February 8, 2022

The future of events: A top-tier event strategist unpacks critical next steps

Dave Jaffer

To say the pandemic changed things for the events industry would be an understatement of the highest order. That it has not dealt a fatal blow to the events industry broadly is a credit to the professionals who have adapted and reinvented in the face of dramatic change. 

Yes, the world stopped. But Nicola Kastner kept on going.

Kastner, an award-winning event marketing strategist and former Vice President of Global Event Marketing Strategy for SAP (2018-’22), lives and breathes events — from where and when to put them on to why and how they are designed. It’s her job to see events as a crucial branch on the larger marketing tree, to use events to drive business and deliver value to consumers and attendees. Upon speaking to her, it’s apparent that she’s spent her entire career sharpening that branch into a spear.

“My job was designed by our CMO in 2018 with the intent to really look at our event portfolio, and then our event experiences within that portfolio, to make sure we were driving maximum value for both the company as well as for the attendees that came to our events,” Kastner says. “That’s what I endeavour to do, day in and day out, in my job.” 

 

What the pandemic revealed about events

Broadly speaking, in the beginning the pandemic affected events in one of two ways: it forced their cancellation or morphed them into digital-only versions of the initial vision. The second group were mostly salvage efforts — organizers doing the best they could with what they had. Kastner believes this approach, while understandable, misses both the point and the opportunity. 

“It was the gift that we didn’t know that we wanted,” she says. “We as an industry had fallen in love with the solution, not the problem we were trying to solve.”

 

“Back in the day, if Henry Ford had asked people what they want, they would’ve said a faster horse, not a car, right? We really were attached to our old way of doing events.”

 

Why “lifting and shifting” won’t work

Kastner is critical of what she refers to as the lift-and-shift approach. In other words, the wholesale move of existing physical events into digital events without taking into consideration how people experience events and why that is.

“We went through this transition where we lifted and shifted, and literally in many cases [it] looked like a physical event environment,” she says. “You know, you can walk in and there’s a lobby, and you go over here to the auditorium, and here you go to the sponsorship expo. That’s ludicrous to me, because people behave differently digitally than they do physically. 

“Amazon isn’t set up like a department store for a reason. They’re task-oriented. You don’t go to Amazon to buy a dress and walk out with a sofa, but that does happen in department stores because people are browsing. The same thing applies to how we transition from physical events to digital events. And I choose to use the word digital. I don’t like the word virtual because, to me, it implies a sort of lift-and-shift, taking what we did in person and just making it online. And I don’t think that’s the right approach.”

Which begs the obvious question: What is the right approach? 

To Kastner, that’s not it. She thinks it’s closer to when do we do what, and why?

“It was a pretty simple equation, pre-pandemic,” she explains. “Is it worth the time investment? Is it worth the financial investment? And assuming the answer was yes, of course you would go to an event. Now you add in a personal risk multiplier [because] those expectations have changed dramatically for people. So what we deliver at events has to be different than what would be available online.” 

 

The right content, the right way, for the right medium

If we draw distinctions, then, between the future of traditional physical events in a post-pandemic future, digital-only events and hybrid events, it seems obvious that the future of events hinges on several observations we glean now. “The last thing I want to do right now is get on another really terribly-produced event,” she says. “And a lot of them really still haven’t transitioned.” 

Transitioning will require a rededication to producing good content, but also the right content. Kastner wants to rethink this right down to the nomenclature, because a keynote in a digital context isn’t really a keynote, and calling something a “digital keynote” doesn’t really mean anything. Moreover, if digital-first or digital-only is going to be the standard, production values necessarily have to go up.  

To return to the Amazon vs. department store comparison, if people are expecting a physical experience and have to settle for a digital one because of, say, a global health emergency, they’ll settle for so-so content and execution. However, if they’ve made plans to attend a digital event, the experience and the content has to be designed and optimized for that kind of attendee. 

 

“Content has to be produced in the right way for the right medium.”

 

“Back in the day, if Henry Ford had asked people what they want, they would’ve said a faster horse, not a car, right? We really were attached to our old way of doing events.”

In discussing hybrid events, Kastner says it’s not about one experience being better than another one as much as there are different ways to optimally experience the same thing. She uses a sporting match to illustrate the point. 

“The experience you have in a stadium is completely different than the experience you have in a bar with like-minded individuals in small groups, and completely different than the experience you have when you’re sitting by yourself at home,” she says. “It revolves around the same thing, but even the content is different — it’s produced differently. And it’s not that one of those experiences is better than the other. They are different, and your expectations of what they’re going to be are different based on which of those experiences you’re in.”

 

Learning to evolve

Events are an essential part of the modern business experience, and the unprecedented changes industries everywhere have had to make because of the pandemic cannot be understated. 

Still, there are really only two responses we can have to everything that we’ve experienced over the past few years: we can mourn what we’ve lost or we can reshape things so that they are stronger, better, resilient and more dynamic for more people. Kastner, unsurprisingly, is excited for the challenges the industry is facing and the ones it has yet to face.

“I think as an industry, we’re still learning,” she says. “I’ve seen some better [events], done well, but not a ton. I think we’ll still learn and we still have a long way to go and evolve, because as marketers and event designers we may think we understand where we need to go, but the data has to lead us, the data has to tell us. And because behaviours are continually changing, I don’t see, from one event to another, very many trends that continue event over event.”