What’s the best way to live-stream a presentation? How can virtual reality transform a trade show? And, how many polls and surveys should be included in a virtual panel debate?
These are all important considerations for organisers, particularly while we have had to postpone live events, prompting the industry to find creative ways to take event content online.
But, as much as the spread of Coronavirus has upturned our sector, both regionally and globally, I firmly believe that face-to-face events will remain at our industry’s heart. Technology does have an increasingly big role to play, but not to the extent that physical events will be replaced by online alternatives.
Online sourcing solutions
Digitalisation allows us to enhance the value of events way beyond what they would be otherwise. Instead of repurposing content and experiences designed for the show floor and figuring out how to take them online, it’s much more effective to think about what visitors are trying to solve and how you can help to facilitate their needs.
Here at Informa Markets, we are investing in online product directories. These enable exhibitors to upload product information, including pictures, key features, specifications and even price lists, so that visitors have access to a unique online marketplace specific both to their industry and to their requirements.
The directories have become critical for some product-focused events such as Middle East Energy, and Arab Health, the region’s largest healthcare exhibition with thousands of products from more than 66 countries.
In the last five years the number of products listed has risen to over 30,000. The number of users has also increased to nearly 160,000, as each year more and more people search for anything from disposable gloves to scanning and imaging equipment.
The Arab Health product directory, Omnia Health, has gained so much traction that we are now looking to build in tendering capabilities to enable people to place orders for products that they would otherwise source at the show.
In another area of our business, we are developing a workflow solution that would give end-to-end opportunity for our market. Product level search through to purchase, but also with exhibitors and buyers being integrated via their ERPs into the process. This will turn the business from a tradeshow producer to being at the centre of a network of solutions and data. Everything from the provision of data insights, to trading platforms, to workflow solutions and events.
More generally, the directories help visitors to plan their event experience more effectively. And, following the Coronavirus outbreak, if we're moving into a phase where people’s time might be restricted at an exhibition, the more pre-planning they can do the better.
The power of valuable digital content
Digital content platforms are another big area of focus for us. Launched on each of our major market verticals, including real estate, energy and healthcare, they host a wide variety of useful and engaging material, including news stories, white papers and webinars.
Our energy content platform, energy-utilities.com, recently broadcast its first live webinar, in partnership with the Clean Energy Business Council. An hour long, it focused on the impact of COVID-19 on the delivery of power in the Middle East and North Africa and addressed important industry issues such as how to secure financing for power projects during the outbreak.
Our Cityscape brand also ran its first Arabic-language webinar on 20 April, covering the impact of COVID-19 on Egypt's real estate sector. And, in addition to our own branded webinars, we also produce digital campaigns for our exhibitors and sponsors pre- and post-show, to help raise brand awareness. This includes a multinational healthcare company which has signed up for a webinar series around Medlab, a key show in our healthcare vertical.
By publishing practical, meaningful and truly valuable content in one sector-specific digital hub, we not only help the industries that we serve, but we also strengthen our events’ brands by positioning them as go-to sources of key information, be it in-depth industry insights or news on the latest innovations.
To help people in our markets conduct business more efficiently, we are building a series of subscription-based workflow solutions. As an exhibition organiser, we have always focused heavily on the exhibitor. Now, these digital solutions, or knowledge resource platforms, target the end user, or buyer.
For example, Safety & Health Expo, the UK’s largest event for health and safety professionals, has its own platform that subscribers can access to receive the latest information about health and safety for their sector. It helps industry professionals to access the latest regulatory information and guidance whilst providing practical tools and templates for implementation in their businesses.
This is a hugely important product for Informa Markets, worth much more in revenue than the show itself, in the same sector. It’s completely standalone, 100 per cent digital and high growth. It's also resilient. As a result, the team is doing just as much business on the platform now as they were before the Coronavirus outbreak.
To help attendees find solutions in other sectors, we're looking to develop more products like this in our other markets, including jewellery, healthcare and fashion. We also have an aviation business vertical. Of this, a significant amount of our turnover comes from digital services including a knowledge resource platform that carries powerful data about airlines, for example, who is ordering what products in what quantities; the kind of detail that airports or baggage handling companies might want to use to inform their global strategies. In essence, we have incredibly important data that attendees can benefit from.
In Dubai, we have launched a similar knowledge resource platform around Cityscape for the real estate sector. The real opportunity for us – and our customers – is in offering niche information. For a small number of specific sectors, we can provide deep insight that no one else can.
At the event
The impact of Coronavirus on the events industry has been phenomenal. I am sure that the industry will navigate its way through this period of inactivity and recover in a meaningful way.
But as events come back on stream, we will see restrictions and regulations around their management and organisation. Technology can help us here too as it’s likely we will need to implement contactless registration to reduce queuing and physical contact, which in turn will help us to reduce waste as we stop printing badges.
There may even be some virtual matchmaking before the event so that when the exhibitor arrives, they know exactly where to go and who to meet based on a pre-arranged schedule. In the future, we’ll see a stronger fusion of physical and digital products to deliver greater value to our customers.
Why hasn’t technology featured more heavily in events until now? Momentum. We've just had so much pace across the industry taking us in the same direction that we've always gone in. In many ways that’s a good thing, but it can also be dangerous because it makes it harder to pause, step back, assess and innovate.
Everyone's been pushing in this fairly traditional way. COVID-19 has completely broken the momentum and it’s making us think about what it is that we need to do now. This is the time to rethink some of the traditions that we're so used to.
Digital events won’t replace face-to-face shows, but there will be a stronger fusion between digital and physical in the future. There was already a strong relationship between the two but there will be even more that we can do to help enhance the event experience in the months and years to come, from a pre-scheduling and pre-activities perspective through to actually facilitating better experiences during and post events as well.
We've always felt that the opportunities around digital and data are massive and yet underutilised and underexploited. If there is anything positive to take from the crisis it is that we are finally in a position where we have the breathing space to review our strategies, brainstorm new ideas and innovate with our business model.