Brad Weaber is a global speaker, virtual and live facilitator, and principal of Brad Weaber Consulting Group; speaking with LookThink, these are his thoughts on Re-Eventing the Wheel.
Tell me about yourself & your background in the meetings & events industry.
I've been in the meetings & events industry for 35 years. For 5 years, I worked on the operations side of hotel management and worked in convention services and the front desk. A client tapped me on the shoulder one day and asked me to join their team which became Experient and is now a Maritz Global Events Company. At the time, I was the 40th person hired and now there’s over 700 employees. We touched every market sector with events ranging from 100 to 100,000 attendees. I left Experient to go to SmithBucklin where I oversaw event services and trade shows in Chicago and DC. After 5 years, I wanted to get more into the tourism side of the event business and served as the Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Convention Bureau, where I was involved in client interaction and design for the city of New Orleans. Then I decided to open my own company a few years ago where I specialize in creating customer feedback boards for meetings and event professionals as well as doing executive management consulting for C-suite professionals. I've transitioned over to virtual coaching for not only speakers but also for facilitating virtual events.
From your perspective, describe the current state of the meetings & events industry.
I’ve seen a lot in my 35 years of this industry. I thought 9/11 was going to be the thing to get over and then we had the massive recession and housing crisis collapse in 2008. COVID-19 is beyond anything anyone has seen anywhere regardless of what industry you're in. The hospitality and travel industry was hit in such a short period of time and the US is starting to see the impact this industry has on our economy. People are realizing globally that the meetings industry is going to be forever changed. Change, however, is an opportunity. I'm confident the silver lining in all this is there.
Over the last few months, I've worked with 5 different boards that have 30 planners each and the feedback they’ve given is tremendous as far as where things are headed in the future. What I see as an opportunity (if done correctly) is while we won’t see large group gatherings, we’ll have actually touched more people now than we would have in person. I say this because the feedback I’ve been given is along the lines of: we traditionally expected 1,000 people to show up live, but now we're seeing 7,000 people show up virtually. People don’t need to take 5 days out of their schedule and get on a plane anymore. More content and education is going to get distributed and virtual and hybrid events are here to stay.
How has COVID-19 impacted your planning process & strategy?
I actually contracted COVID-19 back in March; I'm sharing this because I think it's important to put a face on this for our industry. It was a terrible and very serious experience for me for 28 long days. Taking my own personal experience with this virus into account, I can't help but think about what would have happened had I been at an event during that time? As an industry, we need to not only look at safety and protocols for bringing people face-to-face again but we also need to look at the liability and who owns that liability. Participants are hesitant to attend. Planners are hesitant to host. Travelers are hesitant to get on a plane. Is the event planner responsible for temperature checks or is the building hosting the event responsible for the precaution? What happens if a participant is asymptomatic? Nobody wants to be the group that has an outbreak during a professional meeting. This is a very serious matter and I think the industry is seeing that meetings have to move very quickly to a virtual environment. When people started talking about virtual events years ago and how they would replace live events, no one really took it seriously. COVID-19 has shown that virtual is part of who we are and our culture and virtual will always play a role in that moving forward.
What technologies do you see emerging from this?
What’s interesting is to see how much has already changed even within a few months. When virtual events started out in mid-March as a response to COVID-19, it was kind of taken lightly and people weren't putting a ton of investment in it. But now, virtual events have shifted to a very high level - they've become productions of almost studio-like quality and that's what attendees are expecting depending on the type of event and the brand of the event. From a technology perspective, what I'm finding is, in order to keep people engaged, there has to not only be great content, but incredible networking, commerce, and a chance to connect. You can’t take a normal 3-4 day meeting and plop it onto a screen; you have to recalibrate your event for a virtual environment. I've heard that the average person makes their decision as to whether they're going to stay at a virtual event at the 3 minute mark. That's not a lot of time. You have to think about what sort of pre-marketing you can get done to get people excited. What was the ease of getting into a system? What was that first feeling when they got in; did your event bring a level of energy? For one of my events, we brought in a comedic actor that pretended like he was hacking into one of my speeches and we ended up having a 97% retention rate for a 90 minute session. Normally you'd see a 40-60% retention rate for a session that long but because we did something unexpected and attention-grabbing at the beginning, people stayed until the end.
