A Convene Chat With Valerie Sumner
There’s a photo taken from behind Valerie Sumner as she stood on the Moscone Center stage last January at Convening Leaders 2020. The room is dark and you can’t see any faces in the audience. What you can see, however, are hundreds of points of light shining up at her throughout the ballroom. That’s because Sumner, then incoming chair of the PCMA Foundation Board of Trustees, had asked the audience to turn on their cell-phone flashlights — a symbolic gesture of their role as event professionals to shine a light on the future.
Which turned out to be somewhat prescient considering how, just a few months later, those same professionals would find themselves trying to navigate through the darkness of a pandemic. “This was one crazy year,” Sumner said when we spoke with her in mid-December. “We had a year of COVID. We had social awakening. We had economic upheaval in our industry. All this going on, but I'm really honored to have served as the chair during a time when we focused on our strength, our resilience, our power to pave our way to the next normal. PCMA and the Foundation focused on our mission and reached out to understand and support the needs of our community. We were able to distribute grants and scholarships, invest in critical research, including the Business Events Compass and support education programs to keep the momentum of our industry alive.”
Although 2020 proved to be personally and professionally challenging, Sumner was upbeat. “We want to continue to learn from yesterday, understand where we are today, and remain resolute in our progress for the future,” she said, speaking as much, it seems, in her role as Foundation chair as the owner of full-service event management company VRS Meetings & Events Inc. From the perspective of the outgoing chair, Sumner noted that she wanted to “give thanks to the board and trustees and to our members — I really think it is important to thank our members and the PCMA community for staying resilient throughout 2020.”
Sumner reflected on the year that was and what she’s anticipating in the year ahead in a wide-ranging conversation with Convene.
What has it been like as the owner of an event-management company to navigate COVID-19?
Speaking for me personally, for our business and for what we're doing, we have experienced tremendous change, but we also been able to shift our focus. We immediately looked at how we can serve and best add value for our clients and our customers, shifting to digital environments and virtual strategies. The DES course was a critical resource for our team. Our team has experienced multiple courses and certifications for digital events. We've become certified Pandemic Compliance Advisors for meeting and event professionals to ensure that events are held responsibly to prevent the spread of communicable disease. We're looking at how to best meet the needs of our clients. We’ve become even more of a consultant to our clients, using the Business Events Compass report as well, to better understand the road ahead and how to think differently about what success looks like moving forward.
So our purpose is to be a valuable resource for our clients. Our clients are looking for guidance — we are interested in being their resource for how we manage through this. Of course, we don't have all the answers, but I feel like being equipped with the information, the research, the background, the contacts, and the understanding of what is happening and all the information that PCMA and Convene has provided, we're able to help guide our clients so they are better prepared to make the best decisions they can make for their organizations.
What else has changed in your mind as a result of the pandemic and its impact on our industry?
The need to reskill, for sure. But it's not just reskilling — it’s the way you think. We've always talked about how we have to think strategically, we have to think as a thought leader and a visionary for our field, and the pandemic has thrust this upon everyone. Business events professionals now need to think about how to take an understanding of what’s happening in the larger world and then apply it or figure out how it may fit with an organization. It's a very different mindset than a logistics focus. I think it's a different perspective for many. For VRS, we have always tried to think strategically. It is definitely more challenging. It's more stressful because you're trying to figure out solutions without having a frame of reference for anything like we are experiencing currently, right? We’re experimenting with business solutions, which you don't know if they're going to be spot on or not, and you have to do as much work as you can, paying attention to research and understanding the information at hand to make the best decisions.
What have you learned in terms of virtual events about delivery of content and engagement?
That's been really interesting. There are so many exciting opportunities and options out there, and they keep growing. It has been exciting to see everyone's creativity and innovation and how these platforms are being designed and what they can do. The big thing I go back to is connecting the right platform with the right objective for the client because what a Zoom platform can do can be great for a webinar for a client who may just need this quick kind of option. But then if you're really looking to create a mutli-dimensional communication strategy and have a layered event experience, then you have to look at robust platforms that have unique components to achieve the objectives you are seeking. But you’ve got to understand the objectives to know which platform works best.
