Will 'new normal' bring a return to in-person events? Not right now, say many organizations – WRAL Tech Wire


RESEACH TRIANGLE PARK – Mid-pandemic, the proverbial “new normal” brings with it new challenges and opportunities for our daily social interactions—impacting everything from getting a morning coffee to jogging on a busy sidewalk to restructuring the average workday. For North Carolina’s entrepreneurial and business communities, chances to network and make new connections face-to-face are now limited in the absence of in-person conferences and exhibitions.

But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, local organizations dedicated to supporting North Carolina’s startup and business communities were quick to adapt to an increasingly remote networking landscape. And now, after seven months of virtual conferences, webinars, meetups, networking events and job fairs, WRAL TechWire is checking in to gauge their plans for potentially returning to in-person events.

We surveyed five of the state’s largest networking groups and member organizations: Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED), the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC), the North Carolina Chamber, the North Carolina Technology Association (NC TECH) and RIoT (Regional Internet of Things). We asked about when/how they’ll return to in-person events, what would need to happen before they do, cost factors involved with returning to live events, how virtual programming is going so far, lessons learned, and more about what they’ve been doing for the past seven months.

All five organizations said they will not be hosting live, in-person events for the foreseeable future, at least through early 2021. They outlined their approach to returning to in-person programming when the time is right and their expectations for what would need to happen in the meantime.

Additionally, each organization shared how the virtual event-hosting experience has gone so far and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

This report comes as North Carolina entered phase 3 of its re-opening plan earlier this month, lifting some restrictions on meeting spaces in hotels, conference venues and other event spaces, with reduced capacity limits. Still, mass gathering limits remain at 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.

To date, North Carolina has reported over 260,500 cases from the start of the pandemic to Oct. 25.


Council for Entrepreneurial Development

CED, a prominent state-wide entrepreneurial support organization, anticipated COVID-19 concerns in early-March and postponed its 2020 Venture Connect Summit, initially scheduled for March 17-19. Venture Connect is a major destination for North Carolina startups and investors, drawing hundreds of attendees from both in and outside the state every year.

The organization then spent two months transforming the program into an interactive, three-part series held digitally in May. After a successful event, CED is hosting its next Venture Connect digitally as well. Venture Connect 2021 will be held March 23-25.

CED also recently launched its inaugural GRO cohort, a nine-week incubator for startups held exclusively online.

In the following Q&A, CED Interim CEO Kelly Rowell tells us more about the organization’s plans, lessons learned, how virtual programming (including the GRO cohort) is going so far, and more:

  • Does CED plan to begin hosting live, in-person events anytime soon? Or would you begin with a mix of virtual and in-person?

This is such a tough call for organizations like CED who’s mission statement is literally connecting companies to resources. Our priority is to keep our partners safe and continue to build experiences that allow them to connect, while building relationships safely in an environment that is conducive for what we are trying to achieve.

We do have a very small percentage of partners ready to return to live and in-person events, but in no way is the majority. Not even a close second. Venture Connect will be virtual again in March 2021, but we are leaving the idea of smaller, more intimate events to compliment our online content, on the table should we see positive progress against fighting the spread of COVID in large gatherings.

  • Would a return to live events affect ticket prices for attendance?

That is a great question, and my answer is … I am not sure. We have seen some organizations and companies try to hold firm to their pricing models and not adjust down for a virtual format, but data suggests a poor customer experience and lower ticket sales. I’d probably bet that you will see a higher demand for online passes (where they might not have been offered in the past) at a discounted price, as an alternative to attending in-person. In this case, complicating your pricing model and decreasing net sales.

For CED’s conference, with a high percentage of out-of-town participants, I think the transition back to in-person for us will definitely be a hybrid offering of both streaming content and onsite meetings. The next challenge will be to engage online participants with those who are onsite. Zoom booths maybe, so you can connect with that out-of-town investor.

  • Given CED’s experience through Venture Connect Online earlier this year, what lessons have you learned about hosting virtual programs?

Since pivoting to virtual, we know three things are consistently true.

