The PCO view: Business events after lockdown
With micenet’s recent AIME edition hitting inboxes, here’s the editor’s (longer) cut of looking forward and back at the restart of business events after pandemic lockdowns, from the perspective of The Conference Company, a New Zealand founded PCO which now has offices in New Zealand and Australia.
February 2023 | By Bronwen Largier
For Australian-based Stephen Noble and New Zealand-based Jan Tonkin of The Conference Company, the shakeout from event pause induced by COVID is continuing into 2023.
Due to events’ longstanding placement in the calendar, some organisations are having their first in-person meeting since the pandemic started in early 2023.
“There’s a handful of those for sure,” says Tonkin, adding that it was a higher proportion than they expected. She says some international meetings hosted in New Zeland last year also moved their events into the back half of 2022 just to take advantage of the nation’s border opening.
The pair believe that pent-up demand, that eagerness to meet in person will carry through all of 2023.
“The number of meetings that were in the middle of ’22 coming back for their first meetings – I think it was almost…the honeymoon period,” says Noble.
“There was a level of natural ambient positivity that came into the event.
“The reason for being there [in 2022] was more about [being] with everyone together in person as opposed to why you would normally go to the meetings. I think we’ll certainly see a level of that into 2023 but I think it will consolidate more and then you’ll see after that…a little bit of that less pent-up [demand] once they get through the second [post-lockdown meeting],” he says.
“Right now people are just wanting to get back to their community.”
Once the novelty of the return to in-person events has worn off, Noble believes delegates will be more discerning about which meetings they attend.
“When they make that decision to go to that conference or that meeting or that destination, they’re going to want to get a whole lot more from that,” says Noble.
“We’ll start to see that pre and post touring come back in, a lot more families involved or accompanying persons. A whole lot more consideration about what they’re going to so that will probably naturally lead to less pent-up demand.”
There have been a few changes since face-to-face meetings resumed amongst The Conference Company’s primarily association client base.
One of the first things the team noticed was the impact of a live audience on presentation length.
“It was one thing that stood out for me, the first couple of deliveries we did, was just the amount of time every session was going over because all these speakers would start to ad lib a bit more, they were feeding off the audience, and that natural human connection created more use of time,” says Noble.
Tonkin says there has also been a greater appetite for interactivity after years on Zoom, although she believes technology is where it began.
“The level of participation seems to have gone quite a bit amongst audiences,” she says.
“I think it’s an app-enabled scenario where the fact that you can ask the questions and you can poll so easily using these apps now – everybody’s comfortable with them and the speakers know how to incorporate the answers to polls, the moderators know how to sift through a pile of questions coming in. There’s just a general level of comfort and expertise that’s actually been a really good enabler to keep the conversations in sessions much more lively and certainly more engaging.”
Noble believes this is just the beginning, with major generational change in conference delegates starting to take place.
“The whole integration of polling and live feedback and that sort of stuff is the tip of the iceberg,” he says.
“We’re also seeing the challenges of a significant change in the generations that are attending conferences and by 2030, Gen Z will be the largest percentage of the workforce so the drivers for those buying decisions are completely different than Gen Y, baby boomer and the rest,” says Noble.
“It’s a lot more linked to what do you stand for as an event, what is your purpose for being.
“People will integrate with events in a different way and that means they’re not just going to want to sit in the scientific sessions and listen to the session.”
“And that’s just going to start in ’23 and that’s just going to continue.”
Both Tonkin and Noble believe major changes in the way conference content is structured for associations may be on the way, in which a certain amount of what’s delivered at an event is decided during the event, based on what is resonating with the attendees.
“The concept behind it is this idea of agile programming,” says Noble.
“It’s like social media – if something’s trending you want more of it, right?”
With the changing model, organisers monitor which session were oversubscribed and then run a similar session again later in the program, for those who missed out.
“It could be a repeat session, it could be a build on that session that is then programmed into [intentionally free] slots,” says Noble.
Tonkin says there are both challenges and rewards to this model, particularly when considering the thirst for interactivity, as oversubscribed sessions are often workshop style, which means attendance is always capped to protect the dynamic in the room. On the other hand, rerunning the session in person is far superior to releasing a recording.
She says she saw a version of this free-form programming at the Women and Sport conference held in Auckland in November, which was a landmark conference for New Zealand. On one of the afternoons, a session called “tribes and topics” ran, which offered a variety of moderated spaces dedicated to different areas of interest within the overall meeting subject.
“They did have some content pre-prepared, but it was able to be moulded to the needs of the audience and the way in which the session was going to flow. That was really interesting to watch them do that. And then to publicise it through the app through the previous two days to get people tuned in and going, ‘come along, experiment with us, be part of this, see what you think’.”
With the unfettered return of meetings, Noble says associations are keen to spread their events across a wider geography and have more gathering touchpoints throughout the year, rather than just one national conference in a destination where a multi-year deal has been struck.
“We’re starting to see more of a push for getting back to connection with the membership geographically.
“We’re starting to see a lot more trying to connect across the year. And this is once again coming back to member-based relevance and how you maintain that connection with your cohort.”
He says this helps associations deliver more to each member and to recruit new members by demonstrating their value to potential members at their convenience.
Overall, associations – some of which are quite conservative in their approach – are becoming more open to change, according to Noble. He believes it’s partly due to a transition from executive officers heading up associations to chief executive officers taking the helm, who typically approach their roles with a more strategic mindset. But there are also other factors influencing attitudes to change.
“Is that because there’s a realisation that, hey we can’t just keep doing what we’ve always been doing, or there is a realisation that now there’s a level of permission, post having not been able to meet, to be able to do something. I think there’s a level of that coming in,” says Noble.
“It’s always a slow burn – a really slow burn.
“What I’m also seeing through that is a conscious thought process around how the meeting [is] creating the opportunities for all attendees. And that sounds like something that should have been in place for some time and if you really did a hard critique on that, it probably wasn’t.”
Noble says changes like giving poster sessions more importance – ensuring they don’t clash with other sessions and removing mini oral sessions – are helping one association boost the impact of its major meeting for members, by increasing the opportunity for abstracts to be seen by senior association members who hold the power to catalyse careers.
The Conference Company is starting to look at interaction at association events as a more wholistic indicator of meeting success, rather than measuring it by the number of delegates in sessions.
“Some of the best things that come out of an annual meeting might not be the session in the room, it’s actually the collisions in the corridors,” says Noble.
“Those collisions are actually so much more important for people going to meetings than actually being in the room sometimes.
“The way that we’re facilitating [that assessment] now is changing out a whole lot of the questions we’re asking on the evaluation.
“[We] used to ask questions around ‘rate the sessions’, now we’re asking questions around, what were the takeouts from now and then a year’s time. Did you have collaborations that were ignited at this conference?”
Noble says heatmapping all areas of a conference and exhibition could yield some great data and learnings for event owners and organisers, if it was done in a way that balanced delegates’ privacy with meaningful information collection. He says The Conference Company had experimented with heatmapping in the past, but the technology wasn’t quite there yet and there were concerns about the “Big Brother” nature of it.
“We get a whole lot of data from interaction within sessions, especially [in a] virtual environment. But actually in person at an event that really rich data of how [delegates] are engaging with the meeting in a wholistic way, we don’t have,” says Noble.