Events and awards are migrating to virtual platforms to recoup lost expenses, salvage programming, maintain audiences and retain brand visibility – provoking a lot of adaptation in a short space of time. Piers Latimer, managing director of Reuters Events, shared what he learned from launching its first virtual conference last month with just four weeks’ notice.
In October 2019, Thomson Reuters acquired FC Business Intelligence (FCBI), a global business-to-business events specialist, and immediately rebranded as Reuters Events. The goal was to meld Reuters’ vast scale and global trust with FCBI’s expertise in industry events.
Several months later Covid-19 shuttered physical gatherings and threatened to derail the group's 60 scheduled events in 2020. This accelerated its plans to host virtual programming in some of its physical events.
First on the slate was three-day pharmaceutical gathering Eyeforpharma Barcelona. Following the outbreak, Reuters had just four weeks to prepare a virtual edition of the conference and launch its first online-only event last month.
The event attracted more than 15,000 registrations, from 90 countries (doubling 2019’s 45). The barrier to entry was reduced greatly, the event was now free to registrants, and there was no longer the need to travel all the way to the Spain. Which theoretically, put a greater audience on the table.
Reuters Events’ tech team built up experience delivering live streams, on-demand content, audience interactivity, one-to-one meetings, networking opportunities and a virtual exhibition – most of which were tracked to generate leads for future events.
How to launch a virtual event
First, Latimer has a warning for anyone trying to enter the virtual space.
“It would be a mistake to replicate physical events in the virtual world. But there are some marked differences which you can use to your advantage.”
Reuters Events’ ‘virtualisation project’ was in the works before the pandemic, aiming to add value and international audiences to B2B events across verticals such as energy, pharma, insurance, sustainability and automotive. This side project was accelerated and became the backbone of the business, at least in the short-term.
“Turning a physical event into a virtual event is a challenge – with timings and expectations aligned to a ‘normal’ physical event, the conversion to virtual meant realigning agendas, speaker and sponsor expectations, as well as delivery of the event happening via many separate home offices rather than from a studio.”
From an audience perspective, attendance purpose is different online. Reuters observed that the attendee’s primary objective was to learn. This puts an even bigger focus on quality content, audience participation, strong moderation and a suitable setting of expectations.
“We were building the platform and learning as we went along, which presented challenges, but should get easier as we begin to scale up for future events. There was no precedent or past examples to demonstrate what a ‘virtual event’ would look like.”
Latimer said: “Attention spans online are undeniably shorter than in person, resulting in the need for a faster-paced programme.”
But that’s during the event. Latimer found that the ‘on-demand’ archive had a longer half-life than one-and-done live events. He urged producers to put quality at the centre of their products; now it is online, he notes, it is competing with everything else the internet has to offer.
Furthermore, he urged producers not to directly compare the performance of virtual events and physical events, describing the contrast as “apples and oranges”.
For some sponsors, the promise of additional reach on their thought leadership balanced out what was lost. Live events are off the table, no matter their partner, and many have been understanding towards events producers.
Now they have a clear view of how many people saw their events, and more importantly, who they were. Furthermore, they've cast a wider net with greater international attendance.
“Many sponsors continued to support our events. Such is the need to continue to reach clients, especially with thought leadership and branding opportunities. The opportunity with virtual events is that sponsors can reach a limitless audience (rather than a single room of executives).”
Reuters helped deliver the content and programming offerings, which proved particularly appealing to sponsors. On the other side of the coin, the events help push the Reuters Plus business memberships.
Down the line, there will be more conversations to be held with sponsors but it appears the year of lockdown events were have some lasting effects on how the physical is operated in the long-term future.
Latimer said all events are ”virtual-first” for the foreseeable future. "We will move physical when it is safe to do so."
By the time its safe, whenever that is, he expects a surge of networking. As Latimer put it: ”We are social beings, and while much business can be done remotely, doing business ‘on site’ at an event is invaluable, as are face-to-face meetings for forge partnerships and business relationships.”
When the live events world gets back into gear, he suggested that attendees will be choosier about which conferences they attend – and that they will still be mindful of social distancing. ”Executives will closely scrutinise the physical event opportunities and only attend essential meetings,” he said, predicting that the first physical events back on the slate will be ”smaller, with virtual elements providing a ‘top up’ of scale outside of the physical.”
With Reuters chief marketing officer Josh London setting out how he is reimagining the 168-year-old newswire business for 2020, Reuters' hastily rebuilt live events business is just part of its evolution strategy.
Regular readers of The Drum may have noticed we launched the Digital Transformation Festival and ran our own virtual events programme. We learned a lot running that too. Keep an eye out for our next initiative, Can-Do Festival in June.