Fortunately, trade shows and conferences are largely back after the devastating pandemic that forced countless cancellations over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, “back” has been the underlying theme of the recovery. While attempting to return to pre-COVID attendance numbers is respectable, doing so by defaulting to the legacy versions of our events, with little changes to content, layout, marketing, etc., isn’t. The following eight considerations should help you resist the temptation to revert to business as usual.
Attendees’ priorities are shifting. To explain this, Ken Holsinger, senior vice president of strategy at Freeman, points to the latest round of Freeman research that reveals “an increased prioritization among attendees for discovery, connections and inspiration.” He encourages organizers to thread networking opportunities throughout the event experience rather than confining them to networking lounges or receptions.
To delight attendees, you must know what makes them tick. Organizers of professional events are (finally) retiring the “bringing buyers and sellers together” mantra in exchange for mission statements that prioritize providing a delightful experience and building human connection. Greg Topalian, CEO of Clarion Events North America, draws on his background in B2C, stating, “Producers of consumer shows and festivals really know their customers. They don’t boil participants down to a demographic or a one-dimensional category, they look at them holistically and know what’s in their hearts to create experiences that delight them.”
Sustainability is no longer optional. Several recent studies show that consumers, especially Gen Z shoppers, are willing to change their purchasing habits to reduce environmental impacts, and it appears that the push toward sustainability will only increase. What should organizers be doing now? They should be working with caterers to identify locally sourced foods and beverages, more plant-based options and ways to reduce waste; requesting recycled, reusable and sustainable materials from general service contractors; and rethinking swag culture and encouraging exhibitors to do the same. Does anyone really need another water bottle, notepad or plastic tchotchke?
Wellness matters more than ever. Yinka Freeman, owner of Triple Pocket Events, encourages organizers to define ROI as “return on intention” and start the process of strategic event planning by answering the question, “What do I want attendees to feel when they leave my event?” and reverse engineer from there. In doing so, consider how to build health and wellness into the overall experience. Chris Adderton, vice president of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, says one of the most popular features of his last event was an area on the show floor full of puppies for petting and adopting. Not only did attendees find this experience delightful and revitalizing, the puppies also gained the attention of sponsors, igniting a fierce competition to lock down sponsorship for the following year. And all the puppies were adopted by show end!
Experiential expectations increase. Attendees want experiences that are seamless, engaging, intuitive and educational. Organizers must respond with elevated event environments, more wayfinding solutions and an overall attention to reducing friction — lengthy registration forms, lines and other logistical hurdles. Events like San Diego’s Comic-Con are listening to fans and, according to David Glanzer, chief communications and strategy officer, they are “investing in enhancements to event logistics, including line management, to improve upon the user experience.”
In-the-moment feedback is so important to Michelle Metter, owner and festival producer of the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival and SommCon, that she’s created a confessional booth, allowing guests to give unfiltered feedback on their experience, which often includes positive praise that can be used as testimonials for future marketing campaigns.
Technology must be executed with greater intention. As early as 2015, a Microsoft Digital Trends report found that nearly 50% of consumers were more likely to engage with digital experiences that offered seamless integration with their physical world, signaling a shift in how consumers expect the physical and digital worlds to blend. It’s not enough to simply convert physical content into a virtual event or vice versa; organizers must have a deep understanding of their audience to know which content is right for physical or digital, who wants it and when. Rethink your app experience to be more personalized so attendees can create their own agenda, curate their own map, download walking tours and tune in to sessions via headphones. Consider adding technology-driven activations to an event, such as a VR experience, or allow attendees to interact with a digital model. Provide tools to make it easy to share content and take key messages back with them.
Consumers demand brands with purpose. And brands are finally getting it. Leading brands are finding that there can be an intersection of purpose and revenue, laying to rest the misconception that an organization can either be for good or for profit. Event organizers can demonstrate their values by giving voice to their beliefs, especially on social media, and choosing destinations, speakers, charitable initiatives and other event features that align with their values and most importantly, the values of the audiences they serve.
Attendees are socially linked and highly influenced by their peers. Consumers today are making decisions based on a broad set of digital networks — but they’re not doing so in isolation. We’ve become accustomed to looking for validation in our online peers as many consumers trust user reviews as much as personal recommendations. Understanding how consumers have matured with online behavior, and infusing “social proof” throughout our marketing campaigns, is where opportunity lies for new audience growth.
A version of this article originally appeared in PCMA Convene.