Companies like IBM and HBO detail how they're planning to return to live events safely as restrictions ease up

  • Advertisers are ready to jump back into live events as pandemic restrictions ease.
  • Events agencies are reporting brisk demand for the chance to market to people in-person.
  • But they may not approach their pre-pandemic spending, and some events will stay virtual.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The event marketing business collapsed in 2020, and CMOs that rely on in-person events to reach customers made a dramatic shift to virtual gatherings.

But now, advertisers are planning for live events to begin again.

  • CMOs are planning new in-person promotions for the coming months as states loosen pandemic restrictions and lockdown-weary consumers look to get outside, said Alison Delzell, SVP of experience at ad agency The Marketing Arm.
  • Chris Weil, CEO of events agency Momentum Worldwide, which works with Walmart, American Express, and Verizon, said all clients have had talks about events in the past month. He predicted that the second half of 2021 would be the busiest in the agency’s 38-year history.
  • Rich Goodstone, co-founder of agency Superfly, said he’s seen major brands snap up sponsorships to live music festivals like October’s Outside Lands based on stronger-than-expected ticket sales.

Half of marketers spend at least 21% of their budgets on events, so any increase in coming months will be significant — even if 65% of those surveyed said they don’t expect events spending in 2021 to match pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, in-person promotions have been scaled back to comply with local regulations, and executives said all events will retain some virtual elements.

Marketers are still planning with health risks in mind

An event promoting “Lovecraft Country.”HBO

Some advertisers are actively planning indoor and outdoor events while heeding evolving regulations and recommendations like CDC director Rochelle Walkensky’s warning that Michigan should tighten restrictions.

The Marketing Arm and the Cleveland Clinic created a QR code that lets all attendees watch a video on safety measures before they enter an event space.

FX Networks is designing more touch-free displays and looking into reservation systems to manage capacity and minimize health risks at its events, said Kenya Hardaway, SVP of integrated promotions. The network canceled plans for dancers and sign spinners at a car wash it created to promote its crime drama “Snowfall” in February and diverted some of the money to coronavirus testing, Hardaway said.

HBO had to delay all-important drive-in screenings to promote “Lovecraft Country” last summer after coronavirus cases spiked in the markets where they’d been scheduled, said Patrick Jong, executive director at HBO’s ad agency Giant Spoon. This year, the company created a pandemic-tailored interactive display, HBO Max Orbit, for the virtual SXSW Festival in March, and plans to bring it to select AT&T stores this month, said Jim Marsh, SVP of program marketing.

Colleen Bisconti, VP of events and conferences at IBM, said the company is seeking contracts with more flexibility. “We ended up losing a ton of money with things that had to be cancelled and other unseen costs,” she said.

IBM has begun scheduling gatherings with 10 people or fewer in the Asia Pacific region, where the pandemic has largely passed, so it can collect data like attendees’ contact information while managing risk, said Bisconti.

“What happens when someone tries to enter your booth without a mask? We can control far more at a proprietary event,” she said.

Advertisers aren’t abandoning virtual events just yet

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Some B2B advertisers are keeping virtual events as a major part of their strategy after their attendance boomed last year.

IBM, American Express, and Microsoft each saw attendance at signature conferences increase by more than 300% year over year. More than 179,000 people attended Microsoft Build, a two-day conference for software engineers and web developers, up from 6,200 people the year before, said Bob Bejan, Microsoft’s corporate VP of global events.

Microsoft moved all its events online for the foreseeable future after the success of such efforts, he said.

Jess Ling, vice president of business-to-business marketing at American Express, said its Business Class Live event last year for small businesses saw attendance triple, to 3,000, and got Shaquille O’Neal and Venus Williams as headliners. Ling attributed this to the fact that programming was more accessible and no one had to travel.

The bar is also getting higher for virtual events. Bisconti said IBM upped its spending on content production for its first all-virtual Think summit to keep its 175,000 attendees engaged.

“When we first started turning everything digital, people were very forgiving about speakers who were obviously sitting at their kitchen tables,” Bisconti said. “Now expectations are higher. Tolerance for 45-minute keynote speeches is forever gone.”

Collecting data at other organizers’ virtual events is one challenge for advertisers, though. In the case of the virtual CES this year, Bisconti said IBM couldn’t measure its return on investment because data belonged to the event producer, Microsoft. So IBM shipped wine to prospective clients and set up virtual wine tastings with them where it could track its sales efforts.

However they look this year, advertisers agreed that events will never be the same as before the pandemic.

“As we plan for 2021, the only certainty we have is uncertainty,” Ling said.

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