Why pivoting to virtual events now instead of postponing your in-person events is the smartest move you could make
We recently sat down with Ray Bugg, organiser of the largest IT & Digital enterprise-level events in Scotland. His events, ranging from AI to Big Data to FinTech, attract hundreds of delegates each.
He’s made a pivot to virtual events and he's provided some insight into why hosting virtual events now instead of pushing in-person events back to Q3 or Q4 could see significant returns for organisers.
Hi Ray. Tell our audience a bit about the types of events you usually put on.
We’ve been operating as a B2B technology events business since 2013, staging our first event for the oil & gas sector in 2014.
The events that we produce are designed for people who consume technology at enterprise level: CIOs, CTOs, IT directors, heads of architecture - anyone with a senior operational role in IT.
We started off with a few events a year for the first couple of years, with a small team of 2 , and we’re now a team of 10 doing 9 events a year.
Everything we do, we own - the entire concept is our intellectual property.
So you don’t organise any of these events on behalf of someone else?
Yes, you’re right. We work for no one other than our delegates.
That’s a great way of phrasing it.
The reason I say this is because of “the butterfly effect” - if you’ve got happy delegates, you’ve got happy sponsors. Seeing as we’re entirely sponsor-funded, happy delegates means everyone else is happy.
Many of your counterparts are postponing their in-person events. Why’d you decide to pivot to virtual instead of following them?
There were a number of reasons for us pivoting to virtual straight away.
My immediate thought was that people are going to be at home for a long stretch of time, not able to go anywhere.
I don’t think the industry will recover from this pandemic & its repercussions for a long time after it’s been dealt with. We probably won’t see a reasonably attended event until well into 2021.
What we’re facing is the largest captive audience in history - this is the perfect moment to give them the product they love & miss so much: events.
Another reason is that all other organisers are postponing or cancelling. I think that organisers that are postponing until Q3 - even Q4 - are being too optimistic about the effects of this pandemic.
They’re creating a crowded marketplace in a short space of time. Their attendee numbers will be down because there’ll be too much competition.
So for us, having a loyal audience, it was the best decision to make the pivot to virtual events now.
I guess that fits in with your philosophy of making your delegates’ happiness your top priority, right? Just because you can’t put on a physical event, doesn’t mean that they should lose out.
Exactly! We put ourselves in the shoes of our delegates.
Many of them are isolated right now, with none of the usual interaction that they’re used to. Our virtual event gives them the opportunity to engage in a hybrid environment with interesting speakers, have one-on-one conversations with exhibitors, and network with their peers.
It brings them this sense of normalcy now, instead of waiting until they’re all told they can leave the house (with no guarantee that they’ll attend our event instead of, say, one of the dozens or even hundreds of events which will no doubt be clamouring for their attendance).
Are you planning to replicate the format of your usual events or are you completely re-envisioning the structure?
There’s very little difference. We’ve shortened the agenda slightly - I don’t think an 08:30 till 17:00 agenda will work. It’s a long time to be stuck in one place. So we’ve taken it from 09:30 till 14:30.
We’ve kept the side-by-side breakouts, where the audience is allowed to break off to smaller discussions that are focused around the key topics that they’re interested in.
All we’ve really done different is compacting the agenda to make sure delegates stay engaged.
What about gamification? Are you incorporating this into your virtual event at all?
Yes we are. There’ll be treasure hunts, where delegates will have to look around every room on the virtual platform & find things that have been hidden away & get points for that.
They’ll also be incentivized with a leaderboard, where they’re awarded points for activity. This means that the more exhibition stands you visit, the more points you get, and the winner gets a prize at the end of the day.
We’ve gamified this just to break up the monotony of virtual events - no one wants to be bored.
What do you think you’ll be losing out on with virtual events that in-person events give you?
I think, at least initially, it’s a struggle to get the same amount of revenue from a virtual event as you do with in-person events - despite the fact that the capital expenditure is exactly the same.
It costs the same to hire a virtual event platform & license it for a day as it does to hire a physical venue & feed 300 people.
I think that’s a cultural issue. Businesses are struggling through this transition to a more virtual space, but once we’ve gotten over this culture shock, I think we’ll see a return to “normality”.
At the same time, we’ve had a lot of inbound enquiries from would-be sponsors about our event on the 29th April. Because - like I said - no one else is doing anything at this moment, and these businesses are thinking, “Hold on - lead gen? How do I do lead gen at this time?”
What are you gaining by pivoting to virtual events?
The biggest gain is definitely that we’re no longer geographically defined.
We have this massive captive audience that is very much craving a past time, a part of their day-to-day working life, which has ceased to exist. We’re offering them that with virtual events.
Have you encountered any challenges yet in your pivot to virtual?
They’ve been more cultural than operational. A number of our clients have pulled back because we’ve gone virtual, and that’s just because they can’t get their heads around this having the same potential benefit as an in-person event.
The data & the legacy of virtual events has already shown that this could be a greater opportunity because there are so many more touchpoints you could have with delegates in a virtual environment.
That’s been the biggest challenge so far: winning the hearts & minds of those advertisers, exhibitors and sponsors.
So I tell them: if you want to have an event, that’s the only way you can do it. You have to go virtual.
Do you think your audience will migrate to your virtual events or will you be seeking out a completely new audience?
I think our audience will migrate. I think there’s a loyalty aspect here - we’ve done this for so long, and delivered events so well, adopting the mantra of under-promising and over-delivering.
There’s also an aspect of curiosity. People will go, “I’ve never been to a virtual event before. There’s nowhere else to go, so I’ll go to this.”
So they’ll arrive curious & see that there’s a whole level of engagement going on here - they’re not just sitting there being talked to.
The platform we’re using allows our product offering to be much more than a webinar - it’s very interactive.
Speaking of virtual event platforms - which one have you chosen? What attracted you to this platform?
We’ve chosen VFairs so we could replicate the conference agenda as well as the exhibition floor. There weren’t a lot of platforms that offered this functionality of participation.
We did consider a platform called WorkCast, which was a bit more expensive than VFairs, but didn’t have the same functionality. It also wasn’t as visually pleasing.
Thanks so much for your time, Ray. All the best for your virtual future!
There you have it folks, straight from the mouth of a very knowledgeable horse. Events right now are virtual, and if you want to organise an event, you have no choice other than to go virtual.
We work closely with organisers like Ray to make sure that their virtual events are packed with qualified, engaged & loyal attendees. We know how confusing & disconcerting the current climate is, so it’s in your best interest to check out our freely available guide to Marketing Optimization for Virtual Events (MOVE).