Only eight months ago Howard Salinger, managing director of Travel Connection Group, was a virtual events rookie. He switched platforms almost overnight, moved from a free to fee-paying model mid-way and attracted a new global audience. Here is his story
Running large events to connect travel companies with the media is our main business. Suddenly, as the UK went into lockdown in March, venues were forced to close, and PR and event budgets were slashed or frozen. We had no idea how to put on a virtual event, but we knew we needed to pivot to keep the business afloat.
We didn’t have any budget to pay so we opted for a free account on WebEx, which gave us 100 people in a room, including speakers on the panel. Across a weekend, I booked five top panellists and was ready to put on an event a few days later. I had come up with a concept called ‘Social with Media’ six months earlier but hadn’t worked out exactly what it could be. I had a logo and ran with the name and the idea.
We contacted everyone we knew who would be interested on a Monday morning believing about 20 people would join us. We quickly filled the 100 spots for the next day and even had 57 people on standby. I decided to do it again three days later with four more journalists and again 100 people came.
Switching to a monetization model
It became obvious that our event was something people really needed and so we decided to run it weekly on Wednesdays at 1pm. We explained it would be time-consuming to do it and would need to charge a fee. For the first week, we asked people for a donation, so we could gauge how much people were prepared to pay. We then started charging the average price each week.
The event ran weekly with a new set of journalists each time until the end of May, when it switched to bi-weekly because of pressures on our time. We took a break over the summer months and returned in September with a programme of events with specific themes, which included an hour-long webinar followed by an hour of networking on a platform where people could simply come along and connect. We also introduced subscriptions with a 10% discount so people could buy in bulk and save on fees.
The audience reach has been amazing. In the first four months we ran Social with Media, we had more than 600 people attend from 21 different countries. You cannot get that kind of audience if you put on a physical event in London. Also, it’s been very useful when running webinars for clients that they can have someone in the destination or resort, so they can show people first-hand what they’re promoting.
Off the back of Social with Media, we were approached by travel companies wishing to put on virtual events but weren’t sure how to do it. They could see we were doing well online already and knew we could get the audience they were looking for.
We were first approached by the German National Tourist Office, then the Caribbean Tourism Organization and other brands followed. We were able to deliver the events at a competitive price because online events allow you to save money on hiring a venue and F&B, goody bags and air travel for speakers.
We are also organising a big VirtYule Christmas Party for the travel industry, as we recognise that most parties will be cancelled, and networking opportunities will be lost.
Secrets to success
The content is vital and knowing the audience is key. People keep telling me that there is Zoom fatigue. I disagree. People aren’t tired of webinars – they’re tired of the content. They want something different, which is why we set about how to make each client’s webinar different. Social with Media, for example, is an informal chat. We don’t talk about things like we’re experts. We’re simply giving an opinion and trying to have a bit of fun while we’re doing it.
Returning to live events
Social with Media must go offline at some point, so we plan to do a monthly social in a London venue because that is where the media is based, but we will still do virtual events so people from outside the capital can benefit as well. By moving our events online, we have got to know a lot more people and this will hopefully help us to get more business moving forward.