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Expert Q&A: How to navigate the uncertainty surrounding COVID-era meetings and events

Memphis Business Journal recently caught up with Dusky Norsworthy, owner and CEO of event management company Behind the Scenes, for her perspective on the events industry and outlook for the rest of 2021 and into next year.

MBJ: How do you see events being held during the last part of 2021 and into 2022? How are they/will they be different than in 2020?

Dusky Norsworthy: The much-discussed shift toward hybrid events will accelerate. I’m cautious about saying those will become the norm, but I strongly believe events that combine both in-person and virtual elements will take up more and more of the landscape over time. For many clients, continued uncertainty will mean a greater interest in completely virtual events.

I often think about an Eventbrite survey that noted a 2,000% increase in business and professional online events between 2019 and 2020. There’s every reason to think this growth will continue. Still, most people agree there’s something missing from virtual interactions — the camaraderie that can only be generated by face-to-face, in-person events. Many companies will say that for training-related gatherings, for instance, they find fully virtual to be much less productive.

Both hybrid and fully virtual are going to present a challenge for event management professionals in the long term, in the sense that the more of these events there are, the more we’ll have to innovate to remain creative, cutting edge, and original. I relish the challenge, and so does my team, but it’s very much worth acknowledging.

With the uncertainties surrounding the Delta variant, what is a good process/plan for communicating — both to the client putting on the event and to attendees — on how an event could be changed depending on the risks of COVID at a certain time?

As much as possible, contingency planning should be highlighted upfront, not only in the contract or agreement, but also in preliminary discussions about the event. In general, this applies (or should apply) to any event, but plans B and C need to be as clear and detailed as plan A. If you can hint at the alternatives in your marketing plan for the event, for example, that plan B involves online team-building exercises or games — do so, because that makes your job much easier when the event needs to pivot. People already have expectations, and hopefully, excitement built up.

A general rule is that when something a client wants isn’t feasible because of COVID-19 or any other restriction, put as much thought and effort into creating appealing alternatives. It can be helpful to think of this as your “detour” route. You want that road to be as smooth and appealing as the main one.

What lessons did you learn from putting on events in 2020, which can make navigating the virtual, hybrid, and/or in-person conundrum an easier process?

Two lessons stand out, in particular:

The importance of a strong network. Even during the height of COVID-19 disruption, we were able to help pull off an event for a New York-based client within 24 hours, because we had local partners we could quickly call on. Relationships are everything, and you never want to be in a place where you’re having to dust off your contact list after having not used it for a while. It’s crucial to regularly check in with your network, to see how they’re doing, what you can do to help them, and especially, what their plans are to handle another period of disruption.

The fundamentals of our business are essentially the same, no matter what. Disruption and rapid change are what events are all about, so despite everything we faced in 2020, we ended up being considerably more prepared, both mentally and logistically, than we could have imagined. That was a much-needed silver lining.

If you pause an event, how do you keep momentum, excitement, and motivation for an event going?

What I remind clients is that the purpose behind an event never went away, even if the event itself is being put on pause. As such, the way to tackle this is to get creative with marketing, especially on the front end. Think quizzes, prizes, other ways to interact with the event’s audience and keep them plugged in until the postponed event can actually happen. It’s a balancing act: You don’t want to give everything away upfront or inundate audiences, but instead generate that feeling of suspense that leaves them wanting more information.

In general, half of an event’s success is what happens afterward. After everyone goes home for the night is generally when events are discussed, when you think about it. So, occupying that space creatively – the space outside – is what keeps momentum going.

This interview originally appeared in the Memphis Business Journal.


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