to Meeting Space

Also known as “The Right to Sit Down,” this idea was born out of frustration about how hard it is to find a place to sit and connect with potential customers or colleagues. We need access to meeting rooms, and it needs to be included as part of our sponsorship. “Charging $10K-$20K and not allowing our own meeting rooms is crazy,” Skiffington says.

Right to Reduce Waste

I can’t find any stats to illustrate just how much waste has been saved by a year-plus with no in-person events, but I’d have to imagine it’s enough to fill one of the country’s many empty event centers. Going forward, we need to be intentional about minimizing the waste events caused. Larsen has some ideas about how to go about this:

  1. Implement event sustainability scoring, validated by a third-party organization.
  2. Offer discounts to vendors who participate in sustainable practices (e.g., green on-site materials, travel carbon offsets).
  3. Design attendee pricing models that support sustainability (e.g., buy one on-site pass with carbon offsets and get two free virtual passes).

Looking Forward

Is a Bill of Rights for event sponsors perhaps a little sensational? Maybe. But like so many facets of business that are just starting to come back online post-shutdown, the event industry has an opportunity to re-envision itself. And we, as B2B marketing leaders, have an opportunity — and an obligation — to effect change. Let’s let the lessons learned from the past year help us create a new sort of business event that better serves attendees, sponsors, and hosts.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.


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