Monetising events in a virtual world

Because most conferences will likely remain virtual or hybrid for the foreseeable future, the usual method of monetising them has gone into a tailspin. No longer can associations count on revenue from attendance and sponsorship at physical gatherings. Can the events industry withstand the quaking that continues to shake its foundations, and if so, how?

Such existential questions were examined during the ‘Monetization’ panel discussion that took place on 3 November at the European Convention Center Luxembourg as part of the 59th ICCA Congress 2020, for which Luxembourg served as regional co-host. Moderating the talk was Eric Abramson, Director of Major Accounts at GL Events Venues.

In a show of tough love, the panelists delivered a harsh assessment of the industry that has been sluggish to adapt to the digitalisation that made its entrance years ago, the result of which is that many are now scurrying for solutions, and not always the best ones. 

Rethinking content

One concept that is ripe for reimagining is content, the meat and potatoes of conferences. In the midst of Covid, the panelists say, many associations undervalue the content they provide, in some cases giving it away for free online. In doing this, they are shorting themselves, distorting the market, and missing out on the lucrative opportunity to ‘unbundle’ and sell content, as panelist Robin Lokerman, Group President at MCI, says.

This à la carte model better suits the digital landscape, he says, and is what panelist Peter Pöhle, CEO and Co-founder of SponsorMyEvent, says will be a hallmark of those organisations that succeed in the post-virus world: bespoke service. Mr Pöhle and his company try to teach organisers to create added value for sponsors, which in turn generates added value for participants. Part of this will be to go beyond the dimensions of the event itself. The sponsorship period should span the period long before and after an event. These opportunities could include webinars, workshops, and access to VIP sessions.

Affirming that organisations are seeking new ways to package content was Gwladys Guillory, Events & Conference Coordinator Alzheimer Europe, who virtually joined the discussion. She says her association is trying to derive more value from videos of presentations, for example, which they put online. Content such as this holds value long after an event is over, she says.

Data, precious yet overlooked

Another valuable asset that’s being overlooked even as the whole industry pivots to digital is data, such as information about association members’ interests, habits, and network that is precious to savvy sponsors and marketing directors in search of leads. Data can be obtained by following delegates to see which sessions they attend, which materials they download, and which participants they interact with in virtual networking. While once upon a time organisers might have blamed the industry-wide fixation on physical events for the lack of data, they can no longer use this excuse, particularly because virtual spaces are ideal for gathering it.

Thorben Grosser, Europe General Manager, EventMobi, participated virtually in the discussion. He agrees that organisers need to work more on collecting data during virtual events, but the trick, he says, is to make sense of the data. Doing this is not evident to most organisers or even the sponsors themselves, he says, nor is it even clear whose job in an organisation it should be. Analysis is expensive and time-consuming, and for this reason the vast majority of data that’s collected by organisations is never examined or used, he says.

Pricing in the era of virtual conferences

As for the important question of pricing, Mr Lokerman says that most associations request between 25 to 50 percent of what they charge for attendance at a physical conference, wth 40 percent being ‘the sweet spot’ which allows for decent margins and maximum attendance. Mr Pöhle suggests that to fix a price, organisers need to calculate the sponsors’ expected return on investment and return on objective, which could be boosting reputation, generating leads, or getting social media followers. All of this requires organisers to have better communication with sponsors. Ms Guillory says a good way to start is to meet with boards of directors, etc., and discuss goals and budgets, while Mr Lokerman suggests working closely with consultants and communications companies to create an action plan for transformation.

Innovate or...

Indicators suggest that 2021 will be the year of reckoning for the events industry. Those who adapt to the current situation will survive and maybe even thrive, while those who fail to adapt will face a dismal future. Casualties in the industry will occur, Mr Grosser says, pointing to the airlines as an analogue. They believe it will take three to five years for their industry to recover, a prediction which likely parallels that of the events industry. Even when – or if  – organisations master virtual conferences, congresses, and meetings, they must act quickly and keep moving forward. ‘Fail often, and fail fast’, urges Mr Grosser. ‘This is how we learn’.

Key points

  • Associations need to continue valuing their content, and they must find creative ways to monetise it, such as by unbundling it and distributing it over more channels to members as well as paying non-members.
  • Virtual events are ideal for collecting data that can be offered to sponsors, which can generate more leads and help them to achieve other objectives.
  • The need to experiment with virtual interactions and find new ways to monetise represents something of an existential crisis for the events industry, and only those organisers who react now will thrive