Bas Dalm, director commerce RAI Amsterdam, talks to CMW about the opportunities of online and hybrid events.
Every organisation has experienced the impact of coronavirus, but there are few whose empty agenda has so much impact on an entire city. RAI Amsterdam started 2020 with the forecast that it would have the best year ever, yet came to a complete standstill.
Bas Dalm, director of commerce at RAI Amsterdam, says the past year has been quite an emotional rollercoaster for his organisation, with digital opportunities created through trial and error. He is looking ahead with confidence, however, to the future of online, blended and live events.
So, how was the past period at the RAI for Dalm?
“It was awful. You close assuming it will take a few weeks, but it went from bad to worse. The closure not only affected us, but also about 2,500 jobs and three million flex hours in Amsterdam and the surrounding area. Very poignant. We had to reorganise and that has been a painful process, not least because the laws and regulations require you to let good people go that you would prefer to keep.
“We have developed many initiatives to help not only ourselves, but also Amsterdam, however. We have made our kitchens available at the ROC in Amsterdam, so that catering and hospitality students can gain practical experience now that the catering industry has come to a halt and the college classrooms are too small to maintain sufficient distance.”
Dine in a bubble
Staying with the catering theme, and ‘Het Smakenrad’ is a catering concept that allows clients to enjoy food and drinks on a Ferris wheel in their own bubble. It was opened for just two days last autumn but is ready to re-open in the RAI forecourt as soon as the weather permits.
The RAI has one hall full of inflatables for children’s enjoyment and, in collaboration with partners, the team has developed ‘The Stage is Yours’ plug and play concept in which 1,100 people can come together ‘corona-proof’ for their event. “So far we are held back by rules and measures at every turn,” says Dalm. “It is a pity, because we want to help and show that events can take place safely.”
There are, however, also some great initiatives emerging from this period. “The digitisation of events was on our agenda to tackle in the next three to four years,” Dalm notes. “Now that has been rushed through in five months. We went through a learning curve at an accelerated pace.”
Dalm adds that the RAI team has been busy online and lists the speedy development of two state-of-the-art studios, one aimed at webcasting and interviews and the other for television broadcasts. “More than 150 broadcasts have already been broadcast in the latter,” he says.
What distinguishes the RAI studios from the others in the country?
“There are many studios in the Netherlands, but we offer the great advantage of being an event location used to working with protocols from an organisational point of view. In addition, we offer the bridge with physical events, so that you can go blended. Furthermore, we stand for high quality. We are a Champions League-level studio, both technically and operationally. If enormous bandwidth is required for a globally streamed event, that is no problem for us. And numerous green screen studios or breakout studios can also be installed with us.”
In terms of specific platforms, Dalm says the clients are, of course, free to choose but that the RAI’s thorough testing had led to a preference for working with Gripp. “That platform offers many opportunities for interaction between the studio and the guests, but also between the guests themselves. In addition, Gripp continues to develop the tool.”
The RAI has also been making online events for its own exhibition titles.
“Not everyone knows but, in addition to being the building owner, we also own a dozen tradefairs. Focused on national and international B2B, B2G and BTC markets. Think of international titles such as Aquatech Amsterdam, the world’s leading water exchange for process, drinking and wastewater that also has spin-offs in Mexico and China.
“It is important to keep these brands alive and in the spotlight. Starting with the content in mind, we have been looking at the specific needs each target group might have. We were also able to integrate several physical components. Catering companies could order a tasting box for the virtual Horecava at the beginning of February. After that, the visitor could participate online in the live tasting in the Horecava studio.”
Learning points that Dalm picks out from the process of staging online events include:
• Organising an online event is more expensive than many clients think
• You need a lot of knowledge and skills on the operational side, as it is really different from organising a live event
• You have to be much clearer in briefings in the preliminary phase to ensure everything meets the desired requirements. At a physical event you are able to have everything more under control, but from a distance it is much more difficult to manage speakers and guests
• Registration rates are dropping as people tire of digital, so you have to trigger them in the right way.
• Respond in your programme to the latest developments and events.
• Think carefully how to get the highest possible ROI from an online event, so make sure you determine which interactions are needed and how they can be used optimally.
And just how do you ensure a high ROI?
“For an online event we always start from content,” says Dalm. “Then comes the question ‘which target groups do we serve?’, and then we look at ‘who are you?’ You would like to know the questions a visitor brings when joining the online event. And to ensure those needs are met, matchmaking is the key. It is about creating a profile as detailed possible of each visitor. There are still some barriers to obtaining this kind of information, but that is where the solution lies for the future.
“We are now an event organiser, but we are becoming a data company with large live events. A data-driven organisation that will support physical events. Don’t get me wrong, live events remain invaluable.”
Dalm sees a future movement towards blended events. “For our tradefairs, it tends to be the CEO or manager who comes. Through the input of digital components we can also create interaction with the people who really work with the products shown at the fair. The CEO is physically there for the networking and the deals, but some of the employees can follow the online programme to ask questions or attend information sessions. The result is a much higher ROI for exhibitors. And content can be distributed via different channels afterwards.
“We also see that local markets especially can make very good use of digital events. When a subject or problem is very topical in a certain region, it is cheaper to organise a digital event around it than a physical variant.”
Dalm answers the question of how the RAI’s calendar is shaping up, by saying that, despite being closed since March last year, the company expects to be able to organise full national and international events from October. “We can also see that in the calendar, because it is completely filled. That is not surprising, because we have been trying to cram 18 months into four this autumn. That is not really possible, so we will see shifts through to mid-2022.
“So, for the short term, we are mainly expecting European visitors. It is difficult to gauge how great the demand is from the Americas and Asia and that is why the blended component is so important, because they are definitely interested in these events over there. There may be fewer physical visitors, but there could be three times as many digital visitors.”