industry insider | Nov 2, 2021 |
All-virtual, in-person or hybrid: Where are industry events headed?

When the pandemic was at its height, the home industry had no choice but to switch to virtual events. This year, those decisions have become a bit murkier. With COVID on the decline, some events are beginning to reintroduce an in-person component, and some have ditched streaming almost entirely. Others, after opening the door to virtual events, have found reasons to never look back.

Kitchen and bath brand Kohler shut down its in-person events pretty quickly when the pandemic set in around March 2020, though those mostly consisted of small groups of customers hosted at the company’s headquarters or experience centers. Before COVID-19, the brand relied heavily on trade shows like KBIS, the Consumer Electronics Show, and the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association conference (PHCC Connect) to reach a broader audience.

That approach began to look shaky in the summer of 2020, when last year’s annual KBIS and CES shows—the largest that Kohler participates in—seemed precarious in light of restrictions. The company began to put in place a Plan B for the following year, settling on a virtual event in February 2021 called Kohler@Home. In addition to showcasing products, the brand hosted panel discussions with experts and influencers on industry topics like wellness and hygiene. While the event was ultimately built for the trade, Kohler opted to promote it to its consumer-facing channels as well. The combination of the two landed the brand in surprising new territory.

“We were happy to have consumers who had a passion for design or a passion for our brand—that’s what made it important that we talk about [not only] our new product portfolio but [also] design trends and where things were going on a larger scale,” says Jason Keller, senior manager of campaigns at Kohler. “We learned that if we build it, they will come.”

While Kohler still attended KBIS and CES in 2021, its own event—which the brand says netted five times more leads than the typical trade show—emboldened it to build on that success with an even larger virtual event. Set to take place this week, Kohler Living will feature high-profile headliners like actress and entrepreneur Reese Witherspoon and New York–based artist Daniel Arsham. Keller expects leads from the event to reach double that of the February edition.

The New York Design Center experienced a similar phenomenon. Prior to 2020, the NYDC saw its What’s New What’s Next event as a soon-to-be staple in an informal design week evolving in New York, alongside events like Business of Home’s inaugural 2019 Future of Home conference. Just one year later, it had to pivot to digital. Unlike Kohler, NYDC opted for an event stretched out over four weeks as opposed to a two-day affair. Over the course of a month, it hosted one to two programs each day with more than 100 ambassadors across the country.

It’s unknown whether the digital-only WNWN reached a bigger audience than 2019’s in-person-only affair, which registered 7,000 attendees. Much of the streaming occurred via various Instagram accounts, making it difficult to centralize the data. However, it is clear that it reached a wider audience, with guests tuning in from all across the country and even overseas. It also allowed showrooms to try new things in the digital realm, ranging from livestreamed showroom walkthroughs to virtual panel discussions.

Looking to combine the best of both worlds, NYDC launched a hybrid event this year, with two weeks of virtual programming and two days of in-person events at the center’s 200 Lex location. With 1,500 people creating new profiles on NYDC.com to register for the 2021 event and 5,155 total registrations, the dual event worked to expose the brick-and-mortar space’s offerings to a new swath of potential visitors located outside its typical base, says the center’s chief marketing officer, Alix Lerman.

“We are now able to do something that can reach far and wide and extend the walls of our building. We always say that we’re New York’s destination for interior design, … but that only means something if people beyond where you are want to come here,” says Lerman. “To create an event that engages and connects with people outside of our initial area is a really special thing that we can do now that we’ve never been able to before.”

Other organizations, however, have found that the hybrid option detracts from in-person programming. At Fall High Point Market this year, all programming was on-site, aside from a few recorded talks posted on YouTube and some individual exhibitors offering virtual appointments and events. According to Ashley Grigg, the High Point Market Authority’s director of marketing and communications, this year the team considered livestreaming its keynote speaker series, but found that the speakers preferred to have an in-person-only audience rather than a split crowd with virtual attendees. What’s more, says Grigg, the attendees felt the same way.

“The number-one driver for our trade show is product, and people prefer to see that in-person. Accessing educational and social events while they’re here is important for a well-rounded High Point Market experience, but it’s not the main driver of attendance,” Grigg wrote in an email to BOH. “Now that in-person programming is possible again, our focus has shifted back to programming at Market, as the feedback we were receiving showed an appetite for that to return.”

Cost is also a factor. Digital-only events tend to be fairly cheap (some are no more expensive than the cost of a premium Zoom subscription). But livestreaming a real-world event can be a costly proposition. Grigg says the expense of operating regular programming alongside the additional staff and technology required to manage a livestream contributed to the HPMA’s decision.

But for others, it’s money well spent. Even as we look ahead to a (knock on wood) post-pandemic world, there seems to be an appetite for both virtual-only events and hybrid affairs. While Kohler@Home won’t be making a return this winter, the brand does plan to host Kohler Living in its second iteration next year. And Lerman says the NYDC isn’t going back: “Everything we do in the future will be echoed with some component of digital.”

Homepage photo: High Point Market’s Center Stage programming unfolds on the esplanade in front of Showplace. | Courtesy of the High Point Market Authority

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