Having spoken at nearly 50 global conference over the past five years, we understand firsthand the void created by the lack of in-person events. Since March 2020, revenue impact on the average live event business has exceeded 75%. Trade shows report an average income loss exceeding 95%, and fewer than 60% of all live event companies expect a full recovery in 2021. Nearly 40% believe it will take until 2022 to recover, with most businesses expecting to survive also expecting their revenue mix to look quite different going forward.
The cannabis conference space has grown substantially over the past five years and had perhaps reached a saturation point in 2019. A majority of the once-thriving conference companies have revised their business plans to pivot into new business lines or embrace virtual conference and digital streaming spaces. We expect 2021 to be a recovery year and the conference of the future to be a hybrid digital and in-person event that enjoys greater revenues and profits than it has in the past.
Ticket prices for virtual cannabis conferences average $50, with digital sponsorships averaging ~15% of live-event sponsorships. While these numbers aren’t sufficient to support many trade show businesses, the models of 2020 prove that digital attendees are worthwhile attendees. Integrating multi-channel options expands the reach and provides attendees, sponsors, exhibitors, and speakers a more efficient and robust way to interact. Event producers who grasp the silver lining of an unexpected global industry overhaul and innovate will offer immense benefits to their stakeholders and once again thrive as businesses.
Advantages of a virtual event:
Attendees can watch and engage with others across the world, speakers can provide valuable information to an international audience, organizers can track all activity and optimize future offerings with immense behavioral data, and sponsors can gain transparency on the effectiveness of their marketing efforts. The elimination of travel and hosting costs makes the entire experience far cheaper for all involved, and the trade show cost of an additional attendee is nearly zero.
Advantages of an in-person event:
Physical interaction has a meaningful impact on relationship building. Attendees can interact directly with equipment and finished goods. At-home disturbances are minimized.Networking sessions are far more impactful than their virtual counterparts. Cannabis after-parties have been fun and meaningful over the years and not an experience remotely replicated in the digital realm.
The opportunity for the future conference lies in balancing both sets of advantages in a hybrid environment. While virtual environments offer cost savings, decreased environmental impact, and ease of participation, the digital realm is simply no match for an in-person experience and physical product interaction. The next-generation conference is not virtual or in-person; it is both.
Education: Universities and colleges have shown us that we are no longer forced to collect our learning experiences in a physical room. The same is true of conferences. Ensuring digital participant access to information and presentations is essential. Future events must allow participants to ‘access the past’ to ‘influence the future.’ Imagine a ‘living’ platform of product reviews accessible by consumers or a dynamic library of expert presentations ranked by usefulness.
Sponsorship: Marketers have understood the importance of multi-channel branding for some time now, and sponsors of the future conference are well served to look at the show days as simply a marker on a timeline. In a hybrid world, promotion can begin months in advance and last for months after – with the conference serving as the physical experience and meeting place for high-value prospects. The successful future conference will offer more tech-savvy and high media-impact opportunities for sponsors while also excelling at the requisite on-site ‘wow’ factors.
Brand-building: Building a brand isn’t about the 100-foot entrance banner or the advertisement on the back cover of the show guide, nor is it about a catchy social media campaign leading up to an event. Marketers have been developing practical social algorithms for decades, yet these are seldom used for attendee benefit. Imagine receiving predictive analytics on pre-determined meetings based on data gleaned from the back end of trade-show software. This type of analysis is reasonably well understood, although not frequently used except by the most efficient of organizations. Smart, nimble, targeted, and adaptable shows will integrate analytics more effectively to become future ‘game changers’ for brands.
Entertainment: The show of the future will combine art, music, entertainment, and product awareness in a multi-sensory manner and stream it worldwide. It will further enhance the remote attendee's experience via avatars and 3D rendering, providing that attendee a real VR experience. Trade shows are well served to focus on being uplifting and memorable rather than staid and draining.
Networking: Sponsors, exhibitors, and the majority of attendees know who they want to talk to and what they want to talk about long before ‘show day.’ Conference pre-connection capabilities are now a must. Digital matchmaking technology uses online profiles and allows us to meet virtually to discuss business or expertise needs in advance of an event. The extension of a trade show beyond the ‘show day’ itself makes the physical show merely a part of the overall event and potentially the culmination rather than the beginning of the sales process.
Trade shows are thus no longer moments in time, nor are they defined by a specific date. They are ongoing experiences. While establishing or expanding ‘content’ is the easiest response and appeals to our logic, our emotional brains attend conferences for the experience and connection. The trade show that learns to integrate technological advances, provide a memorable user experience, and promote efficient personal relationships, will survive an otherwise challenging environment ahead. Shows focusing on targeted groups will gain a premium over those that attempt to be ‘one-size-fits-all.’
Experiential technology used with a marketing analytics backbone overlaid on a spectacular and efficient physical event will allow for the effective conference to be just that once again. This benefits exhibitors, sponsors, attendees, and other stakeholders and allows for increased profitability for the trade show that can adapt and shine.
Thank you to Chris Day, Co-founder of Project Evolve, for your contributions.