  1. Virtual participants have a short attention span. Keep your content to 45 minutes or less when you can. Build in breaks if your content does not allow.
  2. Be wary of event platforms in Beta Mode. There are some really cool options out there, but not all of them work. Some are missing key features and/or have a poor UX. Also, put extra effort towards a trial run with your presenters and sponsors to make sure all is kosher before you go live.
  3. Figure out how you can make your content engaging and give people time to network. Zoom fatigue is real, be creative—don’t be scared to goof trying something new. Your participants will thank you.
  • And would those lessons apply to in-person events as well? 
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All three apply to in-person as well, in my opinion. We are already exploring engagement ideas for March and how not to have “just another pitch event.”

We are still working on mastering these three things, but we continue to think outside of the box and learn from others executing virtual events, right now.

  • How’s the GRO incubator program going so far? What was it like to design an online curriculum?

CED was fortunate to partner with Ryan Allis, founder of iContact, to provide our online curriculum for the course. CED’s value add to this existing content was recruiting nearly two dozen entrepreneurs and domain experts to deliver the curriculum directly to the cohort participants over the period of nine weeks.

Now in week three, it seems like it was easy to pull it all together – but in reality, it was an enormous amount of work and we have a great team at CED that rallied to pull it off without a hitch!


Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina

The Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC) quickly pivoted its in-person workshops and networking events to fit the “new normal.” The organization digitized its workshops and increased the volume of programming available to the community.

For example, EDPNC’s educational programming for business exporters increased from eight in-person exporting workshops per year to 25 to 30 webinars by the end of 2020. While in-person workshops would typically draw 15 to 30 participants, EDPNC’s export webinars have garnered a turnout of 50 to 100 people.

In spring 2021, the group also plans to host a “virtual road trip” to convene national site consultants with leaders across the state’s business community.

We spoke to EDPNC Communications Manager Mary Wilson about the organization’s plan for returning to live events, how virtual workshops have gone so far, lessons learned over the past several months, and more.

  • Does EDPNC plan to begin hosting live, in-person events anytime soon? Or would you begin with a mix of virtual and in-person? 

We’re probably looking at the first quarter of 2021 or beyond before we resume hosting live, in-person events. And even then, we would make sure such events adhere strictly to guidelines for social distancing, use of masks, and other precautions issued by state and federal public health authorities.

Our utmost concern must be for the safety of our employees, our clients, our partners, and the general public. So, we will be highly selective in choosing when to return to hosting live events and which ones to present in that format.

As part of this process, we’ll be routinely asking ourselves questions we didn’t ask before the pandemic arrived, including: Can we accomplish what we need to accomplish in this meeting virtually rather than in-person? For as long as necessary, we will be asking ourselves how [we can] conduct our business gatherings effectively while simultaneously eliminating or minimizing [the] risk of exposure to COVID.

  • If you’re sticking to virtual, what has to happen before you’re ready to return to in-person events? 

There isn’t an absolute checklist. We must judge each event opportunity on a case-by-case basis.

We are an organization that not only hosts events in-state, such as our export education workshops for North Carolina businesses, but we also participate in events staged domestically and around the world, such as international trade shows and missions, as well as business conferences. So, we will make our decisions regarding in-person events ― as a host or an attendee ― not only based on how best to accomplish our business objectives, but also based on public health considerations.

  • Would a return to live events affect costs for attendance?

Our hosting of business-focused events primarily occurs through EDPNC workshops covering export education or other topics of interest to North Carolina businesses, such as how to start a small business in the state or resources we and our partners offer to help a business overcome barriers to growth. Those are generally free to participants, whether the event is virtual or in-person.

  • What’s the typical turnout for the series of online exporting webinars EDPNC has been hosting for the past several months? 

Prior to 2020, we’d typically host eight in-person workshops a year for North Carolina exporters in different communities across the state, with each drawing 15 to 30 participants. But when COVID made face-to-face gatherings risky, we pivoted to webinars and increasing our number of workshops. We expect to have hosted 25 to 30 exporting webinars by the end of this year. Many of them have drawn 50 to 100 participants.

