The future of in-person events

Events are back and they're different

I’m wrapping up a week in Paris, so this is an abbreviated edition, in keeping with the pivot to brevity. Traveling again was unexpectedly rather normal, outside the Covid tests. This is a great time to be here, since there are far fewer tourists than normal and most everything is finally open again. Since I came here for the VivaTech conference, I thought I’d use the opportunity to discuss the future of in-person events.

A glimpse at the future of in-person events

I wouldn’t expect to be excited to go to a trade show. The events business has a few types, and trade shows -- sprawling, lots of booths, people wearing polo shirts with corporate logos -- are not my favorite. But they’re a critical part of the events sector of media, and events are a form of media.  But it’s been a weird 15 months, so putting on a lanyard was a bit of a thrill.

VivaTech, organized by former Publicis CEO Maurice Levy, brings together tech startups, big corporations and marketers with a distinctly European bent. This is a place where the Belgian region of Wallonia has a big booth extolling its digital credentials, not to mention a gigantic presence for La Poste, the French postal service. Holding this year’s event in person was a bold move. Traditionally, VivaTech was a stopover for many executives on their way to the Cannes Lions, which is happening virtually again this week for the second year in a row. But VivaTech charged ahead, giving a view into what’s to come in the autumn, when the events business will have its own V-shaped recovery. Expect an event nearly every day after Labor Day. Some takeaways:

The vaccination question. Obviously, health and safety will remain the top priority, particularly as in-person events restart. The big question for organizers is whether to require vaccination. For VivaTech required one of three pieces of evidence for entry: 1. Vaccination; 2. A negative PCR test; 3. Proof of antibodies from having Covid in the past six months. For whatever reason, my vaccination card wasn’t enough. (This is still France. The bureaucratic measures are random.) That kicked me to the testing center VivaTech put up in order to take a rapid test.

Hard costs are going up. Putting up a testing center is a new expense. It’s not the only new expense organizers will need to shoulder, as more staff is needed to enforce protocols like mask wearing. On top of that, events are going to start at less than normal capacity. VivaTech was far smaller than in years past.

A/V is critical. For many events, the audio visual side is an extra. But events now are more like TV productions. VivaTech broadcast sessions to a virtual audience far larger than those in the audience. In fact, doing sessions felt more like having a sparse studio audience than a live audience. That requires a lot more sophisticated A/V setup (and more added costs) in order to pull off. Some speakers were on-site and others were on Zoom. This is all new. I can’t say it wasn’t awkward at times, as moderators had to juggle some people being next to them and others being on a screen. We all know the limitations of Zoom, especially with people having wonky connections and oddball backgrounds. This will end up taking time to iron out, but most events, like offices, will end up as some form of hybrid between on site and virtual. Done right, this should expand the reach of events and add more revenue to offset the added costs.

New forms of networking. The majority of value at most events is not in what happens on stage but in the networking opportunities thanks to bringing many people together. This is a challenge as events need to shrink. Event organizers will need to focus on having the right people on site and facility matchmaking. VivaTech used an app. In-person events will need to rely more on technology than they ever have. This is one area of media that hasn’t progressed as much in using digital tools. Event apps have generally been disasters. The other hybrid aspect I believe we’ll see more of is mixing indoors and outdoors. While the sessions at VivaTech were in the sprawling Porte de Versailles expo hall, the event had ample outdoor space, stationing food trucks outside with picnic tables to encourage eating and talking to mostly happen outdoors. Expect more events in Florida and not New York.

Other things to check out

Reset Work has launched as Charter, with former Quartz founders Kevin Delaney and Jay Lauf teaming up with Erin Gau. This is an area ripe for new media brands. What I like about Charter is how the model is building with a diversified model that mixes ads, subscriptions and services -- and a clearly articulate point of view. Too many media companies have a gauzy point of view or none.

If you’re wondering why this fall will have nonstop in-person events, consider The Economist, which somehow put on 171 virtual events, attracted 70,000 attendees and 366 sponsors and still saw far lower events revenue.

The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2021 surprisingly found that trust in news has gotten higher during the pandemic. The wrinkle: Not that many people are still willing to pay for it.