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With Many In-person Events Not Returning Until at Least 2021, Virtual Offerings Remain Key for Media Companies

·10 min read

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When large parts of the U.S. were effectively shut down in March as the coronavirus spread across the country, some media companies pushed back their in-person events to the fall.

Among them was Time magazine, which in mid-March postponed its second celebrity-filled Time 100 summit due to take place the following month until September, although it didn’t release an exact date.

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But now, as cases of the coronavirus continue to spike in many U.S. states and with social-distancing rules still in place, the publisher told WWD the event won’t take place this year at all.

It was a similar story for the Vogue-backed Met Gala, which was postponed in March, only to be canceled for 2020 in May. It’s expected to be resumed by the museum next year.

In fact, by now many media companies have pushed back in-person events until 2021 and even then it’s likely to be a wait-and-see approach.

“None of us have a crystal ball so it’s impossible to know for sure, but we’re optimistic and planning for more IRL events sometime in first-half 2021,” said Jason Wagenheim, president and chief revenue officer at Bustle Digital Group, which owns Bustle, Mic and Nylon.

“Just like the universe told us when it was time to shut down, it will tell us when it’s time to open back up for IRL events,” he added. “Right now, we’re focused on running a healthy virtual events business and making sure our partners have lots of creative ways to connect with our readers.”

Fortune Media, too, is tentatively looking at the first half of next year, having halted all in-person events until the second quarter. As of now, its next one — Fortune Brainstorm A.I. — is scheduled for May 3 and 4 in Boston.

The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal also have no plans for in-person events this year.

The Los Angeles Times, which produces 90 or more events each year, postponed its large in-person offerings during the spring and has yet to make a final call on its event calendar for the remainder of the year and 2021.

“We’re paying close attention to public health guidance related to the coronavirus and our own coverage of the health risks and deaths associated with it. We’ll continue to adapt our event plans along the way, until it’s safe to gather people together in-person again,” a spokeswoman said.

Elsewhere, a few media outlets are still planning to hold in-person events, but these will be mainly small-scale in the U.S.

While Popsugar has pushed back its annual Play/Ground festival that draws a crowd of around 15,000 to New York to 2021, it is still planning on holding its pop-up Sugar Chalet. The Dodo, which shares the same parent company, Group Nine, as Popsugar, will hold some iteration of its Best Dog Day Ever event.

It’s understood that both of those will have safety measures in place, like timed entry and capped attendance, contactless entrance, sanitizing stations and social distancing. Popsugar is also finalizing the venues and locations closer to the event dates to give it flexibility due to COVID-19 on-the-ground realities varying across the country.

At magazine publisher Meredith Corp., brands Southern Living and Real Simple will host small, local in-person events if advertisers and consumers feel comfortable attending.

Southern Living’s Idea House, an annual advertising-sponsored show house, in Asheville, N.C., will begin to host tours in a few weeks. The Real Simple Home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side will offer smaller client tours this fall, as well as a slate of virtual events.

“Safety continues to be our top priority and guidelines will be implemented for visitors at each of these events,” it said.

The Economist Group has four in-person events in Asia and EMEA scheduled to start in October through the end of the calendar year, but it is monitoring the situation closely and is prepared to respond as needed.

Turning Virtual

But whether or not companies are tentatively hosting smaller in-person events this year, nearly all are organizing virtual events — something they pivoted to in early March, not wanting to lose out on the revenue stream that has become increasingly important to the industry in recent years, as well as boosting audience engagement.

That includes Aya Kanai, the new editor in chief of Marie Claire. Her first Power Trip, the magazine’s 36-hour, invite-only networking conference for women entrepreneurs, was due to take place in San Francisco in November, but has been postponed until spring 2021. Instead, this October it will go virtual for the first time with Power On, which will be launched in conjunction with its second digital cover.

The yet-to-be-revealed cover face will be a speaker at the event, in addition to a second celebrity keynote speaker and panels of female executives.

“We want it to feel like a really glamorous fabulous event so we’re peppering in the A-list celebs and all that stuff,” Kanai said in a Zoom interview. Sponsors include Delta, United, Chase and Dermstore.

The New York Times has also been busy, running 125 virtual events during lockdown with a total audience reach of 800,000.

It had intended to host about 80 live events in 2020, including The New York Times Food Festival, its largest consumer event with around 55,000 guests last year. That was scheduled for October, but has been canceled, as well as its popular 2021 travel show.