We think the larger turnout is partly due to the convenience of signing on to online education. But 2020 is a year when exporters ― more than ever ― need to stay up to date on the latest topics. Those topics were included in our webinar choices ― the effect of the pandemic itself on individual global markets, the impact of the newly launched trade US-Mexico-Canada and US-China Phase 1 trade agreements, how to effectively participate in virtual international trade shows when live events have been canceled. All these were added to our typical workshop topics covering the nuts and bolts of export regulation and documentation.

  • Given EDPNC’s experience so far this year, what lessons have you learned about hosting virtual programs? And would those lessons apply to in-person events as well? 
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I think one big lesson we have learned is that virtual events can offer real convenience to businesses or local economic development partners who are participating. But we also know face-to-face events are equally important. An in-person regional economic development gathering can, for example, connect local officials and businesses in a way that helps them build relationships and move forward on regionally marketing their area to new employers.

So we certainly see the advantages of a blend of in-person and virtual events in the future, depending on their purpose and goals.

We are, for example, planning a new online event in our business recruitment-focused cooperative marketing program, which invites local and regional economic development organizations to participate in joint marketing initiatives. In spring 2021, we plan to host a “virtual road trip” that will further introduce national site consultants to our state and its diverse communities. Because this will be online, we’re hoping our local partners across the state ― from the coastline to the mountains ― will participate.

The EDPNC is also supporting a virtual supply chain conference in February for manufacturers in a 16-county area around Charlotte, including four counties in South Carolina. Founding partners in the event ― meant to help manufacturers strengthen their local supply chain channels ― are the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, Mecklenburg County, EDPNC, Catawba County Economic Development Corporation, Iredell Economic Development Corp., and the South Carolina Department of Commerce. We hope to connect companies through appointment setting, virtual exhibitor booths, networking opportunities, and more.


North Carolina Chamber

The North Carolina Chamber, which represents approximately 750 members, moved several of its most popular events online this year, including the Transportation & Infrastructure Summit on Aug. 27, the NC Chamber Health Care Conference on Sept. 15, the Ag Allies Conference on Oct. 7 and its flagship Women > A Force in Business Conference on Oct. 22.

NC Chamber Director of Events Talisa Hite shared some of the organization’s future event plans, considerations to take when returning to in-person events, lessons learned through hosting virtual conferences, and more:

  • Does NC Chamber plan to begin hosting live, in-person events anytime soon? Or would you begin with a mix of virtual and in-person? 

The NC Chamber does not plan to begin hosting live, in-person events for the foreseeable future. Once we are ready to host live events again, we will most likely offer a virtual option for attendees who do not yet feel comfortable attending in person.

  • What has to happen before you’re ready to return to in-person events?

Guidelines from the Governor on allowing the gathering of 150 or more people will need to be in place. The NC Chamber will also survey our members to gauge their interest and comfort level in attending in-person events.

  • Would a return to live events affect costs for attendance?

No. The NC Chamber plans to keep the cost of in-person events consistent with pre-COVID costs.

  • What lessons have you learned about hosting virtual conferences this year? Would those lessons apply to in-person events as well?

Virtual events require a lot more preparation time for [the] production of the event. Events are all about pre-planning, and virtual events have taken this to another level.

In addition, we have learned to be creative when providing networking opportunities for our event attendees. We have also learned the importance of brevity when planning virtual events.


North Carolina Technology Association

NC TECH, a state-wide tech sector group representing 650 corporate members, has digitized its lineup of regularly scheduled workshops and networking events. And, in May and October, the organization hosted two virtual job fairs, in which thousands of job seekers were able to meet with employers in virtual booths.

Here’s Tracy Sternberg, NC TECH’s director of programs and sponsorships, speaking on the organization’s future event plans, cost considerations with returning to live events and lessons learned from virtual programming:

  • Does NC TECH plan to begin hosting live, in-person events anytime soon? Or would you begin with a mix of virtual and in-person?

NC TECH is planning on hosting virtual events at least through the first quarter of 2021. After that point, we may consider a hybrid approach, but will certainly take into account all of the facts regarding the virus and what phase re-opening the state is currently in. We will also work to better understand the travel/meeting restrictions of our member companies.

  • What has to happen before you’re ready to return to in-person events?  

In order to return to in-person events, the state will need to be fully re-opened and we will need to understand from our member companies that their travel/meeting restrictions have been either lifted or expanded dramatically.

