The events industry reeled as large-scale gatherings were shut down, and they will likely be among the last activities to reopen. Without the draw of physical locations, destinations will have to find a new role in the recovery of the industry.
Most locations still have an outright ban on anything more than the smallest of group meetings, and social distancing guidelines may need to stay in place for the next 6 to 18 months — or longer. Many events are exploring virtual options just to stay afloat, but that leaves DMOs in a tricky position.
When remote participation makes most of a city’s attractions irrelevant, what role can DMOs play in marketing their destinations to event planners? We spoke with industry veteran (and former SkiftX editor) Greg Oates, SVP Innovation at MMGY NextFactor, for some insights on how DMOs can learn to adapt in this rapidly changing industry.
The Knowledge Economy: Leveraging Your Community’s Creativity and Expertise
While Greg Oates understands that many big players in the business are still in damage-control mode, he believes that the time has come to start thinking strategically about edging toward recovery. “Many are wondering, should we even begin to start thinking about overt marketing campaigns?”
The short answer is yes, but it will involve an effort to re-imagine your city’s primary value offerings. According to Oates, it’s all about recognizing that what your city has to offer is defined as much by the most creative and innovative people who live there as by the physical destination itself.
While Oates acknowledges that many DMOs have already built marketing campaigns around a reputation for sector expertise, he believes that this emphasis on the knowledge economy can go much further.
It is not just about advertising your city’s greatest thinkers in the fields of advanced tech and bioscience, but about creating a network of talent across all strata of society. Who are your most innovative entrepreneurs? Who is breaking ground in digital media? What are your most interesting community organizations?
Oates envisions a new event model based around virtual connections with your city’s greatest resource: its own people driving change in their communities — the change-makers.
Moving Your Event Away From Festivilization to a University Campus Model
This pivot to a new virtual model may mean that we have to pull back on some of the tenets of experience design, with its emphasis on sensory engagement and the importance of ‘being there.’ The business-event-meets-festival may have to be laid to rest, at least temporarily.
Oates was among the first to introduce the notion of “festivalization” when he identified it as an upcoming megatrend in 2017, and he has been watching its development closely. He suggests that has been interpreted as the ‘carnivalization’ of meetings by some, which has a value of its own.
With that said, he initially conceived of “festivalization” in terms of “an interdisciplinary knowledge sharing platform,” and he believes that the need for this kind of approach is now more necessary than ever before.
Oates uses the analogy of a university campus to explain his current thinking. He insists that it’s not just about subject expertise; it’s about how the whole network works together to foster a productive synergy.
“Part of the excitement of [a campus] orientation day stems from the sense that you are entering a space where knowledge is cultivated. You may be going to study physics, but you’ll be steeped in a whole ecosystem of knowledge sharing. If cities start looking at events that way, they don’t just need to know who the professors are; they also need to know who’s in charge of community relations, sports, wellness — all of those different elements that go into creating the campus community.”
Stronger Together: Showing the Value Added in Community Representation at Events
In the age of a global knowledge economy, the question then becomes where the value proposition lies in focussing on an individual city instead of drawing on talents from a worldwide pool. According to Oates, it’s about recognizing that individual locations represent their own unique knowledge ecosystem in much the same way that a campus does.
Your city functions as a closely integrated network of entrepreneurs, community organizers, urban planners, and creative professionals. Together, they create a distinct web of connections that can offer special insights to outsiders. Even virtual events can be themed around a specific city’s knowledge ecosystem, with attendees given access to the key players who keep society moving forward. And if there were ever a time when creative solutions to community problems were needed, it’s now.
Oates points to Austin and Portland as examples of how to create a brand around your city’s creative community. While these locales are largely lacking in the kinds of architectural and geographic attractions that normally draw tourists, they are both popular destinations for events precisely because of the communities they represent. If you needed more convincing, Oates points out that the two cities have virtually identical slogans: Consider “Keep Austin weird” vs. “Keep Portland weird.”
Monetizing Your Community for Business Events
This kind of community-based thinking sounds like a lofty ideal, but how can you monetize it? As a DMO, a key part of your job involves keeping local businesses in business.
Oates is quick to recognize the urgency of these financial imperatives, and he pinpoints event tech as the lynchpin for success. While DMOs can create directories of the city’s best and brightest simply by leveraging their insider knowledge, ultimately they will also need to facilitate a user-friendly platform for accessing this network of contacts.
DMOs and event planners may need to collaborate in developing event tech that will offer maximal networking opportunities. Oates points to C2 Montreal’s ‘braindate’ template as a prototype for the kind of system that he envisions.
Networking still represents one of the biggest drivers of event attendance, and transferring that value to a virtual context will depend on being able to facilitate useful connections through an intuitive, interactive user interface. As Oates puts it, “If I want to find a specialist in a field like urban design, I should be able to find that person out of a list of 4,000 attendees.”
If planners can win that battle, ticket sales offer one obvious avenue for revenue generation. Oates himself is registered for a virtual conference through City Nation Place, and his ticket for this year’s event was half the price of the in-person conference he attended last year. While a 50% discount might seem steep, it could also be argued that retaining 50% of the ticket value is an encouraging sign given the vast difference in services offered by the two event formats.
Oates also thinks that there’s room for DMOs to take the monetization potential of virtual networking a step further. “If I see someone speak at an event, can I schedule a paid one-on-one virtual session with them? It’s the idea of monetizing a braindate, so to speak.” Oates says that the system could work similarly to the Vancouver-based platform Pick My Brain, a kind of online directory where consultants of various stripes advertise their services.
Under an even more scalable model, presenters could offer pre-recorded tutorials and other media through a pay-per-view system. Oates envisions DMOs acting as a kind of municipal Netflix, providing a platform for distribution while also curating content.
In the long run, successful implementation of this strategy will give cities a competitive advantage if and when face-to-face events return. Moreover, the uncertainty surrounding this potential timeline makes it all the more necessary to develop adaptive strategies.
Oates thinks we should remain optimistic while keeping the worst-case scenario in our minds. “I don’t want to paint too bleak of a picture, but what happens if the world is truly systemically changed for the foreseeable future? Will major conventions have to be subsidized so they can host events while still adhering to social distancing guidelines?” Keeping attendees 6 feet apart would mean drastically slashing venue capacity, which would in turn erode the industry’s already slim profit margins.
Oates wonders if virtual participation could be a possible solution for delivering new revenue. The good news is that, if event planners can make virtual events work, hybrid events should be a natural progression.
Follow these steps to stay on track:
- Identify local talent and the unique knowledge ecosystems that define your community
- Develop a platform for targeted and nuanced virtual networking
- Prepare systems that allow event organizers to monetize ‘braindates’
No one knows for certain what the ‘new normal’ will look like, but leveraging a strong local knowledge economy will work to your advantage whatever the future brings.