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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  1. Tony, from the buyer side, I love the idea of a virtual expo. Access to many different providers on the expo floor has been one of the main benefits of attending the GBTA conference, but my attendance at the conference has become less frequent over the last several years. Beyond just the concern many of us on the buyer side have expressed regarding the GBTA leadership and direction, there is also a cost consideration for buyers. The cost of attending the conference has been harder to justify, and COVID-19 has had an impact on our travel budgets as well. A virtual expo is worth at least attempting, because it provides access to suppliers and buyers while addressing cost concerns of both.

  2. Tony makes some very valid points. I recently attended a virtual conference in addition to participating in one of its panel discussions. It certainly was convenient and had several benefits above an in-person event. One plus in particular was that I didn’t have to miss anything. All of the sessions were recorded and accessible for a period of approximately two weeks. Often times at conferences there are several sessions presented concurrently, requiring attendees to choose between them. This one feature in itself provided a value that would not have been available had the event been live and in-person. On the contrary, the exhibit hall and networking were a bit awkard and difficult to navigate effectively.

    Certainly there is a time and place for everything. Right now at this time, the place is our computer screens.

    That said, given the nature of our industry, in-person events are almost mandatory. Business travel and meetings are all about making connections. These events give us first hand knowledge of what to do (or not do) in order to provide the best possible experience for our travelers/attendees throughout their journey. To advocate for our industry moving away from in-person events is counter-intuitive and akin to shooting ourselves in the foot. Travel and meetings are what we do.

    I agree wholeheartedly . . . there are events that have put education second to big parties, VIP events, and key note speakers earning six figure fees. We need to get back to providing relevant content, think tanks, roundtables and networking opportunities that will empower both buyers and suppliers with the information and connections they need to thrive. Further, as Tony noted, our associations need to get back to serving its buyer members’ needs, regardless of the size or maturity of their programs, rather than dishing them up as chum to exhibitors who are paying far too much for booth space.

    Personally, I’m looking forward to working with industry colleagues to being part of the solution.

  3. The latest technology in videoconferencing is remarkable. However, in the M&E space, I side more with the critics: that the real purpose of an event is the networking. If anything, I believe videoconferencing will more likely come to replace internal events as opposed to external ones (when the pandemic is behind us), as travel costs become increasingly harder to justify – especially in a depressed economy.

    A close acquaintance organizes tradeshows in the food & beverage arena. They’ve been forced to either postpone or propose virtual alternatives. The response to the latter is generally, “No thanks, I can schedule a Zoom meeting myself very well. That’s not what I pay for.”

    As Warren Buffett once said, “people will never see eye-to-eye if they don’t meet face-to-face.” Face-to-face encounters allow people to build trust and common ground beyond just work, and it’s this connection that helps establish long-lasting collaborations beyond businesses and their clients. I’m willing to bet my shirt that in the future, those companies that will continue to support face-to-face meeting, either direct or at events, will gain the upper hand over their competitors that do not (assuming a similar product). No matter what, it’s never just about price.

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