Revenue Strategies for Virtual Events: A Conversation with Tony Lorenz

Tony Lorenz is a serial entrepreneur and seasoned event expert. In 1992, he founded ProActive, an event marketing agency that was eventually acquired by event powerhouse Freeman in April of 2007. Since then, he's founded and PRA Business Events.

He sat down with Michael Hoffman, CEO of Gather Voices, to talk about revenue strategies for virtual events in the world of COVID-19.

Here's the full video of their conversation:

Full Video Transcript:

Michael Hoffman: Tony, thanks for joining me today to talk about virtual events and revenue. So, Tony, before we jump in, I'd love for you to just tell everyone a little bit about your background. I know you've been at events industry for a long time. You've seen it all, so if you could just tell us a little about sort of how you got here.

Tony Lorenz: Right. Yeah. I've been in the industry about 30 years and in a number of different ways. I was running a business by the name of ProActive, which is a classic event, marketing, and management firm that we put together for mostly corporate clients over a lot of years. Grew that to be a market leader, sold to Freeman and then worked over at Freeman for about four years. And I ran strategy and creative for Freeman. Great experience.

From there, went on to build out a platform by the name of Bob.TV, Best of Business TV, which was essentially a Netflix for business, along with ASAE and IEE, MPI, and PCMA. They're my equity partners. That worked out well for about four years. Sold those assets off to PCMA and then ran PRA, which is an event management firm here in North America as CEO, and went through some pretty dramatic growth there over four years. And now I'm taking a bit of a break and doing some consulting.

Michael Hoffman: That's great. And are you on the board of PCMA? Is that right?

Tony Lorenz: Yes, I am.

Michael Hoffman: You are? Okay. So you're seeing close up the disruption in this industry. So, I mean, as an event professional, it must just be devastating to people's lives and livelihoods.

Tony Lorenz: Yeah, no. No one saw this coming. Someone said, "It's like crossing the street. You look both ways before you do. Then you get hit by an airplane." That's essentially what it feels like for this industry.

Michael Hoffman: I hadn't heard that. That is ...

Tony Lorenz: It's been tough. From nowhere. Because the industry walked in there this year in amazing shape. I mean, everything was clicking. 2020 was going to be a banner year for the industry, for a lot of industries, but certainly in events. Clearly not the case, but with challenge comes opportunity, so that what we do is, from any vantage point, all you can really do is affect what you can change.

So, when it comes to digital events, which, as I earlier referenced, happened to have a little bit of background in, I think the industry's late in coming to this medium, actually. I said that a decade ago. And then, it got somewhat down the road, but not far enough. And now it's clear. We have to amplify face-to-face content with digital channels. So people are going to learn a lot really fast in this industry, it seems like.

Tony Lorenz: Yeah. Yeah, they will. They are. They are.

Michael Hoffman: And I always heard, was this one of the resistance pieces was we're going to cannibalize our event if we put stuff online and people aren't going to come. Was that the thing that was holding the industry back for a while?

Tony Lorenz: Yeah. It was primarily it. The technology has been there. It's not the technology. It's been there for a while. It's primarily, if I had to call out one reason, that'd be it. And there's an analogy to sports that goes back 60 years, the team owners in sports didn't want TV to show up. They pushed back and pushed back and pushed back.

Michael Hoffman: Yeah. And that was the same ...

Tony Lorenz: Same dynamic. TV eventually showed up anyway, much like virtual vendors showing up anyway. And everybody started printing money in sports because the net context, the game was content and it was amplified. And it created a gigantic industry.

Oddly, events are bigger than sports today as an industry, but we still are in that stuck in the don't-cannibalize-my-event mode up until quite recently, when we're forced to this new media or, well, not new media, but digital media.

Michael Hoffman: So, do you think that in, because of the financial hit that's so total for so many of these providers and companies, when we emerge from this, are those companies going to be gone? I mean, is the industry just going to be completely reshaped or do you think it's going to come back in essentially the same form that we left it?

