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How Covid-19 has turned the IT events calendar on its head

With coronavirus restrictions in place, IT vendors are replacing their conferences with digital events. What does this mean for the channel?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: MicroScope: MicroScope: The surge in home working

Events and conferences are an integral part of the IT industry’s calendar. For the channel, they are an opportunity for partners to hear the latest vendor news, test new products, network with potential customers and socialise with peers.

But with the height of “conference season” now upon us, the situation is very different this year. Due to the restrictions imposed to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, IT vendors have cancelled their annual showcases in places like Las Vegas and San Francisco, either deferring them to later in the year, or switching them to “virtual” events that attendees can access online.

So what does this mean for the channel? Is it possible for vendors to keep their partners engaged and informed via virtual events, without any of the benefits of a physical conference, such as networking, face-to-face meetings and the associated social activities? Is it feasible that they can create value for partners when the engagement is purely digital?

Certainly that’s a goal towards which IT vendors are now aiming. However, different tech firms are taking different approaches. 

Getting the format right

Forrester recently issued advice on how tech firms can engage attendees and, importantly, manage their expectations. It also differentiates between the technologies available to host an event, depending on what the vendor wants to achieve.

“Virtual event [VE] platforms meet the replication requirement, but considerable costs, risks and learning curves can accompany this shift,” it noted. “VE technology works well if you have a clear business reason – such as a product launch, considerable sponsor revenue losses, certification deadlines mandated by law, or the draw of a difficult-to-book speaker – to maintain the original date or provide a facsimile of the experience.

“But a virtual events platform isn’t right for every event. You might be able to use a live-streaming video platform or even a videoconferencing platform for smaller and less complex events.”

Kaseya, which was due to host its Connect IT event in Las Vegas in May, has rescheduled for August, when the software vendor plans to run both a virtual and in-person event. It says it is working to deliver “the most experiential, interactive virtual event possible”.

Jim Lippie, VP and GM of partner development at Kaseya, said: “It’s impossible to completely replicate an in-person experience with a virtual event and we hope that, by August, we will all find ourselves in a safer landscape for travel and for gathering at live events so that our attendees can join us in person, but for those who prefer to join remotely, we will be doing everything we can to provide a rich, valuable experience and content for those who are not able to travel.

“Connect IT will provide our virtual attendees with streamed breakout sessions, six mainstage sessions and a simulated exhibit hall experience that allows attendees to pop in and out of sessions and interact with other attendees, experts and exhibitors throughout the event.”

The challenge for vendors providing a worthwhile experience to partners is that so many important interactions occur away from the official channels during an event – at drinks receptions or during coffee breaks, for example.

Andrew Brewerton, senior channel manager for western Europe at Nutanix, said: “There’s an awful lot of value that comes from the informal communication that happens in the exhibition hall or over a buffet lunch. So it’s time to think about how you can maintain a lot of that interaction.”

Nutanix is now running its European .NEXT showcase as a series of multiple digital events, tailored to different regional audiences, and renamed Nutanix Now. “We are running multiple events, aimed at different countries over in April,” said Brewerton. “Most online events from vendors are presented in English; the idea of .NEXT on tour was that it was your local event, so we tried not to lose that too much going online.”

Plan B

Elsewhere, SAP was due to host its second InnovationX event at the Printworks in London last month. It was set to be the biggest event SAP has ever hosted in the UK & Ireland, with more than 1,200 customers and partners registered. But with the Covid-19 restrictions in place, the vendor has decided to recreate the event as a virtual experience and will launch its InnovationX digital hub platform in April. This, it said, will host presentations for customers and partners to access on demand.

“These will be straightforward ‘TED-Talk’ style presentations, Q&As and panel discussions, while we’ll also be promoting most sessions as a ‘simu-live’ event,” said Laura Atkinson, head of partner and alliances, SAP UK & Ireland. “This means that while the sessions are pre-recorded, there will be a moderator and speaker on the line at a scheduled time to do a live Q&A and run audience polls, making it a more interactive experience.

“While this wasn’t our Plan A, we’re very excited about the new opportunities and engagement we can drive via a virtual experience and it means we can get more longevity from the ‘event’, rather than just doing a big bang on one day.”

Meanwhile, Dell has decided to turn this year’s Dell Technologies World (DTW) into a virtual event. Although the vendor had hoped that the virtual conference would take place in May, it has now been rescheduled to October 2020 and will be called Dell Technologies World Experience (DTWE).

“As with any interaction, audience participation is key to how we design, deliver and improve our sessions,” said Rob Tomlin, VP of channels, UK & Ireland, at Dell Technologies. “One size doesn’t fit all and rather than simply making a once-physical meeting virtual by using a webinar platform, we instead design everything around audience needs and the content we’re sharing.

“For example, when sharing more thought leadership content to a broad audience, we’re finding that ‘snackable’, multi-session events are a great way to combine keynotes, panel discussions and virtual expos. In addition, using virtual platform tools that combine recorded and live videos with real-time chat ensures sessions are engaging.

