From immersive experiences to technological advances, our conferencing superseven tell us how to handle the industry’s coming changes

Words Stuart Derrick Illustrations Pietari Posti

THE AGENCY
Agencies will focus their powers of creativity on a new style of conference that amplifies all of the voices in the room

Kevin Jackson - credit Pietari Posti
Kevin Jackson, director of ideas and innovation at The Experience is the Marketing

We’re not a passive society any more. The days of sitting and listening to the CEO delivering a variation on last year’s speech, while everybody nods and agrees, are over. It’s no longer good enough.

Just as the TV industry is trialling different formats, so live events are adapting to different ways of delivering information – because we don’t consume in the way we used to. In TV now, there’s only about 12 minutes between ad breaks; in our industry, the three- and four-day event is getting shorter. It just doesn’t make sense to have people sitting for hours on end.

NEW CHALLENGES
Organisations are problem-solving entities, but when it comes to conferences everybody tends to agree that everything’s ‘fine’. Instead of being complacent, we need to promote different forums where people can get involved to challenge easy assumptions. Speakers don’t need to arrive with all of the answers, and not everyone has to agree. This means organisers will have to build in more rehearsal time, taking a sleeker approach, with the sort of production values you’d associate with television.
 
Conferences have never been more important. We know an organisation works better when it’s aligned and connected. People want to get involved and collaborate, and events should enable this sort of interaction with a more dynamic approach. 

New forums that allow everyone to engage are essential – because you still can’t beat face to face. By sharing, questioning, networking and looking to new formats, you can harness the positive energy in the room better than ever.

When you add up the cost of an event, including top management’s time and that of the people who attend, it’s a significant sum. Companies invest so much in their conferences that they can’t afford to rest on their laurels. 



THE ASSOCIATION
Event agencies are taking conferences into new territory. We must embrace radical change and deliver the marketing phenomenon of our time

Alistair Turner - credit Pietari Posti
Alistair Turner, president at ILEA UK

In the late 1950s and early 60s the advertising industry came of age, led by Madison Avenue agencies with a new style of thinking and a Don Draper-style swagger. In the 80s and 90s, we saw a PR revolution, while the 90s and Noughties brought a raft of outstanding social-media agencies and businesses. 

Today, it’s the turn of the events industry, thanks to agencies that have spurred new thinking about the industry and the value of events. Like the mavens of other marketing media, they define themselves by understanding, and selling, the true value of what they do. This is the context in which we need to approach the subject of conferences and conferencing – understanding their value and the role #eventprofs play in them.

EXPERIENCE IS KEY
Globally, conferences are used to launch major products such as cars, smartphones and computers. Companies such as Tesla, Amazon and Alibaba have used them to break into new territory, both geographical and commercial. Conferences also build awareness around medical conditions and their solutions. Academics and professionals are brought together to share, learn and solve problems. 

The people who stage these conferences understand their power to deliver messages through experiences – and this is where event agencies come in. They’re armed with an acute understanding of audience and message, but they’re also equipped to create whole worlds for attendees, to tell the stories of businesses and brands, and to bring theatre and drama into the worlds of marketing, sales and information. 

There’s a new breed of attendee in town too: social media-savvy, information-hungry and discerning about the quality of the experiences they receive. There are conferences happening every day that respond to their needs and they’re put on by people like us, #eventprofs, whose ability to curate memorable experiences with lasting benefits is making us the marketing revolution of our time.



THE ORGANISER
No one’s got time to sit through irrelevant content, so conferences are now about appealing to the individual in the crowd

Kate Macey - credit Pietari Posti
Kate Macey, UK head of events & sponsorship at BNP Paribas

There has been a move away from bigger is better towards a more personalised and targeted experience. People are so pressured for time now that they need to feel they are personally getting value out of every single element of a conference. They don’t want to sit through something in which half of the content is irrelevant. The entire day has to work.