Tony Lorenz: Well, it will definitely not come back in the same form. Let's check that box right away. Some companies, they will not make it. That's all there is to it. It's sad state of affairs, but it's the case. The ones that will make it and the ones that will thrive are the ones that embrace change. And there's a redefinition of the industry. That's early stages of being underway to where the business event space was typically regarded as the physical events you see at trade shows and hotels and conventions, et cetera. And it's got to be a wider definition than that. And it should be a wider definition because the event is happening in a number of different media, both digital and face to face, much like sports.

So you see the Olympics. I saw the Olympics. I didn't go to Sydney or Beijing or Rio to see them, but I saw them. I experienced the Olympic games, but I did it digitally.

So, you got to get to a redefinition of the industry and an event is an event. It's not a hybrid event. I mean, the Olympics are a hybrid event, but you don't call them a hybrid event, but they're an event, period.

Michael Hoffman: They're an event, and the event always has these elements to it.

Tony Lorenz: Right. So, we've got to get there. And as we get there and the individuals and organizations that lead in that definition are going to be just fine, more than just fine, just like the team owners back in sports. They became extremely wealthy on the back of a channel they at first resisted.

Michael Hoffman: Yeah. Yeah. I remember the Blackhawks were one of those teams.

Tony Lorenz: Yeah. That's a good example, too. Yeah.

Michael Hoffman: Organizations, right, that really resisted television.

Tony Lorenz: Yeah. And their teams were 7X what it was with television.

Michael Hoffman: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So, and I assume that it's going to just be old school people who just don't want to get on board and their companies are just going to either disappear or new leadership will come in, like anything else, right?

Tony Lorenz: Yeah. Exactly.

Michael Hoffman: Disruption. So, but that leads me to think about revenues. So, we work with a lot of associations and other event providers and their real concern is, "I'm replace." And this is like, it reminds me of the publishing industry. When they get rid of-

Tony Lorenz: Magazines.

Michael Hoffman: ... the classifieds and people would say I'm replacing classified dollars with internet pennies, you know?

Tony Lorenz: Yeah.

Michael Hoffman: And so that's I think what these folks are feeling, which is we have all this revenue from vendors. We have all these revenues from sponsors. The coffee thing is sponsored, and the wifi is sponsored, and the badge is sponsored. And there's all this stuff. And now I come to this virtual event and I don't have all those sponsorship opportunities and my vendors have no way to interact with people in the way they would on a trade show floor. Or at least, it doesn't feel that way. And they're not willing to put the same dollars in.

Michael Hoffman: So, if you're one of those organizations and you're thinking about that, how do you think about that? How do you frame that?

Tony Lorenz: Well, first of all, there are a lot of commonalities between physical and digital experiences. That's number one. Let's not look at digital events as something that is completely void of the underpinnings of face to face. There's a lot of commonality. There's content shared. There is networking. There's a lot of things that go on across both channels. So, that's number one.

And number two, much like in face-to-face events, I'm quite sure that, decades ago, there wasn't a coffee sponsor. I'm quite sure that, decades ago, there wasn't these individual little sponsors that roll around or, for that matter, significant sponsors. Sponsorship came to grow over time in the event space to what it is now, which is a gigantic line item of revenue.

In digital, there are a number of opportunities that waiting in a waiting room for you to show up in a Zoom that you can't do it in Zoom, but in other platforms you can sponsor that activity. There's sponsorships of Q&A and sponsorships from polls, and all manner of things.

And here's the good news. In digital, it's way more measurable than sponsorships that exist in many face-to-face areas, but I'll stay with coffee for the pedestrian example. How does that coffee sponsor know what he or she got out of that sponsorship? They don't. We sponsor the Q&A poll, or one of the questions in the Q&A poll in digital. You know exactly what you got because digital's every click is measurable. So, yeah. It's much more measurable.

Michael Hoffman: Yeah. That's a great point. That reminds me of my conversation with Edward Wendling from ASI, the makers of iMIS software for associations. He said, "The secret for us vendors who go to conferences is we don't like standing in booths. We would love to reinvent that. We want to have conversations with people. And if you give us an alternative to being on our feet for eight hours and desperately trying to get people into that space, we'd love it."

