Breaking into a digital stride

Informa Markets' event director, tech, media & entertainment events, Ivan Ferrari shares how it was like to transform ConnecTechAsia2020 into the online platform it is today, and how several new exhibitors were snagged along the way

What was the experience like, moving from offline to online, and on such a large-scale?
The initial stages of converting ConnecTechAsia2020 to a pure-play virtual event was not easy as it took some time for the industry to accept the fact that physical interactions were not possible this year.

The MICE community – including exhibitors, sponsors, delegates, speakers and attendees alike – were initially hesitant because many were hopeful that the situation might improve in a few months’ time. They were also not familiar with virtual tradeshows and digital events, and it took time to convince them otherwise.

However, once everyone realised that the situation was here to stay, at least for the near future, and began embracing the shift to doing business exclusively online, we were then able to start making some headway in bringing everyone on board.

On picking a platform to build the ConnecTechAsia virtual edition, we want to deliver best in class, state-of-the-art, technology-driven content and value-added insights that our community would not get at a physical event. There is a vast range of platforms to choose from, and we had to be very picky, to make sure we can deliver an enhanced experience for our community. Once confirmed, we had to make sure we communicated its benefits and value-add to our audience clearly, on what the platform can do and how it works.

The show has over 200 exhibitors, how did you manage to land new ones in such times?
When we first started reaching out, our exhibitors, like others in the MICE community, were not sure of the possibilities and merits of a virtual trade show. However once they came around to doing business online, and realised that the platform we are using for ConnecTechAsia is one of the best out there, it helped boost their confidence. They became more receptive and made it possible for us to land new exhibitors and participants.

What are some of the ways that you are deploying to keep attendees engaged, as it is known our online attention spans are shorter?
Before the event, we must educate our community on the virtual platform, how it works, and how they can achieve a value-added event experience in their various capacities as speakers, exhibitors, delegates and visitors.

We have also made it a top priority to provide very tailored and relevant content at our conferences and seminars for our attendees. At the exhibition halls, we run a number of activites, and calendarise live exhibitor presentation across the event days. We have worked very closely with our exhibitors to make sure they have engaging content and activities which we then promote to our visitors before the event opening.

Through close collaboration, open communication and consistent walk-throughs, the community can anticipate, get creative and plan ahead to get the most out of the event with the limited time they have.

One important component of this year’s ConnecTechAsia is the availability of data for our community. For instance, if an attendee stops by a booth for just one second, sponsors can access and capture this data on the backend system at any point in time, and do the necessary follow-ups during or after the event. This will solve the challenge of shorter online attention span, and can also allow for a full networking experience that many believe can only be done at physical events.

How do you ensure ROI?
Any event, be it physical or virtual, needs a minimum critical mass of exhibitors and high-quality conference tracks to ensure a good turn out. Like the physical event, virtual event organisers, on top of picking the right technology to ensure an enhanced online experience, also need to focus on delivering this to achieve good ROI and value for all stakeholders.

Some may think going virtual is cheaper. To some extent, this may be true; some platforms are more affordable than others. Once that is done, the other costs are the same, if not higher.

The focus should be on promoting the event so the community can get a high ROI on their participation. And to do this, you need to at least maintain if not increase – the marketing and public relations, operating and staff budget. Overall, there is no silver bullet, and you need to invest the time, effort and dollars to build the strongest possible event.

There is agreement hybrid events are necessary, but for example, will ConnecTechAsia2020 return to being a physical event once possible?
Before the pandemic, my three-year plan included a virtual component for 2021, but we had to fast-track and go fully virtual in 2020 due to the circumstances. However, once the situation improves, the virtual component will be supportive of the overall value proposition of ConnecTechAsia rather than a decisive. It will be helpful to attendees who are unable to travel and enable exhibitors to reach a much wider audience.

But ultimately, it will not replace the physical event, as the community still prefers a platform where they can meet, shake hands, exchange name cards and drive long-lasting relationships.

What is your take on face-to-face meetings?
When people say going fully virtual is the ‘new normal’, I tend to disagree – I think it’s abnormal.

As human beings, we definitely prefer face-to-face interaction. It’s a significant social factor in our way of life and is not going to change because of the pandemic. While virtual tradeshows are important in 2020, the physical component will return eventually, because that is just how humans work.

Any words of advice for the industry?
Depending on the size of the event or where the company is in the industry, try to invest in the future. Some companies may be in survival mode, and would cut costs to try and weather the storm. For those who can invest, they should do so now because those who do are the ones who will emerge stronger on the other side of this. Get excited about the opportunity in this new environment, and embrace the possibilities of going virtual as much as possible.

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