Making Lemonade: Event Marketing Pros on Leaning into COVID-19


COVID-19 has had a profound impact on all of us. In the business world, one area hit especially hard is the world of event marketing. From conferences to experiential marketing, both B2B and B2C brands had to pivot fast. According to research conducted by PCMA in early April, 87% of in-person events were canceled and 66% were postponed as a result of COVID-19. With a critical piece of the sales and marketing tool belt wiped out overnight, how do businesses pivot, succeed, and plan for the future of events? We reached out to marketing and event leaders to get their perspective on event marketing in the age of a pandemic. 

Our Experts

Jenna Johnson | Communications Marketing Manager – Dominium 

Richard Rizzardi | VP of Client Engagement- Star 

Jackie Evans | Manager, Conferences + Accounts – Type A Events

Kristina Connor | Field Marketing Manager – Field Nation 

Stephanie Lindo | Manager of Next Generation Business Development – Heroic Productions

Watch the entire panel discussion

Pivoting Event Marketing in a Pandemic

How do you successfully pivot event marketing in a pandemic? Start by aligning with or being a trusted partner and work closely with clients to understand what their needs are during this time.

Find or Be a Trusted Partner 

There was a resounding agreement on the importance of finding partners you can trust to successfully transition in-person events to virtual. “Our clients are always looking to us for recommendations,” said Evans. “So it was really important for us to take a step back once we heard what our clients needed and then find who are those partners that are true and trusted to help us successfully pivot during this time.”

Related reading: Marketing in a Time of Crisis: Inbound and Automation Strategies

It’s also important to make sure clients feel safe and have peace of mind while doing business with you in person. Lindo said they had an unused 8,000 square foot space they immediately converted into a broadcast studio. “The space is just so big it allows us to hone in on the fact that you’re not up close to people when doing your broadcast.”

Work Closely with Clients 

Reassuring clients was a key piece in pivoting for many. “As we looked at it, we had to demonstrate to our clients: we know your brand, we know the experience that you’re trying to create,” says Rizzardi. “So allow us to help you navigate those technologies and continue to demonstrate what is that brand experience and how do we bring it together virtually.” For others, like Type A, Evans said one of the first things they did was sit down with their clients and redo their SWOT analysis. “We worked to identify the most important elements to transition over to virtual.”

Finding Success

How do marketers find and measure success in these unusual times? In many ways, success looks like grace. Grace to make mistakes, try new things, and learn from each other.

Measuring Virtual Event Success

From the production side, measuring virtual event success doesn’t look so different than before. Lindo said there’s a lot that can be carried over from live events to be measured on virtual platforms, like the number of attendees and engagement for instance. They are measuring the same things regardless of in-person or virtual.

From the marketing perspective, both Johnson and Connor, like many, they’re still figuring out what this new idea of success looks like. Connor says for them the goal right now is attendees and registrations and go from there. Rizzardi points out that all of this will challenge clients on the definition of ROI and challenge all of us on what’s the problem we’re trying to solve. “What’s the follow-up? What’s the next step? How are we going to close that loop to demonstrate the ROI?”

Biggest Win 

Despite drawbacks to all of this, there is still success to be found. The common theme amongst all of the participants was that creativity and innovation have really risen to the surface. People are bringing ideas to the table that they hadn’t before and there’s a level of flexibility and willingness to try new things that just wasn’t there pre-COVID.

Connor likes that “It’s been fun to think ‘this is a wild idea but let’s try it anyway!’ We didn’t have that same level of flexibility before.” For Johnson, events or company gatherings that were typically siloed now include everyone from across the company and Rizzardi finds it remarkable to go through all of these challenges and see organizations really rally together.

Giving All the Grace 

Connor points out that a lot of people have grace right now and that they aren’t expecting perfection, so not to put too much pressure on ourselves, partners or presenters. She advises not to stress too much on the virtual tool itself, as long as you find something that you trust and is functional for you during this time of transition. Johnson echoed that sentiment, pointing out that she loves the authenticity that comes with the snafus of doing virtual events and meetings. “It makes us real and makes us genuine. No one’s perfect.”

Speaking of giving grace, if you keep watching until 36:10 on the video, you’ll see that even virtual teams like Lake One aren’t immune to the occasional glitch.

Looking to the Future

There’s always a lesson to be learned from the challenges we face in life. Like so many of you, we want to know what learnings can be found or what lasting impacts will this pandemic have on the industry?

Continued Innovation 

The lasting impact for Rizzardi will be that this forces us all to think about innovation.”The things we haven’t discovered yet are really going to be the lasting impact. The way we do things today may not be sustainable. There’s a whole new element of engagement – using technology even more advanced.”

Connor adds that for her, it’s figuring out how to be forward-thinking during this time. She challenges her customers to do the same and be prepared that things may not go back to the way they were and to embrace that.

Messaging Matters 

Johnson encourages people to think about and be more intentional with their message and purpose and that going forward, “We have to ask ourselves, what’s our message? Why are we hosting this event? What are we trying to get out of it? Does this have to be in-person?”

Hybrid Mix of Virtual and In-person Events 

Evans foresees the future as a mix of old and new. We’ve learned that not everything has to be an event, at least not in-person. Rizzardi says we will have to adapt to how people want to engage. They know they have options now. There will be some people who want the virtual environment and those who want to be together. Meeting people where they are and creating multiple “communities” will be important.

Lindo thinks that people that will attend the in-person events will value them more than they did before. “People are so antsy for that human connection again, and I really think that’s something that will not be taken for granted when we start to get back to normal.”

Content Worth Attending 

Evans predicts that the bar will be raised when it comes to trade shows and events. Attendees are going to expect content that’s worth leaving the house for and getting their money’s worth. “People are getting content for free and consumable on-demand right now and when we go back to in-person we really have to raise the bar to make sure the content there is thoughtful and it’s worth them being there.”

Key Takeaways

  • While no one likes the unknown of the “grey area”, as marketing and event planning professionals we’ve learned to lean into it. Out of it has come creativity, innovation and growth.

  • No matter what kind of technology you choose to use to pivot to virtual, make sure it’s with a platform or partner that you trust. But don’t put too much pressure on yourselves, your partners, or the platform. Find something that’s functional and fits your needs and adjust as you go.

  • Now is the time that you will get the grace to try new things, make mistakes and embrace new ideas. So take the grace you’ve been given and be sure to return that grace to others.

  • If this time has taught us anything, it’s that we should challenge the way we think, the way we do things, and constantly strive for innovation. We need to be forward-thinking and ask ourselves, “What’s next?”

  • When things return to some semblance of “normal” and we can have in-person events again, make sure your content is worth it for people to attend. And be sure to meet people where they are at and feel most comfortable. That might mean a hybrid version of virtual and in-person events.

  • Despite the challenges everyone has faced, there is still success and “wins” to be had during this time. Celebrate the good, move on from the bad and look to the future.

A big thank you to all of the participants. What a pleasure it was to listen and learn from you. We look forward to watching what’s next for all of you and your continued successes.

Get More Resources on Marketing in a Crisis