And then the cost and the investment in these technologies is tremendous. It can range from everything from a small amount to six figures to make these tools work the way you want them to work.
And then there is engagement — we’ve found engagement is the hardest piece. It's a real challenge for us, for our clients. How do you engage the audience to really connect them to sponsors, to exhibitors, to content? The speaker and content design piece seem to be more of a natural transition from in-person to the virtual environment. Event professionals have an understanding of best practices to create compelling content, execute engaging breakout discussions, connect idea exchanges, and encourage Q&A. Live presentations, we’ve found, are a much more genuine, kind of a real experience versus the recorded presentation with live Q&A. However, it truly depends on the budget and the timing in terms of speakers’ availability, which we understand. The engagement piece — especially with sponsors and exhibitors — continues to be a challenge for us. We haven't quite figured out the secret sauce on this one!
Yes, replicating the virtual exhibit hall online is not easy.
Agreed. One of the things we found from our experience this year is that it is critical to connect content to the sponsor and the exhibitor. We are working with our clients to create learning labs, innovation labs, content that's sponsored via an exhibitor but is thought-leadership content — it's not a sales pitch, and it is vetted through the program and education departments. This approach seems to be gaining traction and engagement.
Our company is small. We're very nimble. There's only five of us, six of us, depending on how we roll, but we've looked to our partners to help us expand when we need to. We've been really effective on how we manage our business and that's been helpful to get through this. Of course, we secured small business loans, PPP loans, tightened up our budgets, and worked with our clients on best strategies to retain our services.
We continue to look to the future to innovate so that we can offer ideas and consulting services for next year and the year beyond that are relevant and effective. I do believe 2021 is going to be just as challenging — if not more challenging — because we are now in a situation where revenue is critical. We now are facing multiple years of registration revenue numbers, exhibit revenue, and sponsorship revenue not reaching pre-COVID budgeted levels.
With this in mind, we are incorporating an omnichannel approach with our clients to explore multiple channels to deliver content, messaging, branding, and the event experience. This allows our clients to expand revenue opportunities and strengthen the value proposition for their organizations.
One of our clients made the strategic decision to focus solely on virtual events for 2021. An ongoing monthly strategy with a theme for the first half of the year, and a theme for the second half of the year will be delivered. How is content designed and delivered to ensure engagement and registration numbers? How do we secure and engage sponsors to deliver innovative learning programs every month? How do you create and design varied programs to mix things up a bit for different learning models? It's exciting, I think because it's creative, thought-provoking, and strategic. This inspires every business event strategist to continue looking forward.
What kinds of new business models are you seeing evolve on the supplier side?
Talking with our DMO partners, I see models shifting, including execution, safety activations, media centers and preparedness. They're adding digital event strategists to assist clients with hybrid events.
I am reading a lot about a focus on regional and local event growth over 2021 into 2022. Destinations and hotels are balancing the traditional booking patterns with regional event opportunities over the next two years. Leisure travel in resort destinations is gaining some traction, while urban destinations are still seeing challenges that will most likely continue through 2021.
A year from now, at the end of 2021, what do you think the meetings industry is going to be talking about?
That's a good question. I think we'll be talking about the success of the vaccine, the impact of the vaccine — hopefully, we’ll be seeing an incremental increase in our numbers because of the vaccine. I am thinking positive about that. I think we’ll be assessing the impact or outcomes from all the hybrid and virtual events that took place and the ROI. Did those formats get us through the crisis or did that shift us forever to a different kind of model, which I think will be more the case. And I also think we’re going to be thinking a lot more about the question of why do we really need to meet and the best model and channels to effectively deliver the experience.
After a year of virtual and then hybrid, what is the purpose of every event we do? Why are we doing it? And do we need to meet face to face? Can this be done hybrid? We will be saying, “Do you remember when we used to do jump on a flight for a short meeting?” and we will also be saying “This is a really important event with a tremendously relevant program. I need to be there in person.”
We will continue to closely evaluate costs and budgets. Getting back to the question of shifting budgets to achieve financial objectives for every event produced.
As we look to 2021 and beyond, it’s important that we keep in mind the resilience and resolve of the business events community. We continue to learn from yesterday, live each day with the promise of change, and remain resolute in our progress forward.