How the Trillion Dollar Global Business Events Industry Is Adjusting to a Rapid Shift Online

Published on June 11, 2020

Business events, experiential marketing, and conferences have been building momentum over the past few years, generating millions of dollars for cities, brands and organizers. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, organizers are now moving events online and experimenting with audience engagement.

Oxford Economics estimated that business conferences generated more than a trillion dollars in direct spending, representing planning, production, events-related travel, exhibitor and other costs. In 2017, more than 1.5 billion people participated in conferences across 180 countries.

In-person meetings and conferences are integral parts the marketing and sales strategy of many companies. Beyond educational seminars, many businesses leverage gatherings to host exclusive events with their network. After accounting for indirect impact, business events supported a total global economic impact of $2.5 trillion of output (business sales) and 25 million jobs worldwide, also reported by Oxford Economics.

When shelter-in-place restrictions were mandated with no available vaccine or reliable gauge of when people will feel comfortable going outside again, new virtual networking startups launched, shareholder meetings have gone fully virtual, you can now go on virtual wine tastings and attend Zoom concerts.

World of business events turned upside down.

According to data pulled by PredictHQ for Recode, SXSW and Mobile World Congress could see losses of $830 million as a result of cancellations. Events like Consensus and Collision moved their multi-day conferences to fully virtual. Retail and FinTech conferences Shoptalk and LendIt rescheduled their in-person conferences to September. In the meantime, both organizers have launched virtual series as a way to test out content, audience engagement and speaker likability in a virtual setting.

WSJ’s Future of Everything Festival pivoted from a three-day event to a multi-week exploration of what comes next in short 45-minute interviews. Fittingly, the first session was on “The future of interaction,” by Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general under President Obama.

What organizers quickly realized with virtual events was that attendees associated virtual events with webinars, virtual attention span was much less than the equivalent at an in-person event. Individuals were more likely to attend sessions under an hour as opposed to longer options.

Behind the scenes, large scale conferences require upwards of 11 months of planning. Call-for-content starts seven months prior to an event and agendas are finalized a minimum of two months before opening day. The shortened virtual sessions have come to life in under a month, from topic selection, speaker curation, marketing and promotion. An amazingly fast turnaround compared to a typical 11 months production timeframe.

Event pricing has also seen a drastic change since the formats have gone virtual. Consensus, SXSW, Shoptalk and WSJ Future of Everything are all providing access to their virtual content free of charge, a significant difference compared to WSJ’s 2019 event price of $1,795 per ticket.

With the new pricing model and ease of access, organizers have seen increased attendance numbers. Collision had over 10,000 attendees for their virtual event this year. JPMorgan’s technology conference had over 5,000 attendees and Citigroup’s virtual global energy and utility conference had 550 people, both double from 2019 numbers. Registration surged above 30% for UBS’s Healthcare Conference in May.

If you look back at conference culture pre-Covid-19, attendees had to pick and choose which events to attend, assuming one had resources to afford four-digit conference tickets. With the push to shorter, virtual events, attendees can participate in several events in just one afternoon, while owners of small businesses and startup founders can afford to learn from industry giants and experts. While the pandemic has changed how we conduct business, it has also forced this trillion-dollar industry to pivot – opening doors (or screens) to a wider audience and exciting new possibilities.

Liang Zhao is a former Contributor to Grit Daily. Based in Brooklyn, New York, Liang is the Founder and CEO of Vansary, a marketing consultancy helping individuals and businesses adapt to an ever-changing digital marketplace. She studied Marketing and Finance at Tulane University. Previously a sales director and publicist, she is passionate about empowering underrepresented individuals to take positions that start with “chief” in the title.

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