Tony Lorenz: Mm-hmm (affirmative). If you think about booths and trade show booths, you could take this as a criticism or constructive or not, if you're out there as an attendee, but you look at a trade show floor and it is quite similar to that of an internet full of websites. You got a website here, website there, website down and down and down. It's obviously digital in the internet. That's a physical version of the internet in some respects. And it is highly, highly productive in many instances, face to face, more so than digital.

Tony Lorenz: Definitely, there are value points in digital that you don't get in face to face. So it's not a yes or either/or situation. It's a yes and opportunity, I think that this industry has to get both up and running.

Face to face will come back. No question about it. It's going to come back different. No question about it. And that different is going to be, I think, a bit more flexible, a bit more scalable than it's been before is I think.

Then, with that attractive quality of flexibility and scalability comes more and more interest from a sponsorship standpoint.

Michael Hoffman: Right. So, I've heard different approaches to these situations that these organizations find themselves in. Some organizations basically saying they're getting rid of ticket prices, increasing the number of attendees by multiple factors, and then trying to have sponsorship be more of the revenue driver.

And then others, I think the association of fundraising professionals had a virtual event that was like $700 tickets or something, which shocked a lot of people who were not ready to spend that kind of money for that type of event.

So, if I'm an association executive, and I had an in-person event that's canceled and I have to rethink about it, what's the framework you use? Where would you start? Would you take your exact agenda from the in-person event and say, "Okay. What do we do?" How do you think about it?

Tony Lorenz: No. No, you can't do that. I mean, you can't even do it, but it's not a good idea because it's a different media.

So, when it comes to event structure, I think there's definitely not a copy/paste strategy that's going to work too well. Maybe it does, but usually not because it's different media.

And I could sit in an event all day and go from session to session and general session to breakouts, et cetera without much of a break, other than meals, but you can't do that effectively, typically in a digital event. Two, three hours is an eternity online, so we're two and three hours engaged in a business event is not an eternity by any means. So that's just one characterization or one area of difference.

When it comes to monetization, it's really an individual thing. It's got to flow from the business model of the event owner. So associations have, these are P&Ls, these events make revenue generating opportunities for the association and are significant. So, you've got to find the opportunities to generate revenue. There's a lower cost structure, obviously. So there's definitely not the need for the level in dollar value of sponsorship of a digital event as there is in physical, because cost structure is different.

So, the price points can obviously come down, but then still comes down to cost structure to be determined how close you get to the actual margins of that activity. But nonetheless, there's definitely margin-generating activity that can come out of sponsorship.

When it comes to ticket prices or not, again, individual. It sounds like the fundraising professionals had a strategy that was, I would guess, closely tied to highly valued educational content, which they deliver. If it's more of a product showcase and more of a lead gen activity, you're not getting a lot of people to sign up and pay money for that.

So, that's more of a sponsored activity. So it really depends on what the objectives of the event are. And then from there build out a monetization strategy accordingly. The closer the content is to necessary education accreditations and those sorts of things, then people are going to pay for that because they're going to get what they need. They're going to pay for it on an individual basis. There might be some sponsors around it or not, but they'll pay, but if it's all about discretionary content that may make you smarter about a given product or service. They're not going to pay for that.

Michael Hoffman: Yeah. That makes sense. I think one of the things we've been thinking about. At Gather Voices, we do video and prerecorded video, which can make an event more interesting and have lots of different content there. And our clients are thinking about how do you turn all that video content into sponsorship dollars, but also that lasts beyond the events itself.

If you're in person, it's like ephemeral. It's like it's gone. But if you have all this recorded content, you potentially can do what we're doing with this conversation, refocusing it, putting it online, doing different things.

Tony Lorenz: Yeah. You can package it over time. Even with physical events, you don't get to everything you're supposed to get. Last time I get to an event of any size where I saw everything I want to see, I don't remember. So, and a lot of those times, it's just gone. You don't get that opportunity, whereas with digital, you can participate at a level in digital events with what you want to participate in. Then, from there later, pick up the other content you couldn't get to on demand.

