Editor's note: this is a guest post from John Cozzi, communication director of the San Francisco Agency in Helsinki, Finland.

September 23rd, 2020 was a date long anticipated by the team behind one of the Nordic’s premier business conferences — the Nordic Business Forum. The 2019 edition of the international business conference marked the 10th year of its existence, during which time it had expanded from its humble roots in the Finnish city of Jyväskylä to a global event attracting thousands of the world’s top business leaders to network and learn from keynote speeches delivered by the likes of President Barack Obama and Sir Richard Branson.

“Our mission is to inspire the leaders of tomorrow by becoming the premier business conference in the world by 2021,” says Nordic Business Forum CEO Aslak de Silva. “We have been on a journey of constant growth over the past decade, and we decided to mark our 10th anniversary by filming the behind the scenes journeys of some of the people that give their all to make the conference a success each year.

“We named the documentary Leaders Who Change The World, as we wanted to celebrate the passion and commitments of the people that make an event like The Nordic Business Forum happen.”

The rest, you know already. COVID propelled B2B business events across Europe into a state of confusion during the spring of 2020. Some leaders took the decision to cancel the 2020 editions of their events early, while others hoped to ride the wave and hoped to open their doors when the dust settled.

“We held on as long as we could, and we considered many options, but we came to realise we simply couldn’t guarantee we could deliver the same experience — and guarantee the safety of our customers and personnel — under the restrictions of the time,” he continues. In an effort to learn more and share ideas, de Silva worked with Nordic Business Forum Co-founder Hans-Peter Siefen to form a mastermind group made up of event leaders from across Europe.

The stories of these leaders illustrated the massive growth of the B2B event industry in Europe of the preceding decade, the problems it faces today, and the inspirational solutions these leaders have found to ensure their industry survives and thrives. Above all, it is clear that the need to meet, network and learn from inspirational business figures as part of a tailored experience is here to stay.

More focused international B2B events

“When we began discussions within the mastermind group, we came to understand that similar events in other geographies were coming to the same conclusions as us — it would be challenging to build a sustainable business model for a fully online event,” continues de Silva.

Even so, one such event made the brave decision to do just that. The autumn 2020 edition of Brand Minds, one of the largest conference organisers in Eastern Europe, took advantage of event cancellations to build an extremely strong lineup of speakers for their online event. As one of the few events to take place during that period, Brand Minds capitalised on the opportunity to connect with new customers and expand its audience to over 50 territories.

“Brand Minds did an excellent job filling the vacuum left by event cancellations by hosting a stacked online event that kept their brand alive and visible,” says de Silva. “This is also one of the reasons why we went ahead and premiered our documentary in October, as we wanted to give our loyal customers something special to say thanks for their support over the years.”

While speaker fees and keeping all staff on payroll had an impact, Brand Minds 2020 was a financial success. Yet Brand Minds Founder Avi Cicirean understands asking people to stay online for 3 days is a challenge in the era of Zoom fatigue. Smaller, physical viewing parties are also not a viable option as the experience would be hard to control, and the risk of unsanctioned live feeds is all too real. 2021 will see Brand Minds launch a series of online masterclasses, with the next physical event slated for 2022.

Smaller scale, topic-focused, local and agile events

“I’m pretty sure the era of large but bland business events is over,” continues de Silva. “Those events where people attend just because everyone is there — people will reevaluate their investment and their need to travel. There needs to be a clear value in terms of program or experience.

“On the other hand, a flexible attitude to venues has been mutually beneficial for both organisers and hosts. For instance, DenkProducties in The Netherlands have been nimble enough to plan and scale events according to current restrictions, giving a financial boost to many fantastic smaller venues.”

With a focus on education over networking, DenkProducties founder Hans Janssen has seen his organisation grow from small-scale business events showcasing Dutch thought-leaders to larger offerings with line-ups that include international speakers such as President Obama’s speechwriter Cody Keenan. 2021 was to be the year DenkProducties held a large-scale international event, but that is now on pause.

The demand for live events in the Netherlands was still high in 2020, which led to Janssen commissioning local companies to create a COVID-compliant experience for each guest attending their September 2020 events. A 3000-seat theatre was converted into 250 luxury  “sky boxes.” Distance was flipped to luxury, and the event convinced corporate customers that a successful, safe event was possible to deliver.

Experiments like this have allowed DenkProducties to constantly adjust their product-market fit so they can always offer value to their customers. Janssen also gave the go-ahead for a separate portfolio of digital events as a new business unit.

To differentiate from passive content like TED Talks, Janssen placed speakers in a studio with banks of monitors streaming the video feeds of attendees, building a connection between the speaker and the audience. A Samba-based tool also allowed for digital breakout sessions where 400 groups were automatically formed by attendees, a positive experience that paired people from across the world in constructive workshops.

“Smaller event organisers with fewer sponsors and overheads like DenkProducties have been thinking fast and acting decisively, especially in markets where people are still open to physical events. The key to their success is once again the quality of the actionable information they are sharing, and the experience they are able to deliver,” said de Silva.

New kinds of B2B event experiences

“Prior to 2020, we already decided to refocus on the core impact we are trying to make — inspiring the leaders of tomorrow. We narrowed the themes of each event down from three to one so we could build a lineup of speakers that deeply explored each topic,” continues de Silva.

“We also reaffirmed networking as a core component of the Nordic Business Forum experience — something that’s hard to get right. We’ve already successfully leveraged networking technology like Brella to great success, with more than 4000 on-site meetings hosted at the 2019 Nordic Business Forum through the platform. The method of delivery may change, but the value and impact we offer will stay the same.”

After cancelling early in 2020, Slush CEO Mika Huttunen spoke to his team. They realised a 2-day online event would not be a good way to create serendipitous meetings between the close to 20,000 startups and investors predicted to attend the physical event in Helsinki. And no one wants to sit online all day.

Instead, they decided to cherry pick the best outcomes from their events and give them to a newly-created community where startups and investors could meet, interact, and share interesting content. Blending aspects of accelerators with online events and communities, Node by Slush has already hosted over 100 short sessions where people can listen to leaders like Daniel Ek speak or join mentoring programs with prominent technology experts like Casey Winters.

The feedback so far has surpassed expectations. Community members have received much of the value they get from live events without having to invest a week of their lives preparing to attend. While the experience may be different from live events, the transactions they take part in need to deliver the same value.

In order to build products like Node By Slush, you should focus on creating a crystal clear mission, understanding who to serve, and building a core following of devotees. The same principle applies for offline events as well. Even so, Huttunen recognises people will always need to meet each other — the key is to think about how to make these connections happen.

What to expect in 2021

“There will be no space for mediocrity going forward,” says de Silva. “There will be 2 key drivers that will decide on the viability of business events — price, and quality. Some event companies may find themselves involved in a race to the bottom price-wise to stay competitive. On the other hand, the top of the market will see standards raised at all points — as customers will want to receive as much value as they can get if they travel to an event hosting thousands of attendees.”

Things may still change once again with herd immunity and vaccination programs rolling out across multiple territories. Yet things will never return to the way they once were — and this is not a bad thing.

“Long-term, all event leaders I speak to confirm the demand for live events is still huge,” he continues. “The growth opportunity will be for hybrid event models that offer more choice for visitors wishing to participate. On-site events paired with active, participatory online experiences will help events reach more people in new markets and increase the impact they make.

“By aiming for excellence — even in times of turmoil — events like ours have a real opportunity to apply the digital lessons learned and create new kinds of multichannel customer experiences. I see a business events industry stronger and more vibrant than ever before when this period of uncertainty finally settles, and that can only be a good thing,” he concludes.