Corporate events are broken – but don’t blame the pandemic

Shahid Nizami, Hubspot's managing director, Asia Pacific, opines that large-scale events were already ineffective even before the pandemic. Instead, he talks about what can be done now for virtual events, to ensure how both participants and organisers will be able to benefit


Singapore is now making its way towards Phase 3 of reopening, with changes to regulations on the size of permitted group gatherings expected. Add to that measures to allow safe and gradual resumption of economic activities, it could seem like the Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing and Exhibitions (MICE) industry is about to turn the corner back to ‘normal’.

Going digital also brings with it a whole new set of challenges in keeping the audience engaged and interested

The real question is whether ‘back to normal’ is what the industry needs.

The truth is, corporate events have been in desperate need of a shake-up for years. The pandemic shone a spotlight on this, but it isn’t the reason why the current model is broken in the first place.

The problem with MICE events
For many, the essence of the MICE experience can be summed up this way: high-cost, low-value and impersonal convention centres.

This comes as no surprise given most businesses have viewed MICE events exclusively as a place to close deals, with bright lights and big-name speakers there to create deals for companies, not delight customers. If an attendee has a great experience, it’s a bonus, not a priority.

At a time when customers are craving a stronger sense of connection with the businesses they support, events can be a company’s greatest tool in fostering a feeling of community. But B2B businesses missed this opportunity for years prior to the pandemic, and they’re destined to continue missing it after.

As organisations around the world are forced to confront their events strategy — or lack thereof — many are planning to merely replicate the offline experience in a one-size-fits-all virtual mould. And it’s an approach that simply won’t work.

The future of events
Now, without the option of relying on the attention-grabbing installations and impressive sound systems to command participants’ attention, how can businesses re-engage their audience virtually?

Different strokes for different folks
Event participants often come from diverse backgrounds and countries, especially for regional conferences. Traditional in-person events lack the flexibility to cater to the needs of these unique audience groups – from language or time zone differences, to their preferred content format.

Going digital eliminates the constraints of time, space and language, and enables concurrent delivery of wide-ranging, interactive content formats like fireside chats, live panel sessions, debates and masterclasses – many of which would be almost possible at an in-person gathering due to the logistics challenges of cramming all those activities into a two-day event.

For example, INBOUND 2020 hosted more than 70,000 guests, with over 40 per cent of attendees located outside the US. To enhance and ensure the experience for attendees was inclusive, talks had English subtitles, while a range of sessions provided French and German subtitles for non-English-speaking guests.

Skip, pause, rewind
Around 80 per cent of participants join virtual events for educational purposes – but how can they take away from the learning experience with clashing session schedules or session fatigue?

INBOUND 2020 offered the option of subscribing to the Powerhouse Pass, where participants can view session content through 2021. On-demand content allows attendees to revisit sessions, explore new activities or take a break, without the pressure of conforming to a rigid agenda. Participants now have the option to pick and choose from formats that they find the most engaging, and enjoy them at a pace that best suits their learning style.

With 20 per cent of total attendees actually viewing virtual events on-demand, organisers need to get onboard with providing content that participants can access wherever, whenever.

Shifting from participation to engagement
Audience engagement is one the biggest contributing factors to having a successful event, but also the largest challenge faced by organisations when it comes to hosting virtual events.

To address that, INBOUND 2020 leveraged a custom-built virtual platform, supported by meetup tools to enable both individual or group discussions among key speakers and participants. Where sessions were pre-recorded, speakers often joined the live chats to interact with the audience and address questions.

Facilitating more than 275 breakout sessions over the event, INBOUND 2020 provided an interactive experience for attendees to exchange perspectives and connect with key thought leaders. Participants were able to take the opportunity to form lasting, meaningful connections with their industry peers, and get the most out of their event pass.

Covid-19: A catalyst for change
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for drastic change in the MICE industry. While virtual events might not completely replace in-person ones, 92 per cent of marketers are planning to incorporate virtual events into their strategy going forward.

A new era of events is about to begin, and the gatherings that are able to create a deep sense of belonging for attendees are the ones that will rise to the top in the digital-first world.

Shahid Nizami is the managing director, Asia Pacific, at HubSpot. Based in the company’s APAC headquarters in Singapore, Nizami is responsible for HubSpot’s performance across South-east Asia, Australia, New Zealand and India.

Before joining HubSpot, Nizami led the account management business for Google Cloud in APAC where he managed a team spread across six different locations. Before Google, he held several leadership positions at Oracle.

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