Does your event have a matchmaking algorithm in place? People are now getting access to buyers/sellers that they didn’t have access to before. Any sort of connecting platform that brings people together is really great. I don’t think anyone expects they’re going to have a feeling like they would if they were physically in a room with someone but the graphics are getting more sizzle. You can hover over a table and see who’s at the table by a list of names that appear and join the conversation. You can head over to a reception room being sponsored by someone, send out a 3-ingredient cocktail recipe in advance and then watch a video of a bartender that teaches you how to make the drink before you network inside that sponsored arena. The secret is to have cool high technology with elements of surprise sprinkled throughout.
If you had a technology wish list, what would it be?
I look at this in two ways: from a speaker perspective and from a participant perspective. I get hired to coach people to be camera-ready. My technology wishlist for speakers would account for the differences between speaking virtually versus speaking live. It's not natural to see yourself talking in real life but now we watch ourselves talk all day on video calls. There's no audience energy when you're speaking virtually. High quality lighting is just as important at home as it is on a stage. It would be nice to have a speaker gift box that comes with a ring light, portable speaker, and other things to upgrade the experience. People need to test and run their wifi connection to make sure there’s no issues with speaking at a virtual event. Dress rehearsals are important for virtual just like they are for live.
From a participant perspective, ease of use is number one. In virtual events, all different demographics are coming together to use the event technology all at the same time. There need to be tremendous support available for those that need it. The technology also needs to support the quality of the brand. If a participant is used to having a certain caliber of brand experience, the technology needs to make sure that brand integrity comes through as well. That’s where people get in trouble and where things fall apart: brand needs to come through the screen too.
The #1 thing people aren’t paying attention to is speaker preparation and event planners are quickly realizing this is more important than they previously thought. Not being ready for the camera can really hurt yourself, your personal brand, and what you're trying to get across in the content. For example, I was facilitating a “live” virtual event where I was interviewing a prominent executive from that organization. The speaker did not have time to meet beforehand to review the questions and to make sure the equipment was compatible so the first time we ran the session was with an audience. When he showed up, I had no ability to tell him that his camera angle was skewed and all we could see was a ceiling fan spinning at the top of his head. I was monitoring the chat and participants were only focusing on the ceiling fan instead of this incredibly important content he was delivering. Distractions are so real in a virtual environment! I can't tell you have critical this is: preparing speakers if the #1 thing that is forgotten in virtual event prep because no one thinks it's needed, but it's essential for successful content delivery. When all else fails, don’t ever ever wear a green shirt. That's how memes happen.
What are some pros and cons to virtual events over in-person events and conferences?
- Outreach: Sometimes organizations have 10,000 members and only 1,000 show up for a live event but now with virtual events, the amount of people who can attend grows exponentially.
- Upgraded technology: Virtual events existed before COVID-19 but this virus was a catalyst to upgrading that technology. We're seeing more and more platforms coming out every day. They say you're only as good as your last event and with new technology coming out daily, we have many options to become even better.
- No more "cookie cutter" events: It's forcing people to stop the pattern of "Well, what did we do last year? Let's just change the date and the speaker". Creativity is skyrocketing because event length is shorter in a virtual setting and we're coming up with experiential environments.
- Lack of human contact: People just want to hug each other again. We're doing the best we can with what we have but the human contact is missing.
- Receptions: A lot of the commerce that happens at a trade show doesn't happen on the floor, it happens at the reception. That recreation still needs refinement for a virtual setting.
- Long-term impact: Even if we do hybrid events, meetings are not going to go back to the large sizes they once were for a long time so we're still going to be negatively impacting our industry from an economic standpoint. We won't need as big a space or as many meals.
All that being said, people are very resilient. People thought 9/11 was going to be the end of NYC. People left but new people moved in. Vibrancy and creativity happened. I really do think humans are survivors and we’ll figure this out.
How do you see this affecting the sponsor/advertiser experience?
Sponsorship is so important for some organizations and it's not uncommon to look around a space and figure out how to sell sponsor logos or marketing materials at an in-person event. I’ve seen people sell the side of an escalator with the brand of a company splashed across it. Unfortunately, I do think sponsorship is going to be a vacuum for a while and people are going to have to figure it out. Organizations have to get super creative on how to attract sponsors for virtual events and sponsorees need to be open to it too. Maybe every attendee gets a box in the mail with their information and their logo on some swag for pre-marketing efforts. Maybe sponsors are going to have to open different sessions and give a pre-recorded intro message as opposed to seeing a big logo on the wall.
