Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Events in the age of Covid: from clusterf**k to comeback kid. How the pandemic changed events forever.

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

By Diane Carters, Client Services Manager at Broadsword

In times of serious social crisis, inevitably cultural changes will be sparked in various ways, but one of the most significant changes seen historically is in the language we use to express ourselves as a result. 

The term “Clusterf**k” originated as military slang and dates back to the Vietnam War, where it was coined to describe the result of the disastrous combination of too many high-ranking officers and too little on-the-ground information. The “cluster” part of the word allegedly refers to the officers’ oak leaf cluster insignia.

We have seen a similar outbreak of new words to describe the pandemic: 

Quarantini – A cocktail made with whatever booze you had available.

Covidiot – An ignorer of public health advice 

Zoomface – A debilitating awareness of your own face in Zoom meetings

Over the course of the pandemic, Covid has changed everything from our ways of communicating to transforming our working patterns and social behaviours. 

Practically overnight, the biggest health crisis our generation has ever seen also brought the live events industry to its knees.  By January 2021, an estimated 400,000 people had lost their jobs as a result of the restrictions placed on live events and the withdrawal of government support. 

According to data captured by marketing knowledge hub Markletic, in 2020 whilst the majority of businesses cancelled working from the office, the number of organisations planning a virtual event doubled.  The number of webinars grew 162% last year with attendance up 251%, according to the On24 Webinar Benchmarks report.

Those first virtual events for many organisations were clusterf**k central. Hastily planned and reliant on speakers trapped at home with patchy wifi, they floundered without the right technical support or infrastructure in place. At best, some simply tried to replicate the live event experience and found attendees zoned out after a few hours. 

But the events industry and the professionals who have made this their career, are nothing if not boundlessly creative and resilient.  With the strictest limits on the delivery method for events, in addition to the new production challenges,  organisers had to work harder to make their content engaging to keep attendees from switching off.   A 2020 report by Amex revealed that 54% of event planners spent more of their time and attention on the attendee experience rather than production.  

Events gradually became more like TV, with budgets being spent on glossy opening credits, professional hosts, script-writing and motion graphics. On demand content housed on custom built platforms started to resemble a popular streaming service like Netflix, with attendees able to select pre-recorded sessions by interest, location or time zone, all from the comfort of their homes. 

Now with the tentative return to hosting audiences in person,  organisers are back to experimenting with event formats and venues. Cinemas have been gaining in popularity to host live streamed or hybrid events.  Alongside the obvious benefits of having a large screen already in place with robust internet and technical support for streaming, the tiered seating makes it less obvious that the room is probably only half full.   A recent poll conducted by the BBC, found that 50 of the UK’s biggest employers have said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time.  How this will impact events has become increasingly clear – the choice now needs to be there to cater for both remote and in person attendees. 

Along with trends in creating a TV studio style environment for live broadcasts, organisers have been looking to replicate TED talk style events for inspiration. Stripped back design, slick but barely there production, whippet smart and short delivery, relying on the speaker and not a glitzy backdrop to wow the audience.  

This reliance on compelling content, expertly delivered is of course not new, organisers have always sought out and fought over the best speakers and panellists for their events, but with virtual events content is now working harder than ever.  Agendas for traditional one day conferences have been reduced to perhaps 2-4 hours of live content with the rest available on demand. For attendees to feel the benefit of attending, even remotely, speakers have to draw a crowd and make an immediate impact. 

Making that emotional connection to the audience is also far harder through a screen which is why storytelling has gained such traction in the last year. Numerous studies have shown that the brain is far more stimulated by narrative than by hard facts. In the last year in particular, the power of shared experience has never been stronger.  This was evident in the reactions to Keir Starmer’s keynote address at the Labour Party Conference in which he drew on personal anecdotes from his childhood and lines of his favourite poetry. Those who were polled afterwards having seen clips from the speech reacted more positively than those polled after both Boris Johnson and Corbyn’s first conference speeches.

Further positive changes in the events industry are also apparent in the renewed focus on issues of sustainability, diversity and inclusion. Having the world grind to a halt served as a very real wake up call for everyone that change will sometimes happen with us or without us. Many have seen the popularity of virtual events as a positive for the fight against climate change. When you consider that the single biggest contributor to an event’s carbon footprint is travel – an estimated 90%, it’s easy to see why. 

Some have also credited the shift to virtual events as paving the way for quieter voices, empowering more diverse contributions. It has certainly made a significant impact to accessibility  as research from disability marketing agency Purple Goat found earlier this year.  “For people with physical disabilities, virtual events often remove the biggest barriers, as well as barriers often not considered, such as networking, when using a wheelchair, people are at a lower height than everyone else, meaning it can often be difficult to be seen or heard in busy places. Virtual networking removes this barrier”.

It’s clear that in the post pandemic world, events aren’t going back to the way they were before and the changes that are here to stay are now as fixed as the new words entering our dictionaries. Despite the challenges now posed by hybrid events and the endless quest for audience engagement, the mountain we’ve already had to climb to get here makes the view from the top even more breathtaking. 

Perhaps it’s time to break out the quaratinis again –  just leave me out of the Zoom quiz ok?