Why we’ll fall out of love with virtual

I read an article recently telling us of the big hit Covid has dealt to the events industry and the shift to digital:

With no one flying, and gatherings prohibited, the events industry took a big hit this spring. But many companies have simply shifted their budgets to digital events or digital content. Only time will tell if the fall will be a very busy events season, or companies will decide they prefer online events over in-person events.” – Forbes

Will corporate clients opt for virtual events over those that provide face-to-face meetings? That’s what people in the events industry are now asking.

As a marketer who has worked with digital throughout my career, it is an irony. I’ll be frank with you: I don’t think event companies will adopt the digital way in their businesses. Let me explain.

In April, I participated in an experimental project called the Exhibitions Think Tank (ETT) organised by the UK-based MBB Consulting Group.

ETT was an online project gathering more than 150 exhibition industry professionals from all around the world and we wanted to seek answers on how businesses should transform after the pandemic.

Most workgroup sessions focused on digital transformation. A big subject and one for which many were eager to come up with a proposal. At the end of the project, we asked ourselves: “How can we make sure we don’t fall back on the old habits?”

The opinion of my group was: “We are likely to fall back.” And the reasons are as follows:

Incompatible culture and economic model

Innovation is a culture, if not a cult, while the events business is a very practical one. Short-term gain is a mismatch for innovation.

If an exhibition company wants to build an innovation culture, it is highly likely the company will face the innovator’s dilemma and struggle between catering for short-term economic gain and a high chance that technologies they adopt won’t actually work for them.

In fact, a plan of innovation takes years to make profitable returns. For an exhibition company, the sales of square metres in booth space is a safe bet with good profit margins.

Covid-19 is not a long pause in business events, at least not long enough to push everyone outside the comfort zone yet. And I don’t see an immediate urge among organisers to drop the square-metre sales model to reinvent the wheel.

Incompatible infrastructure

I am not suggesting that face-to-face events should not go digital. Instead, the digital experience is hardly comparable to a face-to-face event – and now is not the right time.

It is true that online sourcing and virtual marketplaces are close enough to present an alternative to trade exhibitions. I must also admit that in the past 20 years until now we have continuously seen innovations launched by exhibition companies. Unfortunately, practically all failed due to lack of patience, short-term commitment, and various technical glitches.

The early days of virtual exhibitions can be traced back to 2003, when the Linden Lab launched the online role-play world application called Second Life. Seven years later, the iconic computer show COMDEX was relaunched as a virtual event.COMDEX rendered a real business exhibition in a digitised virtual environment. Since then, not much else has changed. The simulation provided in the virtual world cannot reproduce an experience close to the physical world.

Wearing a VR headset to interact at an exhibition might look cool for some and appear dumb to others. Virtual reality is still an unnatural experience. Also, the technical infrastructure required to provide the virtual experience isn’t easy for the exhibition industry. Neither are the people and the knowledge there.

Most virtual exhibitions are provided by third parties, which essentially creates a dependency on that type operation, and organising a virtual exhibition is not as smooth as for a physical show.

Enhancing the event experience is more important than digitising the show

So, why not to start a digital team to reinvent your business for the future? This question is so yesterday.

Innovation is not just I.T. The event business is still a content business. Many in the events industry are praising transformational events like SXSW, Burning Man, TED Talks, and the music festivals such as Tomorrowland.

All these events are not very digital, but the organisers certainly know how to integrate digital content into the event experience.

The experience and the participants’ journey in those festivals are truly transformative with both engagement and interaction integrated into all the audience’s touchpoints. While audience engagement has many personal, creative touches, they are not organised as mechanically as virtual events with roles played by robotic avatars.

Prospects post-Covid

When the pandemic is over, the event industry will return to face-to-face events. Virtual shows will be abandoned and more digitised content engagements such as live-streaming will be added the face-to-face experience.

Innovation will still play an important role in enhancing the event experience, but won’t replace the human touch of events. Same as when social media become part of our daily routine, it didn’t keep us from interacting with each other face to face. Poking me on the screen doesn’t even resemble a hug.