And so you have a longer tail to the content delivery. And for that matter, even simulive, and there's definitely a lot of events out there that were recorded. Then the speaker comes back for Q&A a month after the live event to go back and forth with the audiences as in a scheduled simulive event. They're not same content that was delivered months or a month earlier, but it still has that live feel, given the Q&A and-

Michael Hoffman: Yeah. That's a great point, because I think we've been having a lot of conversations about ongoing engagement. Why, if you're virtual, you're digital, you should be thinking about a year-round kind of opportunity to be ... You can have these intensive periods, the event talk time, but then you can have all year long where you can be repurposing things, having new things that then later also get put together into more event-like experiences.

So then, just a lot more flexibility and you shouldn't think of it as two days and you're done. You should think of it as how are we engaging all year long?

Tony Lorenz: That's exactly right. You have to have a year long or always on strategy, because events on their own. Right now, what's going on right now is the industry got halted to a full stop. So, the natural tendency was to take face-to-face events or what would have been delivered face to face and dropping them on the online platforms. No harm. I mean, you had to do it. We had to do a lot of that last several weeks, a couple of months.

So, now, as we get out of that mode and we're into, okay, what's this going to look like mode, then you're right. It's more of a strategy that runs across time, it's much longer tail. You find flash points or touch points that are particularly impactful, be it live or simulive, et cetera. But then you always have something to go to that, as an attendee or as a participant in that space, you can always go and pick something up, but you're looking forward to the event next Thursday because you know there's going to be a couple thousand people there and there's going to be a lot of live chat and interaction and fresh content, et cetera.

Michael Hoffman: Right. Right. And so, what's your best guess right now? What are you hearing about in-person events and, if people, it seems like there are still some events for later this year on the books in places. Are those events going to happen? If you're an organization that has a live event, let's say in October or November or September, what are you doing right now? What's your thought about how you should be thinking about it?

Tony Lorenz: Well, it's live. It's on locale. I live in Chicago. Our governor is being pretty conservative on what he's saying can or can't happen. Same with our mayor, Mayor Lightfoot, for reasons that are in protection of our society. So no fault. It's just that's their approach. And you have other states where it is decidedly more down the road.

What comes out of that? Let's hope it all works out just fine, but you don't know. So if you have an event in Chicago in August, I'd say of any size, I'd say got to rethink it, unfortunately.

You have that same event in Vegas. Maybe, maybe not. So, and then, we go from there. Okay. You can have the event. How many good people are going to show up? That's the part that is still out there. Are they going to be comfortable getting on planes and hanging in hotels and going to convention centers? I know that the industry is working as hard as it possibly can to make sure that's the case. And a lot of progress has been made.

I'm in this taskforce with Events Industry Council right now. And I can tell you a robust amount of work throughout the industry that we're pulling into a curated space so you know what best practice looks like, but it's still kind of here we are right in the middle of the summer or beginning of the summer. It's going to be telling. I don't know

Michael Hoffman: And I've heard about a few organizations. I'm thinking about a smaller events to replace, at least for now, these large national or international gatherings. Have you been hearing about that as a strategy?

Tony Lorenz: Yeah. That's the only way if we're going to. We came into it with no more thousand person events, no more 500 person events, no more hundred person. It came down to zero. We're going to go back up the same way, I think. We'll start with regional experiences because those drive-in events are easier to swallow, I think, if you're an attendee that might have some concern than would be getting on a plane and going somewhere and stay for two days or three days somewhere else.

So there's going to be a decided regional experience. That's where digital events come in because regional events, a thousand person event that would typically happen in Chicago Hilton. No. That's not going to happen.

So, but those thousand people can still come together across 10 cities, say a hundred people at a time, glued together through the digital platform. And so that the primary content can be delivered digitally into those 10 hundred-person locations. And then they can each have their own hundred-person experiences as well that are for that drive probably [crosstalk 00:00:25:01].

Michael Hoffman: Yeah. That's really interesting. So, it's not like a tour of regional events. It's a simultaneous set of regional events where you can actually have a shared experience, even though people aren't in the same location. I think that's really interesting.

Tony Lorenz: And I think that's a sustaining strategy, actually. I don't think that's a Band-Aid for what we're going through right now. All due respect, the airlines, who wants to get on a plane?I've been out of a plane for three months now. I don't miss it.