“Our intention is to remain virtual for the remainder of 2020,” said NYTLive managing director Jessica Flood. “So far as the return in 2021, we are having a lot of conversations with our internal return-to-office committees and taking the advice of government officials on the safest practices in New York, but also around the globe.

“At the moment, we are really intending and have had such success with our virtual events that that is the way we continue on until we feel we have the government advice to think about in-person return,” she continued.

Flood also manages the Times Center, which is in the publisher’s New York office and is where the paper holds many events, and is working on reconfiguring the space to make it appropriate for social distancing.

To date, its biggest virtual event has been “Offstage: Opening Night,” which included songs, stories and conversations with a gaggle of Broadway stars. It was watched by 25,000 people when it was first streamed and later by 61,000 views on YouTube.

“One of the biggest learnings for us is that we can reach a global audience,” added Flood. “Our events have been reached in 115 countries so far and we can engage people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to come to an event in New York or in London or in one of our major hubs where we did the majority of our events in-person.”

It has also partnered with the French Fashion Federation, as well as Camera della Moda to stream Paris and Milan Fashion Weeks on the NYTimes.com platform, since the shows went virtual for the first time in their history.

As for how to monetize virtual events, that’s through sponsorship for The Times. The majority of its in-person events were ticketed, but virtual ones are free. It has maintained some sponsors for certain projects — such as Mass Mutual, who had committed to a three-part in-person series “Unfinished Work,” which was moved to the virtual space — and also is working with new ones such as PayPal, according to Flood, who added garnering sponsorship is a continuing work in progress.

As for using events to boost subscribers, that also is something it’s working on. “We noticed that about half our attendees are not current subscribers and we’re working to engage that group over the long term in a variety of different ways, but one of our early thoughts is a new suite of subscriber-only virtual events, which we’re aiming to roll out next month,” she said.

In Washington, D.C., The Atlantic has revealed that The Atlantic Festival, its largest annual event, will take place virtually in September. Last year’s speakers included Nancy Pelosi, YouTube chief executive officer Susan Wojcicki and Disney’s then-ceo Bob Iger and attendance surpassed 2,000. This year it’s aiming to reach an audience of at least 1 million over four days and thinking outside the box for its speaker list.

“Once we were faced with the fact that in-person events were just totally unrealistic, we instantly thought, well, this is not the type of thing that should go away. This is really just an important moment for The Atlantic brand,” said Hayley Romer, The Atlantic’s publisher and chief revenue officer. “It gave us the opportunity to think a little bit more broadly about speakers. We’re no longer constrained by location. People don’t have to block off a couple of days to get there. So I think that’s an exciting opportunity. We’re going to have people phoning in from various locations.”

This event is free for the first time (ticket prices for 2019 ranged from $50 to $975), with The Atlantic also focused on sponsorship rather than ticketing.

For publishers, no ticketing means hopefully more guests and subsequently more sponsors and, according to Romer, a number of sponsors of the live event wanted to come on board for the virtual one. It now has a total of nine sponsors, compared to 16 at last year’s live event.

But this comes after The Atlantic significantly reduced the size of its events team in a recent round of coronavirus-related job cuts. (It now has 10 people on its live events team versus 50 earlier this year.) Romer explained that its events team will work on it with other staffers, but it’s also bringing on Don Mischer Productions to help increase the quality of virtual production.

As for what the future holds, Romer said improving data and government guidelines will just be the base line for considering live events again.

“I don’t know when people will begin to feel comfortable gathering in spaces with lots of people again and I would say certainly it’s important for us that people do feel comfortable and we’re not necessarily looking to be the first live event back in existence,” she said. “I think we want to always be responsible and ethical about these things.”

A hybrid model

While virtual offerings are unlikely to match the revenue that in-person events bring in, when the latter do finally return, that doesn’t mean the former will disappear.

Leigh Gilmore, general manager of live journalism and events at The Wall Street Journal, believes this is the beginning of a new hybrid model.

“In the short-term, virtual events will be a necessary substitute, but in the long-term, they will complement and enhance in-person events,” she said. “Humans are inherently social, and the in-person meeting will remain important. The virtual element will enhance and expand the traditional event, and the ‘new normal’ will be a hybrid model.”

For more, see:

The Atlantic Lays Off Nearly 20% of Staff Amid Coronavirus Fallout

The New York Times Quits Apple News

Aya Kanai Replaces Anne Fulenwider as Marie Claire Editor