Remote yearning25 November 2020
With the in-person events industry reeling and its future uncertain, Tim Gunn talks to Joe Hage, chairman of the Medical Devices Group, and Todd Grimm, an AM industry adviser on the board of the Additive Manufacturing Users Group, to find out what can be recovered from the wreckage left by Covid-19.
Joe Hage has some bad news for any events professionals hoping to ride out the pandemic online. At first glance, the chairman of the medical device industry’s largest digital forum (the 360,000-strong Medical Devices Group (MDG), as well as its conference offshoot 10X) might seem better prepared to survive travel restrictions and social distancing than his counterparts at traditional trade show companies – the kind of person with all the secrets to replicating the physical world on a computer screen, and of getting paid to do it. He’s not. “In terms of my profitability,” says Hage simply, “Covid was a punch in the mouth.”
It’s the same everywhere. The Global Association of the Exhibitions Industry reports that revenues have fallen by an average of 61% from 2019 – with 39% of companies slipping from profit to loss and a further 28% seeing profits fall to less than half of 2019’s totals. Then there are the impacts that resist being quantified. By its own particular witchcraft, a good medical device conference can turn chance meetings into life-saving new products. They’re the places that the industry takes a breath, gathers its thoughts and reminds itself what it’s for. None of those metaphors are obvious candidates for digitisation.
Still, Todd Grimm and the rest of the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) – of which he serves on the board as an AM industry adviser – have to try and zip the magic. “Right now, the growth of the additive manufacturing industry is causing so much confusion for people of all levels,” he sighs. “There couldn’t be a better time to have an event like ours to cut to the chase and understand what’s real, and what’s not.” But how?
Average loss of revenue for events companies between 2019 and 2020, with 39% of companies slipping from profit to loss, and 28% seeing profits fall to less than half their 2019 totals.
The Global Association of the Exhibitions Industry
Hage has so few answers because he’s felt for a long time that the MDG’s success comes down to something quite different than spreading a physical business model into a virtual space. He’s seen enough people try and fail to use the MDG to do exactly that. “I nurtured it during that period when everyone heard that social media is how you grow your business,” he explains. “A whole bunch of people all joined at the same time, thinking, ‘this is going to make me rich’, and they left a like or a comment,” says Hage. “And then they were disappointed that their phone didn’t ring. And they were like, ‘this is bullshit. I’m gonna go back to my trade shows and do things that I know make money’.”
So, no, Hage can’t give the locked-down medtech conference junkies any solace – but he won’t lie to them about it. “I have no interest in going to an all-day online conference,” he explains. “I don’t have the attention span for that.” Rather, 10X is a celebration of “the industry’s largest and only curated forum for intelligent conversations with medical device thought leaders” – and as much about having fun with those people as hearing them declaim on the industry itself. “There’s no point in me hosting a virtual one without the ice cream or without the hugs.” Hage isn’t just saying that – he knows what got him where he is today. “I’m not going to force something that doesn’t appear in nature just because I need to make money,” he says. “That’s not serving my customers.”
Grimm is equally wary of trying to replicate his organisation’s events online. “We often say, and our attendees say, that you learn as much or more from the hallways than you do from the stage,” he says. Putting the stage on screen is relatively simple; the hallways are proving impossible.
Events and non-events
As it stands, AMUG’s next in-person event will take place in Chicago on 14 March 2021, but whether or not it actually happens – or anyone is able to attend – is out of the group’s control. “We’re running in quicksand at the moment,” says Grimm. It’s not just social distancing: sponsor agreements need to be reimagined, registration reorganised and geopolitics tracked for there to be any hope of success.
The group is working on contingencies, but what the conference needs to thrive as a virtual or a hybrid event is a platform capable of facilitating the relaxed conversations that happen naturally when people with similar interests share the same space. He’s logged into more online conferences than he can count, but so far Grimm is disappointed by the array of stilted breakout rooms and unreliable search functions.