  • Would a return to live events affect costs for attendance? 

Yes, hosting live events is significantly more costly, at least for NC TECH, so that would be factored into our registration fees to ensure that we cover our costs. Additionally, we are seeing the venues are assessing larger deposits on the front end to help them cover their costs.

  • Given NC TECH’s experience so far this year, what lessons have you learned about hosting virtual programs? And would those lessons apply to in-person events as well? 
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NC TECH has learned that shorter is better – breaking content down into “bite-sized chunks” is much more appealing to our audience than having to sit in front of their computer for a full day.

We have also learned that audience interaction is critical to the success of a virtual event. We have tried a variety of ways from utilizing the chat function in our platform to virtual exhibit booths to live keynote Q&A opportunities.


RIoT

RIoT, a regional organization focused on the IoT industry, moved its popular weekly lunch and learns to Zoom and launched additional virtual events, including a Developer Month webinar series in September.

In March, RIoT shifted its spring RIoT Accelerator Program (RAP) cohort to an online format. Since then, RAP’s summer and fall cohorts have been hosted virtually.

In our Q&A, RIoT Executive Director Tom Snyder shared how the group’s virtual programs are going so far, lessons learned, plans for returning to in-person events, and unexpected challenges and opportunities he’s seen in the past several months.

  • Does RIoT plan to begin hosting live, in-person events anytime soon? Or would you begin with a mix of virtual and in-person? 

We held our first hybrid event two weeks ago in Stafford, Virginia. The panelists and speakers were in person, but the audience was all remote. We’re finding that some geographies in which we work are ready to be back in person, while others are much more reluctant.

I expect we will continue to offer mostly virtual content into Q1 or Q2 next year, with some in-person convening for very small groups like the speaker example above or some of our workshop content that typically is <10 people.

Anything in-person will be conducted with physical distancing and masks and all other safety protocols recommended by medical professionals. At this point, we continue to run our startup accelerator fully virtual.

If you’re sticking to virtual, what has to happen before you’re ready to return to in-person events?  Broadly, government seems to be moving more aggressively towards conducting business and commerce and events in person than the medical community is advocating. Most of our customers are erring on the side of more caution than is permissible under the government reopening phases. RIoT will take into account all these inputs, but even when we are back in person for events, we believe we will need to continue to provide fully virtual means of engagement to be an inclusive organization.

  • What has your experience been so far with the virtual lunch & learns and September’s RIoT Developer Month? Has it impacted engagement and attendance?

Smaller format convening like the Lunch & Learn series is drawing significantly larger audience size than when we conducted these in person.  In particular, any content that is more educational, like our Developer Day event, has strong draw and audience participation that sustains all the way to the end of an event.

Expert talks or panel discussions that typically accompanied in-person networking events do not translate as well virtually. While the talks and panels can be executed with high professionalism and production quality, we are seeing less appeal in the market for this type of content and audience sizes are down, plus tend to tail off towards the end of the event. I believe this to be that a large percentage of attendees for this kind of content in the past, participated mainly for the networking value and not to hear the speakers.

  • Would a return to live events affect costs for attendance?

RIoT has always made all of our events completely free and open to the public, even pre-COVID. We feel that a registration fee or ticket price or tuition charge makes an event less inclusive and we want to engage people from all areas and income levels.  It should be noted that virtual events have created broader participation for us – particularly geographically – but also created a new barrier to inclusion since not everyone has reliable broadband.

  • RAP’s fall 2020 cohort is virtual, correct? How has that been going so far?

We shifted our spring RAP cohort virtual at the mid-point in March and have run our summer and fall cohorts fully virtual. The program results are as good or better as when we conducted programs in person. Selfishly, I’m disappointed by that result, since I miss working face-to-face with startups. But from a business point of view, it is obviously great for the teams and our program.

One great benefit has been the inclusiveness that I mentioned before. Full virtual programming allows us to work with entrepreneurs from anywhere in the world. It also opened up an opportunity for founders with newborn children, for example, to participate from home. These founders would not have been able to attend an in-person program while caring for an infant and now can participate 100% — a totally unexpected silver lining that COVID revealed.





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