2020 broke in brazenly and audaciously with its rights to our quiet and measured everyday life. It seems like the whole world has gone online, making life easier for millions of people including event managers. But not so fast...
In this article, I will tell you how our PVS-Studio team started its year in the field of business events, conferences, what experience we gained and what mistakes we want to protect our readers from. Whether you are a CEO, a hoster of business meetings, a developer, a teamlead, or etc, our experience will be useful to everyone in case you somehow relate to conferences.
Before we get to specific examples, we need to mention several small caveats. First, our company does not host conferences. We either sponsor an event or recommend our colleagues as speakers. For some cases, there might be both our speakers and booth attendants from our team at a conference.
Second, it follows from the above that that as an event manager, I consider online events only from rational perspective for my company, rather than from positive and negative aspects of this format for the event industry.
Third, not all companies will have the same results as we do, so don't take our experience as gospel truth.
Enjoy the reading.
How's it going, 2020...
The fall season of 2019 has passed for our team, the New year was coming. Inspired by the results obtained, we bought 6 conferences at once as a sponsor for the spring and autumn 2020 seasons from one of the well-known IT conference hosters in Russia and our long-time partner JUG.ru. In addition, earlier in 2020 we had bought sponsorship from other hosters, including foreign ones.
So, the New Year off-days passed, and we began to prepare for the spring season with all our might. We bought some hotel rooms for several conferences in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Minsk; we prepared part of the personalized handouts for specific conferences; we bought train tickets... And from March 30, 2020, the entire office and basically the whole country were locked for quarantine. AND WE ARE HAVING A CONFERENCE IN A WEEK...OFFLINE...IN SAINT-PETERSBURG...
This was not quite a life I expected, but I had to adapt. Throughout April, the meeting industry was turning upside down, since it was the height of the season and the quarantine was like a hole in the head. All hosters already had ready platforms, catering, handouts, speakers… In short, the same thing we had, but just multiply by 100,000. By May, at least some details have become clearer. Initially conferences were supposed to be bumped, not held online (people are so naive :D).
So, in May we had to resolve sponsorship issues: whether our team should get involved, how to get ready for unusual format, whether we'll get return on such investments, etc. As usual, there were so many questions, but very few answers. During April and May we have focused on two things: refunding as much of the money spent on bookings as possible and reaching compromise within the team about online participation. The general feeling within that period can be described as follows:
At this point we should sort out some details. The refund of the money spent on reservations and tickets was a bit painful, we were able to return more than 60%. In such a situation, this result was not bad, since the stagnation and losses in the tourism sector were the most whipping and hefty.
At that stage, we failed at one point – contractors. For doing business, there are convenient services that help you arrange business trips and so on. This is really very useful and greatly simplifies the life of both employees and accounting. But! In tourism, one of your contractors may have a lot of their own intermediaries. This means that when you book a hotel through, as it seems to you, only your partner, and they work directly with the hotel, then, in truth, not all schemes are so simple. It looks like this: you book a hotel via the service, the service for some reason cannot book rooms directly at the hotel, so it contacts another service that can make a reservation. In other words, there can be more than 2 links in the chain for making a single reservation.
In our situation, there was a hotel in the center of Moscow, which we could not return, and which was the most expensive in terms of costs. It was not possible to cancel the reservation due to the refusal of a contractor from America. That is, our hotel in Russia was ready to return the money to us, as well as the service for working with business trips. Only on this element of the chain, namely, a foreign contractor, everything got stuck. Fortunately, we then figured out how to use that hotel, but not everyone would be able to find solutions in that situation and would just lose money.
As for our participation in online conferences as a sponsor, opinions within the company divided. In the dry balance, the analysis of this idea looked like this:
Opportunity to gain new experience
Lack of time to prepare for us, as well as for the conference hosters, inevitable fails
No costs for logistics, accommodation, merch
Unproved (untested) format
Opportunity to get creative and come up with new formats for interaction with conference participants
The increasing complexity of touch points with participants
Opportunity to diversify the quarantine grayness
The lack of readiness of visitors to new formats of interaction (and why should they go to a virtual booth at all? :)
The chart shows that the arguments in favour and opposed were equal. The underlying argument was the awareness that it is not clear when conferences will be able to get back offline, in a year or two… I didn't want to lose so much time and opportunities, but I didn't want to lose money either. What could we do?
