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The Future of Business Events

The Future of Business Events

By Rohit Talwar


1 “Economic downturns, virtual events, podcasting, social media, telepresence video and environmental pressures have all been cited as potential challenges to the live event model. However, despite all of these developments, the sector has survived and is increasingly recognised as a critical component in the creation and sharing of knowledge for old and new industries alike. However, for live events to thrive in the decade ahead, we will need to see widespread innovation in the design, promotion, delivery and business models for such events” Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fast Future Research, argues. In the Convention 2020 global study, he and his team have explored the drivers of change for live business events and examining new and emerging ideas on how the live event experience will need to evolve. 

Rohit Talwar
Fast Future Research


In this article, I draw on the Convention 2020 research to examine three topics:

  • emerging industry priorities for 2011-2015
  • the underlying changes we can expect to see in the decade ahead, and
  • a decision making framework to help leaders respond to these developments and craft their future strategies.


Industry Priorities 2011 – 2015

As part of the Convention 2020 study, a ‘Pulse survey’ was run from October 21st to November 8th 2010 and was completed by 180 respondents around the world, with 50% working in the meetings, association or travel sectors. The survey asked participants to assess priorities for 2011 and strategies and business models for the sector out to 2015. The survey looked at these issues for five key sectors of the industry – event owners, associations, convention centres, destinations and event agencies.  The full results can be downloaded from the project website www.convention-2020.com

The survey highlights that importance being placed on the need for innovation, longer term thinking and closer attention to strategy both by those within the business events industry and those who attend its conventions, trade shows and meetings. The key findings of the survey are summarized below.

For event owners the highest ranked factors were:

  • 2011 priorities – ‘extending the use of social media around the event’ (62%)
  • Key 2015 strategies – ‘greater focus on capturing the knowledge generated at an event’ (58%)
  • Alternative business models for 2015 – ‘presentations streamed live to web for pay per view’ (67%)
  • For associations in particular  the 2011 priorities were to ‘demonstrate event benefits to potential delegates,’ (65%), ‘differentiate events in the face of increased competition,’ and ‘identify additional benefits for sponsors and exhibitors,’ (both 58%).


For convention centres the highest ranked factors were:

  • 2011 priorities – ‘respond to the demand for free broadband wireless access’ (64%), and ‘create lower cost operating models’ (64%)
  • Key 2015 strategies – ‘offer a wide range of in house facilities such as telepresence video conferencing suites, holographic projection, interactive surfaces and delegate tracking’ (63%), and ‘offer a full meeting planning service to help attract events’ (55%).
  • Alternative business models for 2015 – ‘turning space over to activities such as leisure and retail to diversify revenue’ (53%), ‘outsource management to third party specialists’ (51%), and ‘create new events alone or with partners’ (50%).


For destinations the highest ranked factors were:

  • 2011 priorities – ‘find differentiators in the face of intense competition’ (69%), and ‘use web/social media more to promote the destination’ (67%)
  • Key 2015 strategies – demonstrate the return on investment for event owners and delegates from hosting a meeting in this destination’ (63%) and ‘demonstrate the longer term contribution to local economic development of hosting a business event’ (61%).


For event agencies the highest ranked factors were:

  • 2011 priorities – ‘attract new customers’ (75%) and ‘maintain the existing customer base’ (68%)
  • Key 2015 strategies – 62% believe agencies will have to ‘develop solutions which help clients capture and re-use the knowledge generated at events’ and 61% expect agencies to ‘look more like management consultancies’ by 2015


The survey highlights that customer focused innovation and personalization are no longer issues to be put off until tomorrow. Participants are also increasingly expecting and wanting to have far greater input both during the design phase and during the event itself. The implication is that the more we can engage them, the more likely they are to gain tangible benefits and feel a higher degree of loyalty to and ‘ownership’ of the event itself.


Underlying Changes

Underpinning the findings of the Pulse survey are a set of changes taking place in the industry that will see the business event industry landscape evolve in quite distinctive ways over the next decade. A number of these key changes are explored in more detail below.


Format Innovation – In financially challenged economies in particular, smaller, cheaper and more highly focused events will proliferate in response to delegate pressures to save time and money – e.g. half day and one day conferences. The design itself will also change to help delegates get the most out of their attendance. For example the Globe Forum (http://www.globeforum.com) uses a ‘silent conference’ model where all of the breakout sessions are held in the same room as the plenary. The breakout speakers present at separate screens around the room while delegates listen through multi-channel headphones – enabling them to switch between sessions without leaving their seats.


Event Architecture – The pressure to deliver on delegate objectives will ensure a far greater emphasis is placed on the overall design of the learning experience and the elements through which it is delivered. This will include everything from the length and type of sessions offered, levels of interaction, potential for audience generated sessions, physical event space layouts and structured networking, through to the food and beverages served.


