Stock digital marketing

The transforming B2B digital marketing landscape hospitality

Author: Matthew Weihs, Bench
12 April 2021

The past twelve months have redefined how we work. Many of us will continue to work from home for at least a proportion of our working week; we attend more zoom or team calls in a week than we may have traditional telephone calls in a year now (my BT line is basically dead!); and no doubt we’ve all been involved in a range of virtual conferences/webinars over the past year.

This acceleration of the virtual world has starkly exposed the fragility and, I’d like to stress, the true value of the MICE industry (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions). There is no doubt our customer base as well as the Bench team are chewing their arms off to get back to in-person events having been cooped up for over a year but will the return be, as many project, immediate and highly in demand? Unfortunately, with the current situation being unprecedented, there is little data to back up any one particular view but I hope to be able to provide at least some anecdotal data to help with the debate.

Bench is planning a small handful of events this year but, for the purpose of this blog, I’ll focus on September and the launch of the Arabian & African Hospitality Investment Conference. The main reason I’ll do this is that, as this is a combination of a number of our existing annual events across the Middle East and African markets – it truly represents “global event” ambitions so I can pool together some wider views. The second reason is that for a number of reasons the event team decided to omit ANY digital/hybrid conference elements from the experience. This is, therefore, the first genuine “in-person” event for the industry – if you don’t go – you don’t experience. Considering how fast Bench moved to put themselves forward as a digital provider in 2020 – the question is whether that is a missed opportunity or a stroke of genius. Perhaps what this tells us is that, going forward, we shall quickly go back to existing conferences and this digital moment in time will die.

My conversations to date with customers across the hotel investment spectrum have been really positive. Firstly, everyone is acutely aware that travel is likely to pick up over Q3 and Q4 of 2021 so the fact that we combined 5 events into one really helps with being efficient with time if nothing else. Secondly, there is more confidence in the event when widening the net as the overall pool of attendees means we are all confident a larger audience is being marketed too. Our expectations are that a) not everyone will be able or willing to travel so the expectations are that the number of delegates will overall still be lower and b) widening the net, in a marketing sense, gives you the best chance of achieving an effective audience even with limitations. I haven’t, at this stage, got a feel on organisational commitments to events but I do expect to see less individuals attending from individual organisations driven through personnel issues and cash flow management. Thirdly, even those currently living in difficult lockdown situations locally, nearly all see positive steps to travel for the end of the year. That coupled with us hosting the event in Dubai, with a functioning airline and great vaccine roll out programme, looks to be a great destination for an international conference – it is breeding confidence. In fact, although we’ve only just opened up our marketing on this event, the demand to be involved has taken me by surprise.

The pendulum will definitely swing back towards the “in-person” events – and I, for one, look forward to the time we can all meet again. But I don’t think this necessarily defines the future for digital events. Last year we hosted a dozen digital events – three of which were directly for customers. It gave us over 25,000 new customers, a range of new sponsor relationships and launched two new service lines for Bench – our Solutions and Experts (both of which utilise our digital marketing/events capabilities). The sheer efficiency of bringing these individuals together, using a range of different digital platforms, is astonishing and we must not forget the investment going into these platforms will only go to improving the experience. Factored into this we have an audience that may not be able to travel (be it through cost restraints or current travel restrictions) that still wants to access an event. In my opinion, once we’ve got our fix, the pendulum will swing back quickly to the digital again as we look to relieve calendar pressure built up.

As we look towards digital events in the future what can we expect? Firstly, we can’t expect our current audience to immediately buy into a digital platform of the event. Why should we? Our current customers love us for our conferences – they thrive from the in-person aspects and that mind set is hard to change. However, how many other potential customers don’t connect at the conference due to not seeing the value, or being unable to attend with diary clashes. Also – I wonder how many firms don’t send their junior staff due to costs but would love them to access the educational aspects?

In some cases I’d expect some events to convert to a digital experience as it is deemed to be more efficient. However, I don’t see this reducing the MICE market – I see it growing it – because it is also easier for conference organisers to now develop new communities online, test out propositions, get buy in and drive the demand for in-person events in the future. So, although I see digital replacing a lot of risky/expensive events, it will also bolster the industry in the long term. The technology, in my opinion, is here to stay and we must learn how to use it to our advantage. Like the adoption of the telephone before – it didn’t give us eye-ball to eye-ball connection or the ability to share a lunch together - but it provided such a speed of connectivity that it defined business efficiency for decades.