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
I organise a whole range of events from sponsorship and hospitality to conferences. There’s a huge range from small, working group-style seminars, to big 1,000-person blockbusters. I’m seeing more smaller, tightly focused events that cater to the needs of specific delegates rather than huge events that try and appeal to everyone. I’m also seeing more elements where disparate working groups get together and actually determine what is being discussed.

Organisations need to ask more questions at the pre-planning stage and think deeply about what they want to say and what delegates want to hear. Looking forward, delegates will expect to shape events they are attending by using an app, for example, to see potential topics for discussion. This process can start really early when you are inviting people.
 
This issue of representing concerns more broadly comes down to presentation as well. We’ve noticed that panels are increasingly popular, rather than just having one voice. Having clients on panels is also a trend.

All of this is valuable in its own right. A two-minute video of a debate, with key learnings, can also make a great piece of content – internally or externally. But you have to keep it short and punchy. 

The personal touch will extend across events. We often bring our own barista. Coffee is important to people, and everybody is very particular about how they have theirs. It doesn’t cost that much, but it really adds to the experience. 

As an event manager, it used to be that we’d warn people to turn off their phones as they entered. Now we want people to interact with them. In Q&As, you get more interesting questions if people think it’s anonymous. Social media is a double-edged sword, but people will share their feelings no matter what you do, so you might as well use it to enhance the event.



THE SUPPLIER
Conferences could deliver so much more valuable business intelligence than they do today. Here’s how technology can help

David Chalmers - credit Pietari Posti
David Chalmers, European marketing director at Cvent

Right now, conferences are a massive missed opportunity for businesses. Luckily, technology can really start to make a difference in the year ahead. Delegates provide the sort of data that is gold dust for a business. They are there in person so the data is much richer: registration details; what sessions they attended; which exhibitors they saw; even what their social commentary was. It’s so hard to capture this in other channels.

Event technology can be used to cover the end-to-end event lifecycle – everything from check-in to badging and engagement with event apps. Although one of its main uses to date has been to make logistical processes more seamless for the organiser, the potential is so much more.

As organisers automate more of their marketing functions – with platforms such as Marketo, and CRM solutions like Salesforce – they will bring all of the intelligence together to inform their contact and marketing database. Conferences need to be considered as an overall part of that marketing landscape. 

KEEP IT PERSONAL
By integrating these systems, you provide your sales people with much more powerful information. They can have meaningful conversations with prospects rather than just calling up and saying, ‘I see you were at our conference…’ It’s better for the delegate because they will receive more relevant follow-up after the event, rather than being pestered about things that don’t interest them.

That goes for individual sessions at a conference too. Event apps let delegates provide real-time reporting on what they think of sessions. For instance, if a session is pitched at the wrong level, they can let you know, and the speaker can alter their presentation.

Event technology will get more sophisticated to make the organiser’s life easier. From managing calls for abstracts from speakers, to automatic certification of delegates who have attended relevant sessions, it’ll be more streamlined. 
And let’s not forget the real purpose of conferences – to meet people. Mobile means it’s never been easier to set up one-to-ones. With some further tech assistance, you need never miss that meeting in the coffee break again.



THE VENUE
A generation of urban-friendly, convenience-hungry delegates points towards a new kind of conference venue

Alastair Stewart - credit Pietari Posti
Alastair Stewart, managing director at Etc Venues

Conferences are being impacted by the macro and generational trends that affect us all. Three things are affecting the way we use venues: technology, blended learning, and urbanisation.

Flexible working and the decline of the traditional office has brought an increase in co-working spaces and homeworking. Technology is critical to the way we now live our lives, and that extends to people’s expectations when they are in venues.

They expect a more fluid approach to the way they attend and plan conferences, and they’re much less likely to spend two days at a structured event. Blended learning practices help them gather some of what they need online, before and after the event itself. The idea of a shorter event is an attractive proposition to a time-poor, convenience-hungry delegate base. 

Organisers, with an obligation to deliver ROI, further fuel the shift.

