COVID-19 has dealt the events industry a blow that far surpasses any other occurrence in modern history. No business has been left untouched but while some have crippled under the coronavirus outbreak, others have pivoted in ways they wouldn’t have imagined months ago when the outlook for 2020 was so bright.
“Prior to the pandemic my team was planning hybrid events, which combines live in-person and virtual components. Now our offerings are primarily virtual-only,” explains Alicia Jenelle of her self-named company, Alicia Jenelle Events.
This may not seem like a huge upheaval given the Toronto-based corporate and social event planning firm had prior experience in the virtual realm; however, the delivery of online events has changed as more people turn to digital tools while working remotely, requiring Jenelle and her team to adapt.
“Historically, corporate events leveraged a virtual component by live-streaming the actual event to viewers that were unable to attend. This means the event was not typically curated for the online user; it primarily focused on the in-person attendee. As such, it was very disengaging for that virtual participant,” she says. “Add to that a ton of distractions in work-from-home setups and the fact many attendees are experiencing Zoom fatigue, which essentially means they’re tired of taking part in virtual meetings, and you’re facing many hurdles when planning an online-only event today.”
Rising to the challenge, Jenelle has experimented with what works best and adjusted accordingly. The key, she says, is maintaining the audience’s attention and engagement, which can be achieved through gamification — applying the competitive nature and structure of gaming to educate attendees and immerse them in an event — digital swag bags, interactive activities (like an unexpected celebrity chef cooking demo) and providing enriching content delivered by a dynamic speaker.
“But instead of watching a speaker on stage present for 45 minutes, that time is now cut down significantly. Most of the speakers we now bring on present for no more than 12 minutes,” notes Jenelle, adding the extra time can then be devoted to something more participatory like a Q&A period to keep the event moving and hold the audience’s focus.
Gordon Breault of the Speakers Bureau of Canada agrees that shorter speaking sessions help keep attendees engaged; however, this doesn’t mean it takes any less time to prepare.
“Successful virtual speakers put more work into the event than if it were a live presentation,” says the speaker’s agency’s co-founder. “The speaker must become familiar with the software, background setups and virtual platform provided by the client. It is also important to do more research into a potential larger audience, learning objectives, key points for audience participation and virtual interaction, as well as speaking topics. There is nothing worse than being in a virtual session that does not apply to one’s position, industry or challenges faced.”
Since the government lockdown measures were first introduced in mid-March, Breault says he’s seen an increase in demand for inspiring, motivational talks as organizations try to maintain high-energy employees who are optimistic about the future during the health crisis. Other popular speaking topics include dealing with change, doing more with less, effective communication and collaboration while working remotely, inclusion and diversity, mental health and stress management.
“We are all doing our best to cope with situations we have never felt or seen before,” he says. “Although some are having great success with the changes, there are also many that are struggling to manage in dealing with work and everyday life situations.”
This includes speakers themselves who have lost business due to the cancellation and postponement of live in-person events. And even though the commitment level is a lot higher to deliver a successful online presentation, many speakers have since reduced their rates. Breault says most of the agency’s speakers are accepting 75 per cent of their regular fee for a virtual event and some have even taken a 50 per cent price cut. Then there are those who still request their full fee but will include follow-up virtual sessions at no extra cost.
“A strong, focused event that’s not open to the public will make the speaker most comfortable with reducing their rate,” explains Breault. “Larger events that require the speaker to do more research usually increases the fee. So, too, does recorded sessions to be distributed on public media channels, which also leads to a lot more complicated agreement processes.”
While ultimately the hiring cost depends on the event and speaker, Breault recognizes flexibility is required in today’s climate. Just like other events industry professionals, speakers need to adapt to the changing landscape; otherwise, they risk being left behind.
“We believe a live presentation is still more effective than a virtual event, but the new platforms that have rolled out have created a new market for speakers and given them ways to add value before, during and after an event,” he says.