We have no option but to improve

HARVARD researchers are suggesting that social distancing might still be necessary until 2022 to keep the coronavirus from resurfacing. With the economic losses the events industry has been suffering, however, people are eager to get back to business.

So we must be constructive and committed to extra effort in over the weeks and months ahead as Covid-19 is contained.

The first concern that comes to mind when it comes to live business events is hygiene – it’s an absolute priority.

You may have a hygiene plan that appears to be common sense, but there’s a lot of nitty-gritty detail to consider when it comes to re-planning and executing events as hopes increase of Covid-19 infections coming under control in Asia.

Here are some cleantech, smart-sanitising and digital solutions we can apply at events. They are available on the market and any event agency looking to resume business in the “new normal” can use them as part of their improved practice.

1/ Sanitising tunnel

Equipment of this type is already in use at AsiaWorld-Expo and Hong Kong International Airport to screen health workers who carry out Covid checks on incoming passengers.
Watch it in action here

2/ SDST
This is a self-disinfecting coating that can be sprayed on the surface of screens or hardware to inactivate viruses and kill bacteria.
Watch it in action here

3/ Fair tracing
German company Adventics developed another interesting solution called FairTracing.

It maps the route of an exhibition attendee based on data points where that visitor was engaged, such as booths or coffee lounges. In the case of an emergency, the health authorities or epidemiologists can retrieve the data to study a possible contagion.

FairTracing emerged from Adventics founder Gunnar Heinrich’s lead-sourcing solution, Scan2Lead.

4/ Blockchain
HiCard also demonstrates a smart solution in using Blockchain to provide secure identity management. This enables health authorities to issue digital health certificates to certify that digital-pass holders have tested free of Covid-19.

We should also take note of Bill Gates’ inspiring 2015 TED Talk “The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready.”

On dealing with pandemics, Gates said “we need to pair those medical people with the military, move fast, do logistics and secure areas”. Now I’m not here to pitch to the events industry that we should follow military ways of working, but a serious approach to hygiene shouldn’t simply be about distributing masks or offering hand sanitiser.

Instead, we should improve the standard of workplace safety for the different stages and environments of an event. A systematic approach with a vigilant mindset is similar to how the military mobilises the resources and organises logistics.

To further illustrate, I asked my design team at Mills to help visualise workplace safety practices for different stages and environments when preparing an event under “The Improved Normal”.

Looking at the details the team articulated, it tells me that event logistics today are certainly not labour intensive, but more about brain work.

Though Covid-19 brought an unprecedented crisis to our industry, I believe it will also elevate business practice standards as we deal with health and safety concerns.

We have no option but to improve.


Get set for post-Covid ‘Great Push’

Since the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, the events industry has pushed the Great Pause button – forcing us to struggle with change in a catastrophic business climate.

According to UFI – the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, an estimated 2,400 fairs and exhibitions worldwide have been cancelled or postponed with over US$80 billion in economic losses.

I believe the numbers are way higher than UFI estimate.

Other than trade fairs and exhibitions, there are many local events, community events, marketing events, concerts etc that have all been cancelled. The Great Pause indeed is having an unprecedented impact on the events industry.

I don’t think any business or company was prepared for the hit from this economic tsunami. What is more important for us now, however, is how we prepare for change in the future.

Restructuring – that’s a nice phrase!

We are no different here in Hong Kong and Singapore, where my company is located. For at least three to four months during the pandemic it’s been dead without any business activity.

We need to rely on government financial aid while trimming our costs and keeping morale up. During the downtime we have reviewed our business, re-aggregated our assets and streamlined our operations.

Some people give this a nice name: “business restructuring”, while I call it “in search of the survival of fitness”.

Orchestrated by the Milton Exhibits Group (MEG), a major investor of Mills Design, which I founded in Singapore in 2016, MEG’s wholly owned Concept Communications Hong Kong business has been reshuffled with Mills to form a new entity called Mills Events Hong Kong.

