How Covid-19 transformed the events industry


The events industry was devastated when the pandemic first struck, but now this vital marketing and communications tool is being reimagined for online audiences ­– with impressive results

The events industry’s reason for being is to bring groups of people together. Talking, listening and laughing in close proximity with strangers creates the perfect breeding ground for new ideas and partnerships. Unfortunately, it is also the ideal environment for transmitting airborne viruses.

As a result, the industry has been one of the worst casualties of the restrictions imposed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Weddings and music festivals have been the highest-profile victims, but corporate events accounted for £31 billion of the overall £70 billion generated by the UK events industry in 2019.

This means that the trade fairs, awards ceremonies, away-days and thought-leadership forums that formed key parts of corporate marketing programmes are on hold for the foreseeable future. With them are the significant opportunities they generated for content marketing: debates and panel discussions that could be streamed live or recorded for company websites, extending event reach by enabling comment on sessions via social media, and awards ceremonies generating press coverage and positive website content.

However, enforced isolation and remote working have underlined the value of getting people together like never before. So, rather than accept defeat, corporate events organisers have harnessed technology and creativity to hold virtual events. Along the way, they have learnt even more about what produces results for their clients.

Into a virtual world

“It’s been an accelerated, forced transition into being a digital media company,” says Matthew McAllester, CEO of events business Intelligence Squared. “Our two main revenue streams disappeared overnight in March and we had to work quickly to solve the problem. The answer was for our events to become virtual.”

Intelligence Squared has two main lines of business: organising live debates and talks by leading political, cultural and scientific figures; and putting together bespoke debates and discussions for corporate clients. It also has podcast series including ‘How I Found My Voice’, which explores how some of the world’s greatest artists and thinkers became such compelling communicators. When paying audiences of up to 900 people per event disappeared overnight, the company worked fast to add more online events – which could have bigger audiences – and offer a monthly subscription service to a far wider global audience to cover the revenue shortfall. It now has “hundreds of thousands” of people watching its content on YouTube and listening to its podcasts, says McAllester.

Striking the right balance

Fortunately, reliable online events platforms were already up and running when the pandemic struck. Good examples include Hopin, which has been used for a number of European fintech-sector events, says Ioana Grapa, Global Events Lead at Amsterdam-based banking technology firm Mambu. Such platforms now have ‘networking’ capabilities, where attendees can get in touch with the people they want to meet, just as they could approach them in person at a conference.

Yet even digital native companies have had to totally rethink their events, which pre-pandemic were often designed to get remote teams out from behind their computers and to foster spontaneous, face-to-face conversations.

Mambu was quickly able to move client events such as webinars and podcasts from regional marketing teams online. However, after an initial push to keep its planned schedule on track, and attending other companies’ events, Ioana felt it was time to shift the focus to the reason for holding the event – rather than the simple act of holding it.

“People across the events industry panicked a bit and felt they had to compensate for what they couldn’t do,” she says. “But there were so many digital events going on, they started to lose the unique character the in-person events are known for.”

The company decided not to hold its biggest event, the Mambu Summit, virtually, instead delaying it until it can be held in the real world, with remote access on top. Ioana has also been working on new ways of reaching Mambu’s audience, in concise formats to hold the attention of a working-from-home audience. This includes short videos talking about new products and services, podcasts from the different regions of the world where it operates and smaller, digital roundtable meetings.

“They’re not events as such, but you can address the points you want to, using different ways,” she says.

Back to reality

Some corporate events have seamlessly moved online and McAllester of Intelligence Squared says many of the large corporates it works with have found the format to be more effective, because many more colleagues from around the world can attend, without the time and cost of travel.

However others, such as events to reward sales teams or connect with distributors, will certainly return to the real world as soon as possible.

Four Corners, which creates brand experiences for companies ranging from Coca-Cola to National Geographic, has embraced online events during this time, for example hosting virtual awards ceremonies using augmented reality. On screen, it looks like the winner is being presented with the award in person.

“Brands still need to connect with their staff and customers, so we’ve taken it as an opportunity and we’re really pleased with the technology products we have,” says director Mark James. “But our clients would really love to get back in a room together. Everyone has virtual fatigue to a degree.”

Clarity in a crisis

The events industry has undoubtedly been through a torrid year and around half a million jobs are at risk in the industry while lockdowns and restrictions persist, according to the One Industry, One Voice coalition of events trade bodies. Yet the ability to hold virtual events, and the fact that companies want to do so, is cause for optimism, says James.

“In March, all our events were brought to a complete stop, but clients were on the phone asking ‘could we try it another way instead?’ They invest money in events because it’s of value to their business: it’s not just a frivolous party, it’s a really big part of their marketing and communications strategy. It’s also part of the sales strategy – and none of that stops.”

Avatars hang out in Deutsche Bank’s virtual beach bar

Last year, London’s Excel centre hosted 11,000 people for Sibos, one of the banking industry’s biggest networking events. This year, Excel is a Nightingale hospital and Sibos went virtual.

The event joined a long list of virtual conferences and trade shows in 2020 and after attending a number of these, Jacob Howard, VP of marketing at Deutsche Bank and chair of the financial services group at the Chartered Institute of Marketing, began questioning how he could make the bank’s virtual Sibos ‘stand’ as engaging and interactive as possible.

Like everything in 2020, this called for a last-minute change of plan: six weeks before Sibos, Howard contacted Sinespace, a maker of virtual reality worlds, and asked it to create a ‘festival of finance’ around a virtual version of Deutsche Bank’s exhibition stand.

“To encourage people to join us, we wanted to make it as fun as possible,” he says.


Bright orange banner adverts on the event’s site were designed to look like music festival posters and listed everything that was going on in the virtual world. This ranged from virtual yoga sessions led by Deutsche Bank staff who teach yoga on the side to speakers from the European Central Bank and Google addressing the audience in a virtual auditorium. There was an art tent, inspired by the bank’s well-known art collection, where visitors could chat to the avatar version of the performance artist Tom Pope. Networking took place at a virtual beach bar.

“One of the main downsides of virtual events is the lack of networking, but in this virtual world, your avatar can approach the people you were hoping to have the chance to speak to and start conversations just as you would in real life,” says Howard.

Visitors logged in and chose their own avatar, customising their hair colour and appearance, then they moved around the world at their own speed. Over the four days of the Sibos show, the platform had more than 2,000 logins, which the marketing team equated to around 700 client visits.

Deutsche Bank also worked with Sinespace on a separate event for group treasurers and the average time attendees stayed online was four hours, far longer than for a typical webinar, says Howard.

“Banks are often seen as laggards when it comes to creative marketing, but we wanted to do something genuinely innovative and stand out,” he adds. “Of course our sales people want to get back to meeting in person, but for the time being, we’re working with virtual platforms and we want them to get better and be more interactive.”