Michael Hoffman: Yeah. Yeah. I think people are rethinking a lot of business travel. Yeah. Great.

Tony Lorenz: Yeah. That said, there's a lot of things I do miss about travel. I do miss going to places and experiencing new geographies, et cetera, so that it will come back. But there's some of it you'd rather not to.

Michael Hoffman: Well, that brings up an interesting question, too. In a previous conversation I had, we were talking about the reason you go to events is to get out of your day-to-day routine. You go and everything's changed. You're not in your regular meetings. You're not in your regular space. You're able to think differently. You're seeing different people. That's a challenge online, right?

Tony Lorenz: Of course.

Michael Hoffman: We're doing Zoom meetings all day long. Then, we're supposed to go to a Zoom conference? It's kind of like, I'm not out of my routine. I'm just in more of it, and it's exhausting.

Tony Lorenz: It is exhausting.

Michael Hoffman: So what's your thoughts about that? How do we get some of these activities that are digital to feel like they're different, like they're having an experience that isn't like your everyday work now?

Tony Lorenz: Well, that's a design question. There's a lot of different ways to go about doing it. And by the way, a lot of these practices apply to face to face as well. You want interaction in face-to-face events, but a lot of times we're in rooms, listening to someone with PowerPoint slides go on for 40 minutes. That's not particularly interactive, but you fly to a distant land to get that content, which sounds kind of silly. In digital environments. You can't do that because I am one click away from going to my Facebook page or wherever I go.

Michael Hoffman: Right. We need to work harder to engage online.

Tony Lorenz: Yeah. You have to work a lot harder to engage. So, that applies to both media, both physical and digital events. In media, there's a lot different ways. You can do polling and all the different things. I'm sure you know well about that people need to employ more urgently in digital events and create an exchange whereby someone's hitting the keyboard every three minutes or so to do something. Say, "Yes," or, "No," or chat with someone or whatever the case may be. There's now you're engaged. It's feeling more like an experience versus a viewing of some content, which is exhausting, no question. But then again, it's exhausting sitting in a room for three hours or listening to PowerPoint slides, to be perfectly honest.

Michael Hoffman: Yeah. No, that's right. And again, that's part of what the role that I've got at Voices we're trying to play in these events is not to ... We're not Zoom, we're not creating that thing. We're just allowing a lot more voices in.

And one of the things we've noticed is it's hard to listen to the same person with a PowerPoint for an hour. But if you have lots of different contributors that you can slot into these things, then it's like, "Oh, new voice, new face, new information. I'm going to pay attention in a different way." And if the people who are attending also feel like co-creators in some way, they were able to contribute some content, then they pay attention differently, also.

Tony Lorenz: Absolutely. No question. Bringing the attendees into the content and others into the content that maybe attendees, or maybe give you small, bite-sized pieces of content, which Gather Voices does a beautiful job of delivering. That's part of it versus listen to someone for 40 minutes. So, it really does matter greatly. And you will see stickiness of your attendees to digital experiences with that sort of tactic underway.

Michael Hoffman: Great. Well, Tony, thanks so much for doing this and talking to me today. I think we're going to watch this industry transform before our eyes. And I think it's an exciting time to be part of. I know it's nerve-racking for a lot of organizations, especially around their revenue, but they have to embrace it, right?

Tony Lorenz: Yeah.

Michael Hoffman: They have to own it. And this is a muscle that everybody has to develop. They can't just go, "Oh, it's temporary. When are we going to get back to normal?"

Tony Lorenz: No.

Michael Hoffman: Forget about that, right?

Tony Lorenz: No. No. There's no going back to normal. It feels like a bad answer today because we're still in the air on the questions, but we will land just like sports landed. Sports was a little itty-bitty industry. And now look at it, on the back largely of amplification through digital channels.

Michael Hoffman: Yeah. Yeah. A great point. Excellent. All right. Thanks, Tony.

Tony Lorenz: All right.

Michael Hoffman: Have a perfect weekend.

Tony Lorenz: Thanks so much. Have a good day.

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