We caught up with Dahlia El Gazzar, one of the world’s leading event experts, to get her take on the current state of the industry. The big takeaway is that event organisers need to change. It’s not 2019 anymore. The pandemic has transformed everything and as event organisers we need to lean into doing events differently to meet visitor, sponsor and exhibitor expectations.
What have event organisers learned from the pandemic?
The pandemic resulted in the industry going through a global pause. And with that global pause came a huge rollercoaster of new initiatives, including new virtual event formats, revenue opportunities, creative experiences and networking ideas. This experimentation enhanced everyone’s expertise.
And even with all the epic fails we faced, there are some good learnings. However, now we're coming back to face-to-face events again. These in-person reunions on the showfloor are fun, but unfortunately I see that the majority of event professionals are trying to go back to how it was before the global pause. And that is a big, big mistake. Embrace the change era that we are in at the moment.
What should event organisers do to avoid regressing to how things were in 2019?
We should learn lessons and embrace the change right now! This means creating new types of events with new programmes and new ways of networking. We have this golden opportunity to create content, and connection exchanges that didn’t exist before, resulting in more value delivered to attendees.
We need to lean into the fact that the headspace of audiences has completely changed. This means that running an eight hour programme, then asking your audience to sit through it religiously and go from one booth to another, with no breaks, no sunshine, no nothing, is a huge mistake. It just doesn’t work anymore.
We shouldn’t try to come back to this new world with pre-pandemic solutions. Our stakeholders’ mindsets have changed so our events need to adapt or they’ll die.
What does the future look like?
To me, hybrid is an illusion. It’s always been something we’ve done: a blend of virtual and in-person.
The future lies with how obsessed and personalised you can get with your audiences.
You have to truly know your audience inside and out. So the customisation of your delivery, marketing, content and programme need to be world-class. If you don’t know your audience, they will seek that personalised experience elsewhere.
What does good use of personalisation look like?
It depends on the industry. I also think that the more niche the job role is, the more personalised it can be.
If we look at the different associations that we work with, we've helped them figure out different ways of programming, and adding content that adds value, empowering professionals. Listen to what your event participants want, and experiment with what they don’t know that they want :)
So for example, with medical and healthcare professionals, we actually add content that my team puts together that helps with their well-being. This means conversation starter rooms, where we have facilitated conversations about feeling overwhelmed, or ‘how to get over stress’. More than 500 people joined in, they wanted to meet together, listen, get tips, etc.
Another example is events for financial professionals. We're helping them be better at their branding. It has nothing to do with their professional development, but it’s added value they don’t get at competing shows.
You should ask yourself: what more can I do for my audience? Then find the sponsors or the revenue opportunities around that. Start with the audience first and work backwards.
This sounds like you're fostering more of a community using this approach?
Yes! The word community is a buzzword right now. But building communities is important and difficult. It requires event organisers to have a ‘content continuum’.
This content continuum can be made up of lots of mini events. Anything your audience is interested in. From an interview on a blog, like this one, to a webinar or meetup. If it sparks conversation, if it interests people, then you take it further.
That becomes your event or better yet your experiences portfolio. Anything around really great content, engagement and conversations becomes an event. So we're actually changing the definition of an event.
Communities are great. Everybody belongs to a community. The only challenge with communities is that everyone is trying to create one, but not everyone can manage or maintain them. Especially on an emotional level. You belong to a community because there's an emotional connection. Work on that.
What we need to do more of is figure out those emotional connections. So emotional connections can happen via conversations between participants. Those emotional connections have to be given space, which goes back to networking. A lot of people forget about that. They think they have to pack those networking sessions with activities: “let's do yoga, let's do Zumba, let's do this and that…” No! Just let them be. Let them connect with each other. And then the conversations and relationships will be created.
This is the future we should be building, not regressing to pre-2019 activities. Let’s change events for the better, while we still have the chance.