Five-year plan in 4 years or preparation for online conferences in 2 weeks
I think you can guess from the subtitle what we are going to talk about and what the outcome of our discussions was. Yes, we decided to take a risk and got involved in online events . I can't say that the preparation was terribly difficult for us – no. There was one crucial factor that did not play in our favor - time. It was the lack of time bothering partners - hosters of JUG.ru. But we should give them credit for making the first stage of preparation (pre-conference stage) as easy as possible for us. However, two weeks before the conference seemed like a Groundhog Day:
As a result, we were preparing for 3 conferences with 2 hosters at the same time. Of course, bugs began showing up right during conferences. There were many occasions: the conference platform did not work at some points; copy-paste mistakes in the text; the hosters' information about a giveaway was different from ours; the conference starting time was postponed; participants did not understand how to get to our virtual booth, etc. Nevertheless, given that this was the first event in this format, and no one had exact ideas what could go wrong, everyone was on full alert: we were looking for inaccuracies on our sponsor's pages, and the hosters were quick to correct them. Well, you might say - all these are small things of life that happen to anyone. But this is business, it is unforgiving for mistakes. Therefore, for your part, as a sponsor, to be insured and confident that you have prepared 100% for the event, take note of some points:
Plan things! Proper timing will not let you and your colleagues drive crazy, especially if you are very limited in time;
Set a deadline for your colleagues who participate in the preparation before the one sent to you by the hosters;
When you collect information for a virtual booth, don't be lazy and make a visual preview so that you don't have to ask the hosters to fix something 500 times later;
If the hosters don't answer you, it doesn't mean that you don't need to do anything :D Other people also encounter issues for the first time when it comes to online events and meeting industry in general. So, if you do not take care of your company's logos, mailing lists in social networks and mail, descriptions of your activities, and so on, then you should not count on any more or less positive result in the end;
Just in case, double-check the timings (schedule). It may turn out that something changed, but someone forgot or didn't have time to tell you about.
When working remotely, things are much worse with technical equipment, so make sure that all members of your team have webcams, headsets, and so on. Also don't forget to make test calls to make sure that everything will work on the conference day.
Double-check! Always and all! Do not take the hosters' word that everything is ready. They are also people, and they can also be wrong. By the way, you also need to double-check yourself.
You can extend this list yourself, but these items will significantly help you avoid this condition:
Agree, burning out before the event even started is not be very productive.
I can express my general opinion about online conferences in the field of IT in one picture:
It is difficult to add something after such an eloquent demonstration :D But seriously, the online format is not suitable for all companies. This is easy to see if you compare the number of sponsors of offline and online formats.
First, it all depends on the goal of your company. For example, if you're hunting for employees, an online booth will still work for you, if you have thought things through. On the other hand, if you just present or talk about the product (like us), then this goal is unlikely to be achieved, since the conference content will block at least some interest from the participant. Provided that the speakers are correctly selected, and nothing crashes during broadcasts.
It's always difficult to start new projects. We got involved online when this format has not yet caught on with our audience, so we would not have made most of the mistakes and risks now.
For my part, I can say that I am in favor of new projects, proposals, etc., BUT if you initially see risks, then do everything to minimize them. Use the CJM (client's journey map) to clearly present your concerns to the team, or, conversely, to confirm whether you want to participate.
P.S. We are very much looking forward to the return of the offline format. And yes, of course, we will continue to work with our partners, including JUG.ru, Ontico, Two Blue Cubes Ltd, etc. I would like to repeat the main idea once again: we don't participate in online conferences just because the format doesn't suit us. And we are terribly sad that we can't see you, dear readers/participants, and you, fellow hosters at the conferences C++ Russia, DotNext, Joker, HL++, CoreHard, etc. We continue to come up with activities, features, calendars … :D and hope to see you soon!
That's it for me.