There’s no disputing that the COVID-19 pandemic hit the live events industry hard. Countless conferences and tradeshows were canceled or postponed as the world went into lockdown in spring 2020. Many organizations scrambled to quickly flip to virtual in hopes of salvaging value for members and preserving at least a portion of the sponsorship revenue.
While some in-person events are starting to inch back as COVID-19 vaccination rates rise and event organizers and venues have become more adept at hosting live events safely, we’re still a long way from getting back to the good old days of 2019.
According to American Express’s 2022 Global Meetings and Revenue Forecast, two out of three event planners don’t expect their total number of in-person meetings to return to 2019 levels until Q2 2023.
While COVID-19 may be the latest and most devastating disaster to hit meetings and events in recent history, chances are it won’t be the last. Annual conventions are too important to an association’s bottom line to risk being caught unprepared for whatever may come next. The time to start pandemic-proofing your all-important in-person annual meeting is now.
During the pandemic shut-downs, association executives learned a lot about using digital channels to engage members, provide ancillary revenue streams with virtual events and sponsorships, and provide connection and networking remotely.
Now it’s time to apply those lessons by building a digital foundation that will not only support and strengthen your in-person events moving forward, but will provide an activation-ready platform should another disaster strike.
A digital hub on your association website can provide the stability, continuity, and conduit for member engagement that can amplify your in-person events’ reach moving forward and provide an essential backstop should a global or regional occurrence force an event shutdown in the future.
A digital content hub (sometimes referred to as a “knowledge hub” or “resource library”) is a fully branded, interactive platform on your association’s website that showcases curated, thought-leadership content from sponsors. The content is free for association members but requires a form completion for members to download the content. Members get access to a steady stream of high-demand resources, sponsors get intent-based leads for business development, and associations earn incremental revenue.
Some associations custom-build their digital content hub, while others partner with a third-party, like Lead Marvels, to manage the implementation and ongoing maintenance.
A digital content hub can also serve as a digital platform to strengthen an organization’s annual event before, during, and well after the two to four days over which the live event takes place.
Most associations that have returned to in-person events are still struggling to meet registration goals. One way to nurture early interest and boost registration numbers is to use your association’s digital content hub to build anticipation for the event.
Weeks or months prior to the event, associations can build a specific area within their hub to begin driving interest and deepening the value of the event for members and sponsors alike. Members can begin educating themselves on topics that will be covered at the event so they can deepen their overall learning experience.
And as an optional upgrade to a booth sponsorship, vendors can use the hub to promote thought-leadership content that aligns with event themes. By extending their visibility beyond the four corners of the exhibit floor while also generating leads well before the actual event, sponsors will maximize their event sponsorship ROI.
Take the case of APTA, for example. In the weeks leading up to its tri-annual EXPO, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) launched an event-specific area of its content hub where exhibitors could promote enrichment-based content to drive pre-event engagement.
“Our Knowledge Hub was a great way for us to start building anticipation for our event, now that we were finally going back to in-person,” said Jack Gonzalez, Senior Director Marketing & Sales at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). “Plus, our exhibitors appreciated the ability to begin engaging with members weeks before the event started.”
When implementing a solution similar to APTA’s, another benefit for event sponsors is that they can add a scheduling capability within the content hub so that interested members can schedule time with them while at the event.
And associations can leverage the event-designated area within their content hub to offer logistical and promotional information (e.g., event programming, hotel info) as well as educational content to whet members’ appetites on topics that will be covered in the event’s educational tracks.
Many associations learned over the course of the pandemic how digitizing their events can reach audience and member segments they may never have interacted with before. Virtual events can engage members who otherwise would not be able to attend an in-person annual meeting. Associations can use their digital resource library as a one-stop portal for members not attending the live event to access real-time video streams of educational sessions. The footage of sessions and keynotes can also be archived for members on-site but unable to attend all the sessions they desire.
Hybrid events can also drive incremental event revenue. For example, live video streams of event sessions can be tucked behind a paywall for virtual attendees to access at a reduced cost, or possibly even pay for individual sessions on an à la carte basis.
Using a virtual tradeshow platform, event sponsors can set up virtual booths to showcase their own thought-leadership content, marketing collateral, and even interact with virtual attendees.
Your white labeled digital resource library, accessible to members through your association’s website, can be the single, centralized access point for remote members.
While COVID was devastating in all too many ways, the pandemic has shone a bright light on the importance of associations to their members’ career success as a source of both educational resources and the vital career connections they need. Though live events have always been a key reason members join and remain with an association, recent experience has made it clear that it’s time to implement a digital backstop – and not just for when disaster strikes.