“We’ve also been able to incorporate partners into these sessions through integrated partner content, private chat rooms and automatic lead referrals. We’re also using competitions, intermittent polling, breakout sessions or simply mandating ‘cameras on’, so that attendees to play an active role and feel part of the conversation rather than simply a passive audience member.”

The idea of bite-size – or to use the current buzzword, “snackable” – sessions seems common across the board with vendors, which is understandable given that no audience member wants to sit at their desk for hours, watching endless demos or keynotes.

Anne Lenoir, corporate communications and events director, EMEA, at Qualys agreed, saying that the firm now has product launches and updates for both partners and customers to present digitally. “For our ‘live’ event, we are putting together online content that brings together our leadership team, customers and demos into a shorter virtual event,” she said. “Previously, we have hosted full-day technical training and demo sessions, but this will be a 90-minute session.

“People will watch content and learn online, but there’s not the same feeling or commitment level to online video. You can’t ask people to watch all day, so editing down to the highlights and making that experience really easy to get is essential.

“I think there will be much more emphasis on local time-zone content that is short and informative, to supplement the bigger virtual events too. However, our first event will be one for worldwide attendees, and then we will develop from there.”

Digital events – the future?

The future of online or virtual events will depend on the success of those scheduled for the rest of this year. But if they do garner a positive response from partners, it has been suggested that they could replace physical events in the future – particularly given so many vendors’ recent investments in the technology.

“For many, the thought of a digital-only conference may seem alien due to the lack of tangible, human interactions,” said Tom Higgins, marketing manager at Voxpopme, which uses video analytics software to help connect brands with consumers.

“But just a few weeks ago, so would home schooling, conducting every single business meeting remotely, having birthday parties on Houseparty, and taking part in PE lessons via YouTube. Yet we’ve adapted and created a ‘new normal’ very quickly. We’re adopting new ways of doing things in every walk of life, and digital conferences, done correctly, will be no different.”

Elsewhere, the shift towards virtual events might cause companies to question the need to send employees off on international travel, particularly given the current focus on sustainability and cutting carbon emissions.

In a blog, Gemma Edwards, senior director, marketing & events, at channel analyst Canalys, said firms could revaluate  how much of their travel is essential, and how much is an overhang from outdated notions of business. “Travel will still be a necessity for many industries, but coronavirus presents an opportunity to take advantage of travel restrictions and shift cultural frameworks for the future,” she said. “Companies cancelling or postponing events will likely realise that virtual interaction is more sustainable cheaper and effective way to communicate.”

The most likely scenario, however, is that digital platforms will take a prominent role in a vendor’s engagement with its partners, running alongside physical events. After all, the channel is still a people business, with relationship-building at the heart of any deal.

Amanda Holmes, EMEA marketing director at Alaris, a Kodak Alaris business, agreed that physical events will continue to deliver a lot of value to partners, and said the company plans to extend its reach by hosting virtual events in addition to physical events.

“We will use virtual events to save costs and engage with audiences more often,” she said. “Going virtual allows us to make each event available to more partners because there are no limitations on the number of seats. In some regions, we can now invite twice as many attendees and we can invite smaller partners because it’s much more cost-effective for everyone. Virtual won’t replace in-person, but it will become a key part of our new strategy.

“Going forward, we don’t know exactly when we will be able to travel freely again. Budgets will likely be tight in the aftermath of Covid-19. Virtual events will give us a way to be mindful of budgets and stay connected during times when every dollar counts.”

Partner events: the next step

While initial explorations of digital events have focused on vendors, channel partners – particularly the large VARs and SIs – will inevitably follow suit.

“Some partners are already asking how they can adopt virtual meeting tools and best practices as an inexpensive alternative to live events,” said Holmes.

Vanessa Cardwell, managing director of Bite IT Marketing, which provides marketing services to channel partners, including a remote virtual platform for events, believes it is possible to keep channel partners engaged via virtual events. But just like any marketing initiative, it needs the right message to the right audience at the right time.

“Partners need to approach their virtual events in the same way as any other marketing initiative and think hard about their differentiator and their message,” she said. “Why would an end-user or partner give up their time for your event? What’s different? Unique? What’s in it for them? What value can you bring?”

So what is the future for the physical event? As with many things currently, it is still very much an unknown. Interestingly however, Microsoft has now announced that all its internal and external events will shift to a digital model until summer 2021 in order to prevent spreading coronavirus.

Once we emerge from the current restrictions surrounding Covid-19, we are likely to see a surge in physical, face-to-face interactions when conducting business. Nevertheless, the genie is out of the bottle now that organisations have been forced to consider digital platforms as serious alternative to traditional events.

Also, with people becoming more comfortable communicating via video as time goes on, attendees will demand more choice and flexibility as to how they attend events in the future – whether in a conference centre, hotel, an office or from their living room.

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