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March 25, 2020, 3:55 p.m.

We know coronavirus has wrecked the events business for media in 2020. But will it come back post-virus?

O’Reilly Media, long known for its successful conferences, has decided that it’s getting out of the business — no matter how quickly civilization gets past COVID-19. Will events revenue bounce back quickly in a few months or be lost under a mountain of Zoom calls?

Our friends at Digiday have redesigned (well, “refreshed”) their site today. The main difference you see on the homepage is much more prominence given to its paid membership offerings. The page’s top three headline slots are reserved for “Digiday+ Member Exclusives”; there’s a large module of member-only offerings down the page a bit. Of the 40 stories highlighted on the homepage, 19 are for Digiday+ members only.

That’s all unsurprising, given that memberships and reader revenue are all more important to publishers today than they were a few years ago. “When we last refreshed our site…we did not have a membership program; now we have three across all brands,” editor-in-chief Brian Morrissey writes in an intro to the changes. “We needed to adapt our experience.”

Morrissey writes that the new site “is not a result of the coronavirus dislocation, but it is a way of us adapting to the changed needs of our audience and our own evolution as a company.” And later on he notes one of those changes: the disruption of Digiday’s events business:

Digiday was founded 12 years ago at a time of great uncertainty for the publishing industry. Since that time, we’ve strived to put ourselves at the center of the media and marketing communities in order to create change. That mission, we believe, is more important than ever, as these industries — and the fashion, beauty and retail industries — undergo the most profound challenge they’ve faced in decades.

Our business is not immune to these challenges. We have needed to postpone several events, and this hits an independent media company particularly hard. If you’re already a Digiday+ member, thank you for supporting our work. If you haven’t joined yet, please consider doing so. We are in the process of rolling out new features for Digiday+ members, including a virtual event series pegged to actionable insights for navigating this turbulent period.

The events business is important to Digiday, as it is to many publications around the world, especially those focused on a particular industry or niche. In 2019, Digiday held more than 40 events around the world — in the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Hungary, and Japan, along with many of the fancier spots stateside (Vail, Napa, Palm Springs, Key Biscayne).

Here’s a video from a few years back that features Digiday founder Nick Friese describing their events business:

Digiday Events is a series of conferences, summits, award shows that we do around the world. And the events really are designed and geared for brands, agencies, publishers, and platforms. It allows them to get away from their office environment, to take a step back. It allows them to get a different perspective.

And it really makes a big difference, you know. There’s a bonding experience that happens when you’re together for three days with 150 or 200 of the smartest people in the industry. Business gets done there, relationships get built there, and that’s what we shoot for every time.

That’s a good pitch, one that’s worked for lots of other outlets. Obviously, the coronavirus, with its attendant social distancing and self-quarantining, is going to screw that all up for a few months.

But what about after coronavirus?

Whether “after coronavirus” means July, October, or summer 2021, eventually there will be a time when the decisions of people and companies are not driven by infection fears. What happens to the sort of events business that’s been good for Digiday and so many others? (Not to mention all of the media companies who sure would like a piece of that pie.)

I ask because of a very different announcement from a media company, one made Tuesday afternoon. O’Reilly Media is one of the original giants in tech book publishing. (If you’ve ever seen a book about a programming language with an animal engraving on the cover, that’s an O’Reilly.)

But O’Reilly long ago expanded into events, and in a big way. Conferences like OSCON drew large audiences and were key to driving profitability. (O’Reilly is also probably why you got invited to that unconference once.) Events seemed very core to the business.

So here’s the announcement from O’Reilly president Laura Baldwin (emphases, as above, mine):

It has been a rough few weeks as we’ve seen the COVID-19 virus take a toll on our livelihoods, our families and the world economy. People are losing their lives, and businesses are suffering in the shadow of revenue losses and a volatile stock market.

The virus has had a material impact on O’Reilly’s in-person Events division as well. We previously made the painful decision to cancel our Strata California and Strata London events. Today, we’re sharing the news that we’ve made the very difficult decision to cancel all future O’Reilly in-person conferences and close down this portion of our business.

Without understanding when this global health emergency may come to an end, we can’t plan for or execute on a business that will be forever changed as a result of this crisis. With large technology vendors moving their events completely on-line, we believe the stage is set for a new normal moving forward when it comes to in-person events. We also know we are poised to accept that challenge, having already delivered a version of our Strata event on-line to over 4,600 participants last week.

With over 5,000 companies and 2.5 million users on our learning platform, we look forward to innovating and bringing together the technology communities and businesses we serve in new and creative ways.

In other words, they’re not postponing events or canceling a few conferences — they’re getting out of the in-person events business altogether. Because they believe the “new normal” for meetings and conferences post-COVID-19 will be a business they’re not interested in being in.

If that’s right, then a lot of publishers who rely on events revenue are going to be in rough shape.

There’s already been lots of talk about how life in America and elsewhere will be changed by the experience of our strange coronaviral entrenchment, in ways large and small. Will Zoom meetings turn corporate conference rooms into ghost towns? Will a few months of home workouts make people stop going to gyms? Will closing the salons and barber shops make long hair the norm?

Whenever we do hit “after coronavirus,” some parts of life will return to normal quickly. Your local chain restaurant will show you to a table as quickly as they are able. The barbers will open shop as soon as they can. But big conferences only happen with months, sometimes years of lead time. The process of planning a schedule, assembling speakers, booking a space, reserving hotel rooms, marketing it to the world so people can convince their bosses to let them go — it all takes a long, long time. And almost none of that process can begin until planners know when it’ll be safe to gather thousands of people in a tight space.

