Most in-person events organized by industry membership associations are on hold. Even if conditions improve to allow them to resume, consultant Tony O’Connor doesn’t think they should in the same way. As a leader for the Global Business Travel Association in the Australasia region, he has an inside view. His vision for a new model relies more on virtual collaboration and less on sponsorship dollars.

The Covid-19 disruption to the economy is an historic opportunity to reset and rebuild many things, including industry associations such as GBTA, ACTE and the many national bodies that exist under or alongside them. The inevitable evaporation of sponsorship money due to a comatose travel industry and the absence of conferences and events means that associations need a new model to endure.

Realistically, the travel industry sponsors that survive these times will have minimal marketing budgets for at least a year — and probably much longer — yet travel buyers still need education, representation and good networking.

This industry needs an association of, for and by the travel buyer. This is how nearly all of the associations started out before they primarily became sales channels for suppliers. Even if such a reset back to the original purpose is not easy, I think it is worth thinking about.

What I have in mind is a virtual-heavy alternative not dependent on supplier money. Good virtual alternatives to costly physical conferences are now available and improving. Education and networking are fast heading in this direction in other procurement categories.

Even with the marketing included, the cost of a virtual event typically is 5 percent to 10 percent of face-to-face, tradeshow-oriented events, according to Nigel Wardropper, managing director of Procurement And Supply Australia. They are also cheaper to attend and, without the need to travel, much easier to attend. Attendees don’t face the all-or-nothing choice of committing multiple days of their valuable time. Virtual events also are not limited by borders. Organizers can run global, 24-hour conferences with different regions and languages coming on-stream at different times.

Tony O’Connor, Butler Caroye Asia Pacific founder and managing director, and GBTA-Australia & New Zealand director

Virtual conferences can also deliver better outcomes, with high rates of engagement between suppliers and buyers, according to Wardropper. Buyers may be less averse to crossing that “gotcha” threshold into a supplier’s booth. They may more easily explore, discover and then engage. Suppliers obviously also benefit from this.

The virtual expo tends to be more democratic. More suppliers get more traffic. In the face-to-face setting, having a small booth on the quiet side of the building away from the main doors can be a very lonely experience with a poor ROI.

Attendees can access all sessions of interest without as many scheduling conflicts. Device-based features promise healthy rates of feedback and session participation. Relying less on stage presence and more on thoughtful preparation and careful consideration of audience value, presenters may be more focused. The platforms on which virtual events are held are suited for gamification and other innovative forms of engagement. Buyers and suppliers can schedule meaningful, one-on-one virtual meetings, both in advance and in real time as things unfold. Even social activity is facilitated through simulations that allow you to mingle and meet. What’s missing are the supplier-sponsored nightclub parties featuring a lot of thumping music that makes productive conversations difficult.

Data is a big advantage offered by virtual events. Suppliers can legitimately track visitors and types of interest. There are many possibilities for adding value and ways to protect privacy. Useful, high-quality data can be gathered from surveys and other interactions during the event. This can be the base for subsequent research and industry feedback.

Critics say virtual events are just clusters of webinars, and that plenty of information is available online anyway. The real purpose of an event, they say, is the networking.

Fair enough. Nobody suggests a screen can completely replace the experience of attending a physical event. But this view understates the sophistication and features of the latest systems. A shift from physical to virtual now can be a net positive in terms of business outcomes on both sides of the table, and the cost for everybody is much less.

With a low-cost, virtual activity schedule in place, what might a reset buyer-driven association look like?

With most of the sponsorship money gone, there would be reliance on membership and attendance fees anyway. These fees alone could cover the lower cost of a virtual event. While research and other activities probably need to be scaled back at first, extra money from leveraging data could help rebuild education.

In time, supplier sponsorship money would return. This could be managed in a way so as not to distort the association’s purpose and activities. Suppliers could pay for access to the virtual networking opportunities, direct virtual meetings, virtual booth visits and sales demonstrations — without directly sponsoring education sessions, and without broad sponsorship that buys overall influence. 

Any modest money from suppliers would be a bonus on top of membership and attendance fees. This could go to a development fund supporting education and funding the return of some physical activity when feasible.

Some travel managers see associations as too political and inward looking. For years they have talked of the diminishing value of attending the events. Buyers from medium and smaller-sized organizations often feel overlooked in these forums.

While I have no connection with or interest in any virtual meeting or networking system or company, I do represent GBTA in my part of the world. I may be putting my position at risk by writing this column. But I hope that my words are viewed as they are intended, as a genuine effort to improve travel buyer representation and create a commercial model for associations to survive and prosper through this period of industry crisis.

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