May 14, 2020 Mark Bornstein
A marketer’s tale about the day our physical event strategy went virtual
While it seems like a long time ago, it really wasn’t. Time has become elastic in these days of social distancing and sheltering-in-place. But I still remember the day when I knew our physical events had to shut down.
We were a few weeks into a Lunch and Learn tour across the US and Canada. Throughout February and early March, I had been in five different cities and we were packing the house everywhere we went. A second leg of the tour was planned for more US cities in April and then we were going to head to Europe.
The coronavirus, which started in Wuhan, China, in December seemed like this far off thing like a monster hiding under someone else’s bed. When we started the tour in Toronto in mid-February, we didn’t give the virus, traveling or event attendance, a second thought. But with each passing week, the news kept getting worse. The virus was here. We were told by our government that it was no big deal, and we shouldn’t worry. And people clearly didn’t. We kept the tour going and were still turning out big audiences in every city.
However, by early March, things were getting worrisome. The virus was spreading. I was traveling with disinfectant and wiping down the seats on every airplane and cab I got into. People were talking about it more and more at each event. But still, they showed up.
COVID-19 Gets Real
The week of March 9 was the final two dates of the first leg of the tour. On March 10 we had an event in Palo Alto, California. We were getting worried whether anyone would even show. We debated canceling but event confirmations kept rolling in, so we decided to move forward. The room was packed, but there was a difference. People seemed hesitant, nobody shook hands; there were leg taps and elbow bumps in greeting and the virus was all anyone was talking about. I polled the audience and asked them if any of them would be attending a physical conference in the near future. No hands. I asked if their companies were going to be restricting travel. Every hand went up. Then I asked how many expected to be working from home for the foreseeable future. People just looked stunned at the thought. How much longer could this last?
Our final event of the first leg of the tour was to be held two days later on March 12 in Los Angeles. Attendance was affected. We had around 50 people confirmed. The day before the event, cancellations started coming in. The news was breaking that Tom Hanks had the virus. TOM HANKS! The NBA was going to suspend the season. This was getting real.
Details about the true threat of COVID-19 were becoming clearer. The CDC issued specific guidance on preventing the spread of the virus. We made the decision public safety was more important than a marketing program, but the idea of canceling was against everything we stood for as a company. So, 48 hours before the LA event, we decided to go virtual. We immediately sent an email out to everyone who had registered for the event. Nobody complained.
The Move to Virtual
We really wanted to recreate the physical experience so we built a webinar console with all of the event branding elements to give it an event look and feel. We integrated links to all of the content and swag giveaways we had at the physical events too. I delivered the presentation from our office studio (It was the last time I would see the office). During the event, I pushed out polls and took questions to make the experience just as interactive as the in-person events were and it was a great event.
Perhaps the silver lining of moving the LA event from Physical to Digital was that we were actually able to get more people into the event. When we decided to move to virtual on the 11, we took the liberty of dropping an email to everyone in LA that had not registered for the physical event. Why not? Well, we ended up getting twice as many people into the digital event then were even registered for the physical event. So, in a weird way, we were more successful by not getting on that plane.
Since then, I have presented a number of virtual events and conference experiences. And each experience is getting better than the last. They are engaging, interactive and even fun. People are showing up in huge numbers. They are networking and connecting virtually. I have even seen virtual events with digital afterparties, complete with DJs, and dancing.
It’s amazing how quickly we have gone from Tom Hanks to a world of engaging digital event experiences, but here we are. And marketing will never be the same.