Commentary

Publishers Can Find Reasons For Optimism With Virtual Events

Many publishers have spent years steadily building a live events business, only to see those efforts quickly dashed during the coronavirus pandemic. In trying to predict when the live events business will recover for publishers, I've been monitoring a variety of news developments and other indicators for any reason to be optimistic.

Spending on experiential marketing is forecast to slump 15% to $71 billion worldwide this year, according to Media Daily News, citing a tracking study by PQ Media. That decline sounds tame compared with the reports I've seen about canceled and delayed events, and the dire condition of airlines and the hospitality industry.

Some publishers have responded by creating virtual events, with magazines like The Atlantic revamping its yearly Atlantic Festival into a format that lets almost anybody attend online. Instead of packing 2,000 people who've paid as much as $975 a ticket into event space over a few days, the publisher aims to attract 1 million visitors to its virtual event in September, WWD reported.

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The Atlanticdoesn't plan to charge an attendance fee, and instead is drumming up interest from sponsors that can reach an audience that's potentially 500 times bigger than last year. It will be interesting to see whether the company can generate enough revenue from sponsors to make up for the lack of ticket sales.

Virtual events have their own advantages for publishers.

Instead of putting effort into booking an event space, planning meals, arranging for discounts on travel and lodging for attendees, a publisher can instead focus on the logistics of videoconferencing. Virtual events allow for greater flexibility in getting high-profile speakers, many of whom are traveling less frequently and can easily hop on a Zoom call for an hour.

I've been keeping an eye on air travel trends for signs that more people are willing to travel, which would bode well for a resumption of live events. The data about airline travel are updated frequently and had shown signs of bouncing back from extremely low levels during the early days of the pandemic. But it's not enough to be really meaningful to event organizers.

The number of passengers surged almost nine times between a mid-April low and a recent peak in early July, when people likely returned from the long holiday weekend, Transportation Security Administration data show. The TSAhas screened about 676,000 passengers a day in July, which is about one-quarter of last year's levels.

Unfortunately, passenger volumes have flattened in the past few weeks, likely because of a jump in coronavirus cases in sunbelt regions like Texas, Florida, Arizona and Southern California.

Despite those encouraging trends, the widespread availability of a successful vaccine is likely to be the most important development in spurring a recovery in live events. Fortunately, three of the world's leading candidates this week reported more data about their early trials, lifting hopes that a vaccine will be ready by the end of the year.

Oxford University researchers and AstraZeneca, Pfizer and BioNTech, and China’s CanSino Biologics published updates to indicate their test vaccines are safe.

While those tests are still in their early stages, the companies are contemplating ways to inoculate as many as 1 billion people this year. There is reason for publishers to be cautiously optimistic about live events, even if it means hanging on until there are clearer signs the pandemic is subsiding.

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