Will the Coronavirus Make 2020 the Year of Online Events?

Communications leadership teams (locally, regionally and globally) are taking COVID-19 very seriously, looking to minimize its impact to our employees and clients during this trying time. As the days go on and the virus continues to spread, many tech companies are asking employees to work from home to avoid potential exposures and are restricting employee travel.

Many industries, from ad-tech to health-tech to cybersecurity and more, all have “must-attend” industry events in the days, week and months ahead. Sure, everyone likes to complain about conferences, tradeshows and festivals, but year after year these events continue to fill keynote and expo floors and provide meaningful business value.

Until now.


COVID-19 takes events online

As the COVID-19 outbreak spreads, tech conferences are being canceled, postponed and in some cases turned into virtual events. Mobile World Congress, HiMSS, F8, Google Cloud Next and many others have all been impacted so far this year. ZDNet has a running list of cancelled or postponed tech events, and The New York Times has started tracking sports, music and pop-culture events that have shifted schedules due to COVID-19.

Here in Austin, we had a great deal of “will they, won’t they” regarding the annual SXSW festival. After 30+ brands dropped out and many citizens expressed their concerns, late last Friday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared a local disaster in the city and issued the order to cancel the festival for the first time in the event’s 34 years.

Although many understand that decision, it’s no less impactful. The city of Austin is likely to lose $350+ million in revenue, and the SXSW team had to make the difficult decision to lay off one-third of its full-time staff. Many events are going to move to a virtual format to curb some of this impact, but not all can be fixed with an online presence.

As companies use the lens of health and safety of employees and communities to guide their decisions, it’s looking likely that this will continue to happen to conferences scheduled for the first half of 2020. Our Brands in Motion global study gives us some insight into how brands can provide stability in these very unstable times:

  • Consumers expect brands to balance global and local initiatives. They’re both important, and local has greater immediate impact.
  • Consumers embrace technology when it betters their lives, opening the opportunity for brands to embrace technology to create connection when in-person events are no longer possible.

With this in mind, brands need to ask themselves two questions about the evolution of their events strategy.


How can you successfully replace in-person events with virtual events?

For some, this may be easy. Many brands will be able to change an in-person interview to a phone call or video chat, or turn their speaking session to a webinar or deliver it through a live feed on social. The real question is how do you recreate that lost human connection? Is there a substitute for those hallway conversations, casual LinkedIn additions, and that first-to-face with someone you’ve only known by reputation?

WIRED has a great roundup of how a few companies are re-creating the virtual conference experience, including new startups offering platforms that seek a virtual replacement for that “unreplaceable” human element.


How can you support those local economies left behind?

In the wake of the SXSW cancellation, Austin restaurants are struggling. Service industry employees are looking at a lean year. There are the event spaces, hotels and all the other service providers that won’t see any of that estimated $350M in SXSW spend this year — not to mention the local companies that won’t get to show off their products and services to a national audience.

Multiply those effects by the number of conferences canceled and you start to see how hard this will hit local economies. How can brands help undo some of this damage?

For some, it may be as simple as donations to local groups, schools or programs. Perhaps it’s targeted local programs and local or regional content delivered carefully to event attendees no longer traveling. Are there smaller, localized events that could be hosted in offices, when and if deemed appropriate?

Brands that can solve for these missing elements will not only change 2020 for the better, they could revolutionize the event process for the conceivable future. There is a long road ahead, and this disruption isn’t going away — just yesterday, one of the largest video game conferences in the world, E3, was canceled — and there’s a bigger conversation to be had here besides complaining that your keynote was canceled or doing cartwheels because you don’t have to take a long weekend flight. What is your company already thinking about in terms of its new 2020 event strategy?


For more on the COVID-19 outbreak, read Simon Pangrazio’s blog on maintaining business continuity, “Business Unusual: Limiting Disruption Through the Outbreak.”

March 12, 2020

Matt Trocchio
GM - SVP, Austin