Guest post by D’Amelio Network’s Tony D’Amelio.
I’m on Cape Cod as I write this. The big news this weekend is about the lobster diver who was swallowed by a Humpback Whale in the waters off Provincetown, Massachusetts just 70 miles away.
As the diver described feeling helpless in the blackness of the closed mouth of the beast, I couldn’t help but think of it as a metaphor for what we have all been through since COVID struck; feeling in the dark and overwhelmed by the uncertainty of what lies ahead and how to deal with it.
My world, the speaking industry, suffered greatly along with so many other sectors of the entertainment world. While my company initially saw 90% of our revenue evaporate overnight, the one bright spot was that many forward-thinking companies, associations, and organizations felt compelled to embrace virtual events in order to communicate with their customers, employees, dealers, partners, etc.
Speakers also pivoted quickly (some were better at it than others) to embrace virtual speaking in order to meet these new needs. It was messy and a learning experience for speakers and buyers alike but 15 months later, virtual events have improved greatly and technology is pretty much ubiquitous.
Now, there’s a change brewing and there’s good news and there’s better news. The good news is that the in-person speaking is coming back strong – it started in mid-April. The better news is that digital isn’t going away – and groups will use it to complement their in-person schedules – meaning there will be more speaking opportunities than ever on the horizon.
Here’s a brief chronology of turning points and my thoughts on what the future holds:
I remember looking at the future bookings on August 1st, 2020, and thinking, “we don’t have a sustainable business.” Right after that, it was as though someone flipped a switch; we began booking September, October, and November events in a flurry though almost everything we booked ranged from five days to three weeks in advance. Our experience was not unique – industry colleagues all experienced the same. It was just crazy – and luckily, we finished 2020 stronger than I expected.
At the start of the year, we continued to book on short notice – and more frequently; so much so that February was the best month for us since April 2019 – a stunning jump in business and it was all virtual events. Groups had embraced virtual events, some of which were downright outstanding due to the development of features in new and existing platforms. Virtual events clearly could be made engaging, and groups weren’t holding back.
Just after Easter, 13 months after COVID struck, the speaking event industry exploded; we started booking lots of in-person events. Clearly the vaccine’s impact on dampening new cases of COVID gave them confidence to move forward with in-person plans. The pace has accelerated to the point where now more than 50% of our bookings are in-person – and many of those in-person events are hybrid – they have some kind of virtual component. Speakers are understandably excited at the prospect of getting on the road again and looking audiences in the eyes.
So, what does the future of the speaking industry look like? In a word, exciting!
People are excited at the idea of gathering together at conferences to network, build relationships, and learn face-to-face. In-person events will roar back strong. In some cases, we are hearing from groups that instead of one big conference, they will do several smaller regional events.
Many of the in-person events we’re booking have a hybrid component. Planners recognize that people are virtual-savvy and can accommodate those who might not be comfortable attending an in-person event quite yet or maybe don’t have the financial resources (or perhaps the seniority) to do so. The virtual component of in-person events is a great opportunity to expand the audience.
I am hearing about business leaders who are talking about virtual events becoming a regular part of the communication mix. In this Fortune podcast, NASDAQ’s Adena Friedman explains that virtual opened her eyes to a new way of communicating with employees more frequently to cement openness and a culture of engagement. The same podcast some months ago had ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott saying that his training team found they could use virtual more effectively than in-person. He doubted at the time they’d return to the old way of doing things. With employee retention a top priority in an impossibly tight labor market – and with client relationships more precarious than ever – virtual events are a viable means to achieve important goals.
This article caught my eye over the weekend for an event I know something about first-hand. Our client KATTY KAY moderated Day One of OZY Fest, which is kind of music festival, meets TED talk, meets food fair – where curious people gather to learn about the future. It’s the sixth OZY Fest but the first virtual one. The two-day event drew an astounding 1 million attendees. That got people’s attention.
I am convinced the speaking industry is poised to see opportunity like never before. The pandemic rewired the world and accelerated technological capabilities. In-person is coming back strong and virtual is in most all cases seen as a complement to, not an out-and-out replacement for, getting people together in one place. The right speakers on the right topics will benefit greatly in the boom ahead.
P.S. Did that diver really get swallowed by a whale or is his story a load of rubbish as some have speculated? I guess time will tell.