Digital events aren’t going anywhere; the events industry needs to embrace them to survive after COVID

Spencer Green, chairman and founder, GDS Group, believes companies must continue to embrace digital events post-COVID in order to ensure growth.

a video conference graphic

When COVID-19 struck at the beginning of the year, as an events company, we made the conscious decision to go all-in on digital, and not just for the foreseeable lockdown period.

We made the assumption back in March that the events industry would be among the last to return to any form of normality. We therefore assumed that the next 18 months (at least) would be disrupted by COVID. This spurred us to invest much more heavily in our digital solutions.

This decision proved to be the right one, as not only were we able to stay in business during the lockdown, but the business is on track to grow 30% this year. Considering that 80% of our revenue in 2019 came from the 60 executive summits we hosted around the world, this was a dramatic shift for the business to undertake in a matter of weeks. Some would call this “pivoting,” but for us, it felt more like jumping off a mountain, simultaneously performing a backwards somersault and a 1080-degree spin, and somehow landing on our feet.

Those events companies that are still dabbling with Zoom to stay afloat while they wait for this whole thing to blow over will be in for a shock. The lesson? The events industry will never return to the way it was, so you need to change now.

Deliver outcomes, not events

While coronavirus was busy turning the world upside-down, our customers made it clear that they still wanted to do business. Sales of our ‘Meet the Boss’ digital roundtable offering grew by 300% between the months of April-June for example; this was the clearest sign that our customers still wanted to trade. It was our responsibility to respond. Our customers still needed the outcomes of our events, even if they couldn’t attend them in person. They still needed to find new customers, to learn from their peers and understand the latest trends.

Instead of pausing the business and focusing on how quickly we could hold conferences again, we looked at how we could deliver these same outcomes virtually. We asked ourselves; can we digitally transform the business to deliver the same outcomes for our customers in lieu of physical events? We were able to make the shift to digital because GDS was never really an events company; we are, and have always been, a facilitator of solutions to real-world business challenges. That is our goal. We just happened to achieve that by holding events which brought purchasers and providers together. Today we are doing the same with digital services.

As a result of pivoting (or spinning/somersaulting) our entire business to digital events practically overnight, not only were we able to stay in business during the lockdown, but we grew. I am not saying this to brag. I am saying this because I want my colleagues and competitors to thrive too. The business world needs a thriving events industry to propel it forward, so the more the merrier. Now is not the time to pine for the events industry as it was. Now is the time to flourish by focusing on delivering the same outcomes via digital means.

A “digital first” future for the events industry

Physical events will make their bold return one day, but I believe the events industry as a whole has become irreversibly “digital first”. For anyone paying attention, this should not come as a shock. The pandemic did not cause this change, it was simply the catalyst that accelerated a switch to digital events that was already happening.

Events companies and their customers had been ready to embrace digital experiences for years, but tradition, inertia and perhaps a fear of change had kept the industry where it was. COVID simply removed the excuses and unlocked a decade’s worth of pent-up change in record time.

Our entire business is now committed to delivering virtual events that are more powerful and data driven than our previous physical portfolio, creating an opportunity for the future that will play a key role in how executives approach business post COVID. Being able to deliver immersive digital experiences is not just important, it is simply something every events company should be focusing on.

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