It’s very expensive to have a trade show booth. There are some pretty cool trade shows that are virtual and that's where we see the tech getting really advanced. Virtual Reality is really cool but it’s not cheap. As long as you have the right matchmaking algorithms set up with the attendee and booth owner, that’s when virtual events can be really great but it’s certainly a tougher area that needs to be worked on.
How do you see the day-of-event operations changing?
So, I was just a speaker for an event. I love to speak; I could do this every day. I wanted to be a television anchor when I grew up. My transition over to doing virtual speaking or virtual moderating hasn’t been that difficult. I asked to speak with the AV tech team before my session in order to review the technology and they said they could meet in the virtual greenroom 10 minutes before I went live. They ended up showing up 1 minute before I went live and I had no idea if I was getting introduced, if someone would be monitoring the chat box, etc. I had to guess how to use the platform and I literally do this for a living. The problem is if you don’t have the right partner in place from a technical standpoint, then you're going to have a hard time. This is different from just a soundcheck. As a speaker, I don’t want to be thinking about whether I should monitor the chat box or wondering who's sharing their screen for the presentation. Don't ever underestimate all the activity that goes into hosting an event just because it's virtual.
Here’s the thing about live events versus virtual events: in the meeting planner world, there's this sense of “by the time I get on site, it is what it is” when preparing mentally for an in-person event and that’s fine. You’ve planned and planned so whatever happens, happens and you know you've done all you could. With virtual events, there are a lot of variables and things that can happen. This world still isn’t comfortable for a lot of people. As long as you have a virtual concierge/help desk, you’ll be fine. We look at WiFi like air - it’s just there. There's still this sense that a virtual event is only as good as your wifi quality. Because of that, I think virtual events should be largely pre-recorded.
When do you think in-person events will start up again?
First, we need a vaccine. Then, we need adherence to distributing and accessing that vaccine globally. Then, we need to achieve a true level of comfort. I don’t think people will get the vaccine and suddenly think they're a superhero. If we have a vaccine on January 1, 2021, I could see there being pretty robust activity by the 2nd or 3rd quarter. I haven't heard any discussion about large-scale in-person events until at least summer 2021.
How do you see travel impacting this?
The impact is huge. A lot of organizations rely on international attendance for domestic US meetings. For the last several years, our industry has worked very hard to become a global industry. I think the international component is going to be tough for a while and that has a huge impact. For me it boils down to confidence in safety protocols. Until the FAA and the airlines come together on the best practices, pre and post flight, people aren't going to feel comfortable flying. People want to see more safety on airlines; airlines will either be the #1 inhibitor or accelerator for this.
How do you see the events industry evolving from this?
We will see very sophisticated technology come from all this because I truly believe hybrid events are here to stay. I think we will see a lot of thought go into the types of events we hold and what they represent. We’ll see a lot more regional activity; I’m already seeing that happening. I think we’ll see events become shorter. The 4-day conference might disappear and be replaced with virtual worlds. Presentations will slim down. Clean buildings and sanitization will increase. Certifications will come out for hotels and venues to be deemed as a "safe" building. Insurance is going to become a bigger discussion and how to deal with that liability. Food and bev is going to change dramatically - you’re going to see a very different way of how that happens but I don’t know what that will look like yet.
What opportunities do you see emerging from this new landscape?
I think we’re going to continue to see a refinement of event technology. I hope we don’t lose the global aspect and representation of events - we may see that decline for live events but I'm hopeful we can account for that in virtual events. Content is going to evolve; you’re going to see condensed rich content to maintain people’s attention spans. Credentialing is going to change; anything to do with testing/certifications is going to become a very different world as well. I was in my first university class in the early 80s and my professor walked in and wrote this phrase on the chalkboard:
“Without contraries, there will be no progression”
He said you won't get it right now but you will someday. I get it now. Everything has evolved and there will be progression from this but I don’t know what it is yet. I'm very hopeful.
The "Re-Eventing the Wheel" Interview series asks event producers, marketers, and industry experts to share their perspective on how COVID-19 is reshaping the events industry. Have someone you'd like to see featured or some ideas on questions we should ask? Please email LookThink.