Of course, there are many in-person events that fail to cultivate the atmosphere attendees crave. Grimm attributes AMUG’s success in doing so to the fact that it started with a group of around 20 people, gathering to discuss a technology used by only a handful of companies across the globe. “They banded together to help each other,” he explains, “and, right now, what AMUG has to do is ensure that attitude continues to exist.” Thus, the “excessive” amount of food, open bar, 24-hour heated pool and lunchtime seating lottery. Grimm admits that something of the relaxed,
open attitude encouraged by those measures can be achieved when a carefully moderated and curated group, with a sufficient level of privacy, reaches critical mass. However, unless that happens, growing one is “like pushing rope” with guarded and awkward people who have much better things to do with their time. So, the hallways – and the bars and the pools – are a difficulty, but the ease with which a computer screen can double as a conference stage is causing its own problems. Companies no longer require the funds, expertise and marketing to hire, fill and supply hotels and venues – rather, they need webcams, microphones and Wi-Fi connections that aren’t much worse than those of their competitors. Suddenly, conferences are nowhere and everywhere.
“How do you stand out from that glut and make people aware that it’s something different?” asks Grimm. “How do you find that difference? And then how do you live up to the promise of it?” He compares the situation to the early days of email, when the thrill of instant communication was drowned in a flood of spam. “It’s that kind of mode right now, and so many of them are done with poor quality.” Advertisers beware.
Having established such a large membership and unique personal tone, the MDG doesn’t have to worry about upstart online competitors compromising its brand – and Hage should know. Before inheriting control of the MDG LinkedIn from its founder in 2011 (at which time it had 51,000 members) he tried to establish a competitor. It took a huge amount of effort to rocket the membership up to 140, which is where it stayed. Hage stopped when he realised that the only reason he was trying to compete with the MDG was for his own enrichment. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I like money as much as the next person – but not at the expense of my customers.”
After he first inherited the MDG, Hage set about turning it into a community where industry professionals with questions could converse with those who might be able to help them find answers. His predecessor laid the groundwork by personally evaluating every single application to join, but Hage still had to curate all the posts, and would even track down and message the people in the group he felt might be able to help with other members’ unanswered questions. His first real revenue came through sponsorships from producers of reports and webinars, all of which he carefully evaluated to make sure they offered value to the group’s users. Then he launched 10X – “Not because I thought the industry needed yet another medical device conference,” he explains, “but because I wanted to meet the people in the group.”
In 2018 a partnership deal with a large events company turned 10X into more of a trade show, but disagreements over how to balance profit and value ensured that it would be the only MDG event of its kind. “That wasn’t my thing,” Hage recalls. “It was enough for me to eke out a profit to serve a family of Hages – not a company.” But even that has become a lot more difficult since. Later that same year, LinkedIn defaulted to blocking email notifications, wrecking Hage’s sponsorship model. “The sands shifted when I lost the privilege of communicating,” he says, “and the world shifted when I lost the privilege of meeting.”
Onscreen ice cream
Now, Hage gets by on $39 monthly subscription fees to the new MDG Premium Slack workspace instead of 10X’s four-figure ticket prices. He’s proud of the digital twist though – the channel connects members with Hage’s best experts and every member brings their own expertise. “The Slack is like 10X every day,” he says. “I can send you a little sunshine. I can send you a joke. You can ask me a question. And every Friday we have a get-together.”
The friendships that form the backbone of the MDG ensure those weekly meets, which centre on presentations about new technologies and regulatory developments, are involved and interactive – a lot more than Grimm thinks can be said of most virtual events. Registration and attendance stats say nothing about attention, which he guesses is something like 10%. In fact, he’s got a stack of paperwork on hand to go through during his next webinar.
Profits may have been slashed by the pandemic, but that speaks to a far more fundamental loss. Grimm waxes lyrical about a colleague who sacrifices weeks of holiday to the AMUG cause, doing everything from devising the menu with hotel chefs to ensuring no pool deviates from its contractually agreed temperature. He makes stories, creates opportunities for attendees to bond and then, like Hage, makes sure they get ice cream.
“He’s got perfect timing, too,” says Grimm. “Quite honestly, I don’t eat a lot of ice cream. But it sounds so good when he breaks out that cart. You feel like a little kid.” And kids don’t do paperwork. That’s really what it comes down to for Hage, and he doesn’t see how it can fit a socially distanced event. “We all gather around what to put on top of the ice cream,” he sighs. “It’s indisputable. If we can’t do that, what’s the point?”