Generational Diversity – As society ages and lifespans increase, event designs will need to cater for the differing needs of a potential audience that ranges in age from 16 to 80+.


Social Media – With over a billion members worldwide, the social networks will become a powerful tool for reaching potential audiences, understanding their needs, and engaging them in a dialogue before during and after the event. In the Pulse survey 63% ranked social networking as the top priority for event owners.


Collaboration – We will see greater collaboration at different levels. For example the 2009 London Gastro Convention (http://www.asnemge.org) bought together four different associations of different sizes to create something on a scale which none of them could deliver alone – allowing them a broader range of content, sponsors and exhibitors and delivering over 15,000 delegates. At the design level – events like Lift (http://liftconference.com) in Geneva ask potential attendees to propose the bulk of the sessions and the delegates then design the event by voting on those sessions which they’d most like to attend.


Physical Networking –More attention will be paid to facilitating physical networking to ensure people meet and make valuable connections.


Knowledge Capture – There is a growing emphasis in business on capturing and re-using knowledge from every activity. While some events video or audio capture sessions, the bulk of the content is lost to all but those who attend. In future, 93% of respondents to one of our surveys felt far greater emphasis will be placed on finding ways to capture the content from an event and share it with everyone in a delegate’s organisation who wants access to it.


Personalised Learning Experiences – Advances in neuroscience are providing deeper insights into how we learn. Mapping of the human genome is providing a greater understanding of what drives and hinders our performance. Technology breakthroughs are bringing developments such as adaptive furniture, augmented reality, virtual reality, ‘heads up’ displays and gesture interfaces. These advances and others will combine to enable us to deliver the far more personalised learning experiences – our research found that 80% expect total personalisation by 2020.


Sponsors and Exhibitors – Harsher economic times, a greater focus on proving return on investment and widening choice are enabling sponsors and exhibitors to be more demanding in terms of what they get for their money. Our research found that over 60% believe we will see a range of new business models which effectively offer a greater element of payment by results.


Business Models – Competition and budgetary pressures will challenge event owners’ profit expectations and they will increasingly look for ancillary revenue streams. These could include live streaming of events to a paying web audience, selling sessions on a pay per view basis after the event, packaging up event content for resale to different audiences and merchandising. Indeed 76% expect to be able to purchase products and services on the spot.


Venue Design – In the face of greater capacity, new entrants and intense competition venues will be forced to innovate. In our latest industry survey, over 60% selected each of the following as priorities – lower prices, offering greater flexibility on how their space is used, driving down operating costs and increasing the sophistication of the audio-visual technology offering. 55% felt venues will also find themselves offering a wider range of services to enable them to compete directly with professional conference organisers to win the business of the large associations. 42% felt venues would seek out ancillary revenue streams through retail and other leisure activities. All of these will have an impact on venue design in the future.


Economic Value – Destinations, venues and associations will increasingly seek to prove the long term benefits for their particular conferences. For example, Sydney can point to research centres that were created on the back of medical conferences they attracted to the city. The greater the total value of the event, the more attractive it becomes to delegates, sponsors and exhibitors alike.



Planning the Future – a Decision Making Framework


Given the priorities and drivers of change outlined above, leaders in the industry face a number of key decisions and choices as they develop their longer term strategies.

The framework below sets out a number of these challenges and the key choices to be considered in addressing them.