The vision at Mills is to transform the event business into a more design-thinking and content-driven model. In these past years, we have seen a transformation starting from event marketing to experiential, which is now becoming “phy-gital” – a new term I can finally agree on after two decades of practising digital marketing.

Digital and physical converge

Mills is embarking on a post-Covid-19 journey in which digital content converges with physical events. Phy-gital demands a combination of physical space and digital technology to enhance the end-users’ engagement and experience. The market has already been practising this combination in many areas, such as retail and hospitality, and now it’s the turn of the events industry.

Compared to experiential marketing, which puts more emphasis on an immersive setup to stimulate the audience, a phy-gital experience enhances the marketability of an event through various digital touchpoints.

A good example of what I regard as phy-gital is the livestreaming of a physical event. Or, if you have followed the SXSW Conference and Festivals, you would notice that after the festival was cancelled this year, lots of creative SXSW content was curated for YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram, such as SXSH – Stay By Stay Home or CouchByCouchWest.

Such content will be a valuable marketing asset for SXSW when the event is re-opened in 2021. People might see all these online activities as alternatives during the pandemic when physical events cannot be organised. For me, I see a complete convergence when digital content finally becomes part of a physical event.

The skillset or intellectual resources are more or less interchangeable, but of course you need a digital or creative team to develop transformational content, and event planners who can organise and manage logistical requirements.

Forrest Gump’s chocolates

As Forrest Gump’s mamma said about life being like a box of chocolates: “You never you know what you’re going to get.” Now we have picked a dark flavour. It will taste bitter until you find the sweet spot. This Great Pause could be the Great Push for us to step outside our comfort zone.

In the past, I heard a lot of discussion in the market about the future of the events industry, but still too little has been done. During this Great Pause, my business is going through its greatest challenge. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that behind a crisis, there is always opportunity.

We must keep inventing, because when life returns to normal, we’ll find our sweet spot in business.


It is your website, not your ego

Many website contents are compiled with ego. I can easily tell by reading their short meta title with only the brand name.

Using the brand name as the keyword is not a problem. But what if a brand name is an acronym such as CVS, ACE, BYOD? It can be irrelevant to the actual product. In some cases, I’ve even seen all the pages of a website use the same brand keyword as the meta title which is obviously a mistake. That’s why I always suggest using functional keywords or product attribution keywords to write the meta titles and the contents.

No fancy

A complicated menu navigation not only confuses your viewers, but also creates difficulty for search engines.

To understand how search engine works is not difficult. Google has given a hint that the search engine crawlers actually follow links on the web pages. Think about what is the starting point of a web experience? Very likely we start navigating a website from the menu. 99 out of 100 websites have the menu navigation placed above the fold where we want to catch the visitors’ attention. But a fancy website design such as the one-page design with complex style scripting will make the website difficult for the search engines to follow and index the links on the page. Unless your technical team know exactly what they are doing, for example, using the hash tag with the pushstate correctly, I still suggest making your navigation as clean and simple as possible.

Guess which page is the most important page of your website?

I know the answer. The most important page cannot be only the homepage. Look closer. Do you think your contact-us page shouldn’t be more important than the about-us? If you cannot differentiate the content objective between these pages, then same as the search engines. They will be as confused as the human being.

SEO has evolved from competing the ranking to the website development best practice. Now SEO is actually content marketing. A portion of SEO practice is still very much linked to the technical aspects such as hosting, web server configuration, CMS configuration, etc. But the most important aspect of the SEO is content relevance.

SEO cannot influence people how to search

That’s why it is very important that you must do keywords research because it can identify the trend and intent for you. With all the data that a search engine can provide, you can develop a semantic profile to analyze the searchers’ behavior. As a marketer, you should always do this without SEO on your mind. Researching how people search is like reading the minds of your customers. Once you know what are your customers looking for, you can develop the relevant content for them.

Truth be told, you don’t need sophisticated SEO technique to understand how basic marketing works.