Un-convention-al solutions: Amid COVID pandemic, conferences pivot to virtual gatherings — but event planners worry as revenue losses start to pile up

Vendors with cutting-edge products, thought leaders with novel ideas and anything else you’d hope to see at a trade conference … are also what those running the trade conferences are trying to find themselves.

As lockdowns ease but social distancing still rules the day, professional events have had to turn to new ideas and new products to remain relevant.

Primarily, conference planners are pivoting to streaming technology platforms that will let them host events on the web. Event management and ticketing company Eventbrite reported that the increase of business and professional online events in April saw this category sailing 1,100% above what existed in April of last year.

But the cancellation of events due to the COVID-19 pandemic starting in March led to companies losing revenue and professionals losing jobs — both on a scale no one in the conference planning industry thought possible.

Virtual events may not be a panacea for that.

Steve Wildemann, president of Advanced Staging Productions.

Steve Wildemann, president of Advanced Staging Productions, which handles video, lighting and other aspects of events across the country, including in New Jersey, said a lot has been lost.

“Through industry associations and speaking to people locally, we’re all in this together — we’re dead in the water from a revenue standpoint,” he said.

Advanced Staging Productions has just started to get inquiries about virtual conferences — trade associations asking how they can transform a three-day professional event into a virtual experience. It’s also organizing some college graduation ceremonies virtually.

So, there’s an alternative to live events. The problem is this: These events only represent a fraction of the revenue available to event companies with live settings — maybe as low as 10% of the usual revenue, Wildemann said.

With unknowns preventing any planning for events outside this option, there’s a question of how long some of the businesses involved in conventions can hold on.

“Those of us lucky to have a good start to the year are in a less dire situation than others,” Wildemann said. “Some are going to be panicking in July and August. Our adage is that our business is probably not panicking until November or December.”

Jamie Huckleberry is president of the Princeton Junction-based Event Service Professionals Association, which represents professionals working in roles at visitor bureaus, convention and conference centers, hotels and resorts. She said a lot of the organization’s members are anxious. And the virtual conferences aren’t necessarily a massive relief.

Jamie Huckleberry of the Event Service Professionals Association.

“If you can’t host conventions, you really have no need for our side,” Huckleberry said. “Many members and even non-members in the industry are being furloughed or laid off. Most venues are forced into working with bare bones numbers of employees.”

The path forward for these professionals is unclear, Huckleberry said. There’s a lot of strategizing about what a safe return to in-person events might involve, and Huckleberry suspects that will incorporate aspects of the current trend of hosting conferences online.

“A lot of people are looking at a hybrid model for these events, which is somewhat virtual and also some in-person,” she said. “When doors do open again, you’re going to have a local contingent that feels safe traveling and then, for farther-out people that doesn’t feel safe flying or staying in hotels, you can keep registration intact by having them participate virtually.”

Huckleberry has been impressed by the industry’s out-of-the-box thinking about how to proceed, given that conferences need to adapt to the reality of a highly transmissible disease.

She’s also seeing more collaboration than ever. Cities that once competed for convention center travelers are now in close communication and sharing ideas about how to make future events safer.

“There’s a lot involved in pulling off a convention and we all have to be talking together to figure out what’s the best way to pivot … and make events work under new guidelines in a way that’s still revenue-driven for the cities and others involved,” Huckleberry said.

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