Challenge Key Choices
Context Horizon Scanning – How can we build an effective radar system to provide a stream of insights on the changing external context and trends, developments and new ideas within the sector?Extracting Value – How do we manage our research activity to ensure it informs and inspires strategic and operational decision making?
Scenarios – What are the different plausible scenarios we can see for the external environment? How would our current strategy hold up under each scenario? Where are the risks and opportunities under each scenario?
Strategic Management Customer Alignment – How can we get closer to clients and prospects, see how they perceive the short, medium and longer term future and understand their strategy and business priorities?Strategic Management – What processes and resources do we need to develop and implement strategies for the short (1-2 years), medium (3-5 years) and longer term (6-10 years)?Direction Setting – How do we align the composition and focus of our board to ensure they are addressing the longer term and strategic matters as well as operational issues?
Business Strategy Mental Model – How do we see ourselves on the spectrum from real estate rental through hospitality management to strategic business solution? All are valid choices – the key is to position, manage and align ourselves accordingly.Business Positioning – Where do we see ourselves on the spectrum from efficient low cost operator to strategic innovator and thought leader?Strategic Direction – Where do we want to take the business over the next 2-10 years?Competition – Given our desired positioning, who will be competing with in the eyes of our customers?Growth Strategy – What are the key drivers of growth – organic, Joint Venture, acquisition – is growth a given?Value Proposition – Can we develop unique intellectual property, technology solutions, service models or other ‘assets’ that can become streams of value in their own right – outside of our events?
Service Offering Core Proposition – What do we see as our core offerings? What are the added value service we could develop to enhance our proposition?Boundaries – Where does our service start and end – e.g. should venues move into meeting planning and event creation?Service Design – Which are the key activities we will deliver in-house and which through partners?Revenue Generators – What additional streams of revenue can we develop either for our own income or as options for our customers?
Business Models Viability – What assumptions underpin our current business model? How realistic is the model in the face of the emerging economic scenarios?Experimentation – As clients become more demanding, how willing are we to experiment with ideas such as revenue sharing?Pre-emption – Should we wait for customers to demand change or could we gain competitive edge by being first to market with alternative business models?
Marketing Brand Positioning – How do we want the brand to be positioned in the eyes of our customers and relative to our competitors?Channels – What channels to market will best position us given our strategy, service offering and desired brand positioning?Thought Leadership – If we see ourselves as a genuine innovator and thought leader, what actions will we take to establish or enhance that positioning?Word of Mouth – What active approaches can we adopt to driving positive word of mouth about our organization?Digital Engagement – how are we working with our online audiences and markets to help identify and address their needs?
Business Development Performance Measurement – How do we measure the effectiveness of our current business development approaches – what do the trend lines tell us?Customer Insight – What do the customers tell us about how our sales approaches compare with our competitors? How do our customers do business development?Business Intelligence – What approach are we adopting to identify future opportunities – e.g. emerging business issues, new commercial sectors, growing professions and associations that may need meeting support?
Business Ecosystems Associations – Which associations should we be part of, how can we help ensure those associations are challenging, developing and supporting us?Alliances – Could joining an industry alliance help with marketing, service development and stretch our strategic thinking?Advisory Board / Thought Partners – do we need to formalize a relationship with key people who we will meet with regularly to provide us with fresh perspectives, challenge our assumptions and extend our thinking?
Event Design Meeting Architecture and Experience Design – Should this be part of our offering, what skill sets do we need to do it effectively?Co-creation – How can we bring participants into the event design process?Event Models – What are we doing to ensure a constant flow of ideas on different event models?
Return on Investment Model Development – What are we doing individually or through our associations to develop more sophisticated models of measurement that truly capture the post-event impact?Relative Positioning – How can we demonstrate how live meetings compare with the alternative mechanisms through which clients might seek to achieve their goals e.g. discounting, advertising, sponsorship, PR, video briefings or online events?
Innovation Customer Focus – In which areas are customers and prospects demanding the greatest change and innovation? What models are they adopting to drive innovation in their own businesses?Process – Do we want to formalize an innovation process in our organization? What are the current internal roadblocks to delivery of new ideas?Low Cost Innovation – How can we tap into the ideas of customers who walk through the doors of our events? Which event owners are most willing to try new ideas?
Talent Management Recruitment and Development – What are the core skill sets we need to develop and recruit to deliver on our desired strategy?Rewards – How will we need to evolve our reward systems to attract and retain the best talent?Culture – What kind of culture would be consistent with the business we have described through our earlier answers? How closely does our current culture reflect that?
Organization Design Balance – What is the right balance between strategic thinking, innovation, business generation and operational delivery for our organization?Effectiveness – How well does the current organization design support the way our clients want us to work and the way we deliver our events – where are the points of tension, communications breakdowns and ‘ownerless issues’?Lean Management –  Given the anticipated turbulence of the next decade, what are the crucial roles to retain in-house and which should we consider outsourcing or just contract in on an ‘as required’ basis?
Sustainability Environmental Goals – What are our targets for driving down our environmental footprint over the next 2, 5 and 10 years?
Responsibility and Rewards – Who has the responsibility for coordinating the identification and implementation of improvements? How will those improvements be rewarded?CSR – What are the expectations of customers, what are our own desires – what targets should we be setting ourselves over the next 2, 5 and 10 years?
Technology, Data and Knowledge Technology Strategy – Do we have an affordable technology strategy that is consistent with our desired positioning and service offering? What should we look to provide in-house, what do we want our partners to deliver?Data Strategy – What is our strategy for capturing, managing, analyzing and exploiting the data generated from our events?Knowledge Strategy – How can we help customers capture and integrate the knowledge generated at our events?




As always, the future does not arrived at a universal rate and while some may see these changes as a long way off, others are already pioneering the ideas. While survival is not guaranteed, our research suggests that the industry has an excellent future should it choose to think and act strategically in the face of the drivers of change that confront it. The live event industry can play an increasingly vital role in the creation and dissemination of business, professional and scientific knowledge if it can continue to innovate on event concepts, designs and business models.


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