As a new year begins to unfold with seemingly the same many uncertainties as the old one, I took a little time to reflect on what we have learned about transforming a traditional event business in the face of lockdowns, travel bans and no physical gatherings.
We approach this year better equipped than ever to provide top quality event experiences for the content world. In the next few weeks we will announce a full programme of ConTech.Live activities to keep you learning, sharing and networking to help you on your individual content transformation journeys. Here’s the story of how we got here.
Back at the beginning of March 2020, when the pandemic started to impact our daily lives, we had already organised the ConTech Forum. It was scheduled to take place in July in the same hotel as the previous year in Knightsbridge, Central London. We had also signed off on our venue contract for the main ConTech event at a really fabulous hotel near Regents Park. No-one really knew the severity of Covid at that time and being pretty much “glass half full” type of people we were pretty convinced this little illness would go the way of previous scares and be consigned to the “whatever happened to swine flu?” file in no time. Well, we could not have been more wrong. On March 13th I attended one of the last live music gigs in London and the next day caught one of only seven lower league football matches in the UK while all around us things were being cancelled, closed and ultimately locked down and suddenly the world had changed and for an event business like ConTech.Live looked a really very different place.
What were we to do? Firstly, let’s not panic and let’s work out what we can do to keep our growing community engaged, sharing and learning from our platforms. Three key decisions in April set us on the best course possible. Firstly, we needed to deliver the Forum online. For those of you unfamiliar with ConTech the whole idea of the forum is it’s a halfway-through-the-year catch up on what we discussed at the previous ConTech, and a sneak peek forwards to what we have in store later in the year. It has become a popular mini reunion for our delegates and sponsors, and is intended to be less formal and a quickfire set of short talks over a single day. We can do that fully digitally we thought – but how?
The second key decision was – let’s launch a series of weekly webinars. Why? Well that way we can work out how to do this 100% online stuff, we can explore a bit about platforms and we can offer something different and extra to our community. And so at the end of April the ConTech.Live, the Wednesday Webinars were born. They went really well and we got terrific feedback. And so brimming with confidence we re-worked the Forum using the same (household name) platform and our whole new approach to delivering events started to take shape. By now armed with this renewed direction we made the third critical decision: Our ConTech 2020 flagship event scheduled for 3rd and 4th December will be fully online. It was by making that decision early we have been able to rethink the whole event and build it as a 100% digital experience. This is the single most important decision we made this whole year and the key was certainty and having early clarity of purpose.
We learnt many lessons from the Forum and from our regular webinars.
We re-scheduled the main event over 4 x 4 hour sessions to be better accessed in a wider range of time zones.
We change the dates to better suit the calendar.
We cast our net wider and with more ambition to bring better speakers from around the world.
We start the programming with networking and engagement in mind
We are much more meticulous in our briefings and contribute more to the way each session is developed.
Our starting point to build this is: the more excellent the content, the more effective we can make the whole event.
We went for fully live as we really believe that is how a vibrant event unfolds and speakers could comment on other speakers and delegates too. "Pre-recorded" takes that away. But WOW how important are those live recordings when within a few minutes they are in the content library for everyone to view!
Choosing a platform that really delivers is another great big issue for our transformation. We were mindful that suddenly “everyone” in event tech is offering a unique and best solution – but that cannot be true we say. So, with a clear and strong plan for the event, we really need to find the perfect (digital) venue. And that was how we approached it. Many are taking what they know – more household name platforms – and bending their usage to their needs. It’s ok, but we are not really sure about that and bending seems to smack a little of compromise and that’s not really one of our things. We wait, and we review and we look at who is doing what with what and how it’s working. And we research more and more as more become available. Time is getting short and we need to decide to be able to make things work well. We have something selected which does 80 – 90% of what we want. Ok, we will go with that. Then, completely out of the blue a new platform comes onto our radar and suddenly we are seeing positive reviews of this solution from other good sources.
The platform is assessed and with less than 3 weeks to go we decide this has to be the one. An online event platform designed and delivered by event people. It has to be the one for us! It is, and it works and it delivers on everything we wanted and more. Inevitably there are tech glitches. Of course with something that does a really good job on the speaker and delegate attendance experience there are new and unknown challenges that we experience. We learn more in the week of delivery than we have learned for a long time but we take great strides forward and ConTech Week is lauded as a great and brand new success!
Now with a few weeks of reflection from the experience here’s what we have learned: In many ways we have been forced to go back to basic first principles. What can we do when our plans have been completely swept away? I actually think we said to ourselves "Let’s do what we know and let’s do it better than before. Let’s make a clear plan, let’s make firm decisions based on what we know now and stick with them. Our business is centred around technologies and transformation so let’s accept that we are going to be our very best selves and then we will find a technological solution that people will embrace."
And we have, and they did.
The real transformation is that we are now so much better equipped to deliver a complete spectrum of events from 100% digital to blended and hybrid and in truth it will probably never ever be 100% just face to face again.
The reality of many of the ConTech sessions and this transformation story is it’s never really all about the tech. It’s staying really close to the needs of your customers, placing them at the heart of all your decisions and being quick to adapt to (in this case rapidly) changing circumstances. Get the technologies to best serve those needs and make them work for you. It sounds simple. The journey continues… Watch this space…
Clive Snell January 2021