Alex Paine, CEO and co-founder of The Virtual Conference Network, spoke with CIM on how the continuing effects of the coronavirus restrictions on travel and work pose new financial risks to conference organisers while exacerbating risks that existed before the pandemic.
How can organisers mitigate financial risks in a Covid world? It will be impossible to mitigate financial risk if the risks themselves are not defined and analysed in the first place. Particularly during the pandemic, conference owners have overlooked some of the risks that have been introduced or heightened because of being distracted by the overall contraction of the in-person conference market. The conference industry has changed, but it hasn’t disappeared, and conference organisers need to start analysing their financial risks and opportunities from a new lens.
Pre-pandemic, the majority of financial risk came from the significant outlays required ahead of an event, including venue hire, catering, staffing, equipment hire, and travel costs for international guests.
In 2020, the shift to online events has seemingly removed many of these costs, but only at first glance. Many conferences are still being run from remote studios, requiring hire of makeshift studios, employment of contract staff, one-off equipment hire, and travel costs for special guests to a set location. While simply shifting the outlays from one area to another, the added health risks of still requiring groups of people to be in one room mean the chances of last-minute cancellations and changes are high – a conference organiser’s worst nightmare.
What do organisers need to do in a hybrid world? The challenge with the aforementioned type of event which requires in-person development, online deployment and a virtual audience, is that many are misunderstanding this to be a ‘hybrid event’. But a truly hybrid event allows audiences to be physically present for parts of the event as well, which means these new types of conferences are not only high risk, but they also don’t deliver the benefits that hybrid events initially set out to deliver for attendees.
The future is virtual. Professionals are confirming this every day by attending more and more online events, applying for online training sessions, and choosing to work from home as much as they possibly can. To survive long-term, until truly hybrid events can be delivered – which will be impossible until domestic and international borders are re-opened, and social distancing is no longer required at scale – conference owners need to go all in on virtual events to meet audiences where they want them to be.
Virtual conferences are not only the most obvious response to market demands, but are also the option with least financial risk. With the latest technology, sound and audio quality of an in-person recording can be captured remotely, schedules can be flexibly controlled and changed minute-by-minute, and content can be designed and deployed to be accessible before, during and after the event to maximise engagement. As well as completely removing the costs of having to set up a physical studio, the health risks are self-managed while everyone works remotely, and the financial risks associated with potential ticket refunds due to last-minute cancellations are eliminated.
How can organisers monetise virtual events? While the conferencing industry is evidently shrinking if defined by its traditional forms, the new conferencing industry can take on an expanded definition if conference organisers embrace the latest technology. With a technology-first approach to conference design and deployment, content – rather than ticket sales – can form revenue stability and introduce new revenue streams.
Traditionally, conferences have relied on the timeliness of an event to sell tickets – i.e. on a set date at an exact time, you can pay a set amount to experience a set volume of content. This is the ticket-led revenue stream.
But with virtual events, the revenue streams can multiply. Content can be bundled, edited, and customised based on an audience member’s individual interests and the cost they pay can also be proportionate to the level of customisation and volume of content. It can also be made available at different times, become shareable with certain parties, and be engaged with ongoing – again, each of these variables introduce new business model opportunities and chances to up-sell or productise a piece of content.
Once conference organisers start to view events in these new ways and stop grouping all online events as video recordings of in-person performances, the conference and events industry can emerge from this slump and regain financial sustainability.