The issue of whether — and how much — to charge for virtual events is a hot topic for many conference organisers and industry associations, some of which have never delivered their regular face-to-face events online, or charged for digital-only events before.
One of the biggest fears many organisations have is that online ticket sales could cannibalise revenues from face-to-face conferences, which often generate significant revenues, as well as providing a valued service to members.
A recent event held by the Australian Association of National Advertisers — which promotes all forms of advertising and is the peak body for national marketers in Australia — recently disproved such fears — instead creating a new revenue stream that has become the model for digital revenues for prospective future events.
The AANA’s RESET conference, which is held in Sydney over one day each November, is a highly respected face-to-face event for senior marketers. Typically attracting more than 500 delegates to hear a series of influential local and international speakers, the event is a highlight of the national marketing calendar and a valued service to members, who largely comprise the marketing teams of the country’s biggest advertisers and their industry partners.
Last year, the traditional model for RESET, which was based on physical ticket sales often sold to member organisations by the table, was under threat. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting limits placed on physical event attendance meant that physical ticket sales would be limited to half the usual number.
AANA chief executive John Broome said the organisation’s experience with webinars throughout 2020 gave it confidence to experiment with virtual sessions and online ticket sales.
“Typically a face-to-face member event would attract between 100-120 people,” Broome says.
“When we first went into lockdown, people were very receptive to our content online. We were getting 200-250 people per webinar.”
While attendance gradually declined from those initial peaks, as the AANA began to make its content available on demand, people began to register to view webinars when it was convenient to them, Broome says, indicating there was ongoing interest in online content live and on-demand.
“Catchup viewing was increasing,” Broome says. “People were registering for content knowing they wouldn’t necessarily show up to the live event but they would catch it in their own time.”
With the pandemic largely under control in NSW, the AANA took the view that it would proceed with a hybrid event involving a physical conference that was also available to view online, enabling it to sell tickets to the virtual event as well as seats at the venue.
“RESET is a great example of an event where there is a group of people who desperately wanted to get into the room again — but we could only take 300, which is half the usual number.
“We charge about $800 for a face-to-face ticket, but we decided to sell online tickets for just under half that price,” Broome says.
“The other thing we did is offer a hybrid ticket amongst the different ticketing options. This allowed 2 people to attend (usually senior executives) with corporate access online to any number of their employees.
“For those companies who could not attend at all, we offered corporate streaming which gave similar access to all the corporates’ employees. Finally we offered single online tickets but, interestingly, they were the least popular despite the lowest ticket price.”
While the pandemic prevented RESET from inviting international speakers to address the crowd in person, the star-studded 2020 line-up included former Prime Minister Julia Guillard and AFL great Adam Goodes. With a focus on how Australia’s big brands weathered the COVID-19 storm, other speakers included Telstra CEO Andy Penn and MECCA Brands CEO Jo Horgan.
The hybrid strategy for the event, which initially targeted 150 delegates attending in-person and 500 online, included providing online delegates with their own Master of Ceremonies, to ensure they felt included in the event and to provide exclusive content.
Broome says the model was a success: not only did physical tickets sell well, virtual attendance tripled expectations and attracted viewers from well beyond the usual markets of Sydney and Melbourne.
“We had 1600 attendees at any one time online,” Broome says. “We managed to maintain that premium quality and engagement and we were reaching well beyond Sydney and Melbourne.
“RESET is a known brand among marketers. It’s all thought leadership. The industry values that, and the networking opportunity of being in the room face-to-face is considerable.
“On top of that, with digital tickets, we geographically increased the reach of the event and we were also able to go deeper into teams, reaching brand managers and other members in marketing teams.
“We made up the shortfall in ticket sales with digital subscriptions,” Broome says.
“We will definitely be holding RESET as a hybrid event this year. Put Wednesday, November 10 into your diary,” he says.
While the AANA would like to get back to hosting 500-plus delegates at the physical venue, it will further explore the boundaries of what’s possible in a parallel virtual event beyond conveying content from the physical event to remote delegates.
To other conference organisers worried about the possibility of cannibalising live revenues, Broome says strong content should be able to attract an incremental audience.
“It’s about understanding what the incremental market penetration is, and looking at it through that lens,” he says.