For Fast Company’s Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.
Jim Louderback, general manager of VidCon
In early 2020, we got good at a skill that I really didn’t want to have: canceling shows. Our audiences were all locked up at home. They wanted to connect with each other and reach out to their favorite creators. So, we transformed a group of physical event producers into digital online event producers and went from doing one big event in each of our markets every year to 10 to 15 every week globally to reach our audiences wherever they were.
Events are about connection, community, and content. Distribution deals happen at the conference. Business relationships are created. We came up with separate networking sessions, bringing a small group of people together around a particular topic. And we created a 24/7 VidCon Discord community where anytime, anywhere in the world, people could come talk about topics.
When you’re not doing your annual event, you need to keep audiences and communities connected. We provide free weekly programming that includes virtual concerts and performances, panel discussions, Q&As, online meet and greets, and other interactive events, and have attracted more than 1.5 million attendees.
Jim Louderback, general manager, VidCon
They want community, they want content, and they want connection.”
The events industry has been fairly hidebound for a long time. Success now means you have to be as nimble and practice as much creative destruction as startups were doing in the tech space over the last 10 or 15 years. Before COVID-19, we had vague plans to do these types of things, but they were more long term. COVID-19 forced us to accelerate.
What COVID-19 did for events is to help them focus on why they exist. It helped us home in on what our audience really wants. They want community, they want content, and they want connection. When you go back to face-to-face, it shouldn’t start and end with the event. It should be an experience that you can deliver every day and every week that culminates in a face-to-face event.
Carlotta Mast, senior vice president and market leader for New Hope Network, organizers of trade shows for the natural and organic products industry
Our large natural products show—Natural Products Expo West—was scheduled to happen the first week of March in 2020, just as we were all coming to understand the impact of COVID-19. We launched a platform called Natural Products Expo Virtual, focusing on enabling product discovery, networking, and learning within the natural products industry. It is becoming an important part of our business moving forward and will support all future in-person events.
There’s a lot you can do online. For product discovery, you can put up virtual booths where exhibitors can post content about their company, products, and mission.
But there are limitations. Connecting buyers and sellers, for example, is very different in a virtual platform. When you walk a natural products trade show floor, you go from booth to booth, experiencing all of the products. That’s just not possible online because you lose the sensory element. Physical events are also better at enabling connections, including those serendipitous moments that happen when you are walking down a hall or happen to be sitting next to someone at a reception.
We will be holding Expo East in person in Philadelphia, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, in September. We’ll provide both physical and virtual access to the event, using our virtual platform to make it easier for retail buyers and other attendees to plan their Expo experience, find products and people they want to connect with, follow up after the show, and access all of the content.
Making the show more sustainable is also a priority. We recognize that trade shows have an impact on the environment, and through our Expo Sustainability Program, we work to identify and address these impacts to achieve continual improvement year after year.
The social unrest during COVID-19 also intensified our focus on diversity and inclusion in networking and dealmaking. Black Americans represent 13% of the U.S. population but only 2% of our industry leadership, according to a benchmarking survey we conducted in 2019. Creating spaces that provide belonging is critical, and we’ve made it a priority that everyone—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or background—feels welcome and included at our events.
During Expo East, we are partnering with Included, a peer group for top-level Black professionals in the industry, and the J.E.D.I. Collaborative to create new programs and events. We can use our platforms for greater inclusion.
Karen Chupka, executive vice president of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES)
CES is held each January. In 2020, we had about 170,000 attendees and 4,500 exhibitors. After COVID-19, we were forced to go all digital, and we knew we had to completely reimagine how it was going to work for CES 2021. Our event is where companies launch and showcase products. It’s typically done live, and you get the excitement of an unveiling. When the show is not in the real world, you lose the ability to touch, see, and feel something.
Smaller companies make up about 80% of exhibitors at events and often connect with people as they walk by their booth. Since small businesses use trade shows as a mechanism for getting new business and meeting with customers, they had to find ways to use the platform to connect. To help, we created an area online where companies could submit B-roll of their products. They could use the videos to tell the stories. We tried to keep the price point low for smaller companies to exhibit because we knew they probably didn’t have the money to hire an agency to put together a digital experience for them.
Another thing we were able to do was set up a system where attendees and exhibitors could interact. We created a directory of all the attendees, and people on the platform could request meetings.
We also left the platform open for 30 days after the event to give people time to really explore and connect. Typically, an in-person event is condensed into two or three days. Expanding that time frame gave everyone an opportunity to network after the event.
We are planning to be back live in Las Vegas for CES 2022. We’re keeping the things that help with storytelling and connections, especially for those who still may not be able to travel come January. For example, in an in-person event, people don’t always get to watch all of the conference sessions. But last year, we had about 86,000 people participate as part of the event, and 34,000 of them came back multiple times to rewatch content, find new content, and visit new companies.
Going forward, I believe events will become a hybrid. We’re just at the infancy stages of figuring out how the two come together.