Whenever that day comes, the local gym may be open, but big conferences will still be months away. Meaning the time gap in the conference business will be longer than in a lot of other areas. And events revenues will dry up for a longer period of time than, say, advertising revenue.

Most conferences are, like Wall Street Journal print subscriptions, ultimately paid for by companies who determine the information gained by their employees will be worth the cost. And who knows how businesses will look at a $600 registration fee, round-trip flights, and four nights at the DoubleTree after all this?

And all the people who plan and work on those conferences — many of them will either lose their jobs or be reassigned to different work. After coronavirus, how many of them will want to or be able to return to their old work, right away or at all? How much muscle memory will be lost as predictable planning processes suddenly go fractal all across the calendar?

Reading Baldwin’s note and O’Reilly’s decision made me think maybe this really is closer to a stop than a pause.

I wanted to ask Rafat Ali about all this. Rafat founded paidContent 500 years ago and now runs Skift, his travel-news-and-intelligence company we’ve written about several times.

Skift covers travel — and increasingly the events business, having acquired EventMB last year — so they’re very aware of COVID-19’s impact in those sectors. And conferences are a big part of Skift’s business model as well, with Forums and Summits around the world that are a lot like Digiday’s in spirit. What does Rafat think?

I think that’s right: There will be a significant shift in gatherings from in-person to virtual. But it won’t be universal, and it won’t be evenly distributed among types of events, industry sectors, local vs. distant, or other factors. (One of Digiday’s sub-brands, Glossy, covers the fashion and beauty industries. I would think the fashion industry is one less likely to view a few Google Hangouts as a replacement for in-person engagement.) Maybe the kind of tech-oriented, open-source-heavy conferences that O’Reilly did are more at risk than other kinds of events, and killing off the division is a reasonable move with few broader implications. I don’t know.

But Rafat is also right that a media business today needs to be diversified in its revenue streams. (Or “promiscuous,” the way they like to say it at The Texas Tribune.) If your business is 100 percent conferences, then the question here is existential. If it’s 10 percent conferences, you have some options when everything goes pear-shaped.

The problem, especially for local print and local digital media, is that events were supposed to be part of that “promiscuity” — something to broaden revenues beyond advertising and reader revenues, not an anchor to be diversified from.

It should be noted that, while they’re unlikely to be initially as profitable (or compelling as a product) as in-person conferences, virtual events will no doubt generate plenty of profitable opportunities themselves. On Monday, Skift announced it was holding an “online summit” on March 31 on the subject of business travel. Eight days from announcement to event — that’s a turnaround time hard to imagine if it involved flights and hotels, even under perfect circumstances. Maybe it’ll be great; maybe it’ll be meh. Either way, they’ll learn from it and get better the next time.

For most media companies, even the most apocalyptic version of what O’Reilly fears is “the new normal” will be survivable; events are still a small part of their businesses, one of the things that gets lumped into “Other” in the quarterly earnings reports. But for some — the ones that rely on a few big conferences to supply 30, 50, 80 percent of their annual revenues — they’d better hope that the O’Reilly vision of the future turns out to be darker than reality.

To close, I wanted to quote from this lovely blog post (though, it being 2020, all blog posts are actually newsletter issues now) by Jaime Woo and Emil Stolarsky, who write The Morning Mind-Meld. (Apologies for the long excerpt, it’s good.) Because however the business decisions fall, there’s one thing everyone knows: A virtual conference is a poor, poor substitute for an in-person conference. It’s the difference between watching a YouTube video of a play and being onstage yourself. The hallway track currently doesn’t work online; there’s a huge opportunity waiting for whoever figures out how to make it better.

First-time conference organizers will try to pack the schedule — like a well-meaning hyperactive tour guide — thinking that more content will mean a better conference. It’s not true. The hallway track is how you know people are interacting, are connecting. It is the negative space in your photo that provides breathing room to the image, and without it the air is taken out of the gathering.

The truth is that when people travel vast distances to attend a conference, they do so not just for the information, but to be around other people. The presentations you program, well, they’re the fuel for conversation between attendees. Whether the audience agrees or disagrees, whether the ideas on stage are novel to them or not, after the session finishes, you want the crowd energized and ready to connect with their fellow attendees. The cherished stories you hear from people will almost always be from the hallway track.

The hallway track is a place where you can learn from others like you, and hear conversations that are too private to share on social media. (You know, the ones that don’t have to be polished and performed.) The hallway track is where you get to enjoy not just the ideas of the industry you’re in, but the people. We’ve met our heroes through the hallway track, and strangers who instantly felt like friends we’ve known forever. These moments are necessarily ephemeral: that is the magic of live events.

When news of O’Reilly shuttering its in-person conference hit, it felt surreal. It’s easy to take these events for granted. They’ll always be there. You don’t imagine Christmas being cancelled. The very reason why monumental conferences have to shutter is precisely what made them useful: they brought together people from everywhere. The sheer bigness is why now they are so uncertain. It must have been a difficult decision, and we feel for everyone affected. How many other conference organizers are also wondering if they should follow suit and take a breather?

There will still be in-person events. Local meetups will persevere, and smaller conferences will fill part of the void. As will online conferences. But we’ll miss meeting someone from another part of the world and unexpectedly getting sucked into a multi-hour conversation, playing hooky for all the talks we had planned to attend. We hope there will be other opportunities for our friends to meet, as a global reunion. That feeling of a village or a neighbourhood embodies what it means to be in a community.

Image based on a photo by eltpics used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 25, 2020, 3:55 p.m.
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