CITY CLICKERS
Businesses like Uber point the way to the adaptable approach favoured by young, city-dwelling delegates. For example, they might not own a car, so going out of town (far from a train station) is an issue – proximity is key.

Together, these trends point towards more inner-city, versatile and contemporary venues, and away from more conventional choices.

And, indeed, there’s a thirst among event organisers for new spaces in metropolitan areas, which is the main reason we’re opening our County Hall site. People have done the old institutional places and the venues market must react quickly to what they want now.

To that end, I think you can expect to see greater use of affordable virtual reality to help market venues in advance of them opening. Events people like to have a vision of what a room will be like, and this gives them a new way of scouting exciting spaces.



THE INDUSTRY VOICE
Every challenge comes with an opportunity, and Brexit should be seen as a way to galvanise the UK events sector by improving its competitiveness

Nick de Bois - credit Pietari Posti
Nick de Bois, chair at Events Industry Board

Brexit is a subject on everyone’s lips at the moment. Despite the many concerns, the events sector has cause for optimism because everything is up for grabs. We’re in a better position now thanks to the establishment of the Events Industry Board (EIB). This provides a pan-industry platform for presenting our case to a government that appreciates the importance of a sector worth £40bn. 

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
The EIB is finalising recommendations to the government about how the latter can help the industry become more competitive, and bring more internationally prestigious and valuable congresses and conferences to our shores.

Among the areas we have looked at are the cost barriers of holding events in the UK – everything from hotels and venues to transportation and visas. The EIB has also considered the level of political support, both in terms of how attractive subvention packages are, and also softer issues such as the government’s willingness to assist through bid letter support and access to ministers to attend and speak at conferences.

Infrastructure is another key area we have been studying: do we have the venues, hotels and transport in place to deliver the best possible delegate experience?

There’s also a role for local authorities to create an environment where a city, for example, really gets behind events in a way you see in other countries. This can be complicated in the UK, where more power is devolved.
 
But, all told, it’s a hugely optimistic time. The government has republished its tourism strategy and the events industry was an important part of that agenda. We’re pushing at an open door. The challenge is to make sure that these good intentions are translated across government, and that we see some joined-up thinking in making our events sector the best it can be.



THE START UP
Technology will be more important than ever, but it’s how we wield it that’ll make the difference to our conferences

Juraj Holub - credit Pietari Posti
Juraj Holub, marketing & content manager at Sli.do

A question we’re often asked is whether technology will help engagement with older conference audiences, because there’s a perception that it’s mainly millennials who use technology. But it doesn’t hold water. 

Look at who uses smartphones – it’s not all millennials. Apple didn’t sell hundreds of millions of iPhones by developing a product that only appealed to a small segment of the population. It succeeded by developing one that is so intuitive that anyone can use it, whatever their age.

Conference technology is the same. It needs to be intuitive and simple to use. There are lots of ways in which technology can make an event more engaging, such as providing live polls and interactive Q&A sessions. One of our app’s newest features addresses a common delegate request after a presentation, ‘Please can I have a copy of the slides?’ Rather than worry about collecting emails, we’ve introduced functionality that allows people to download the slides themselves.

STAY RELEVANT

You can use technology to make your content more relevant. At the recent Festival of Marketing, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was asked 250 questions in 60 minutes. The audience can even up-vote the questions they want answered. By contrast, SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s recent talk on his project to journey to Mars was sidetracked by a host of bizarre questions, such as where astronauts would go to the toilet. Technology could have filtered out these irrelevant questions. 

Live streaming is growing, with services such as Periscope and Facebook Live. Some organisers worry about whether it will kill their conference, but research shows that those who watch a live stream are more likely to attend a future event.

Eventbrite research found that 78% of millennials would rather spend money on experiences than goods. We’re an experience generation and people want to be part of a story. It’s the same with a conference. There’s a big difference between being in a room with an inspirational speaker and watching online – it’s energising. 




This article was originally published in Squaremeal Venues + Events, Autumn 2016