In December 2019, the team at South China Morning Post (SCMP) hosted China Conference: United States, our first in-person event in New York City. It was our first on-ground engagement with our readers, as well as newsmakers, business partners, and clients in the United States. It was a very well-attended event, with more than 300 attendees convening at the Altman Building for a day of thought-provoking debates on U.S.-China relations.
That was merely one month before the pandemic swept across the world. Since then, our events planning is very much based on the mantra “hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.”
Therefore, the following year, China Conference: United States 2020 was hosted as a virtual conference spanning two days. With lengthy mandatory quarantines on both ends of the flight, it was impossible for SCMP events to return to New York City.
We drummed up interest through SCMP readership and our network of partners in the United States. The team operated the virtual event out of Hong Kong, working through the night to ensure a good event experience for attendees, speakers, and sponsors.
But the attendance rate and engagement for the 2020 edition was far from ideal. We knew the market was saturated with virtual event offerings, and ours struggled to stand out, especially since we are quite a newcomer to the U.S. market.
Changes in 2021
In 2021, we knew we needed to do something different. While travel for the team from Hong Kong to the United States was definitely not possible, we understood the conference needed to have some in-person element to engage key attendees and speakers more deeply in a way that virtual events can never achieve.
But how can you be “in person” in the United States when the entire team is stuck in Hong Kong, unable to travel?
Enter our valued partners.
Over the past two years of running the 2019 and 2020 conferences, the SCMP events team had nurtured relationships and built a strong rapport with key partners in New York City. These partners collaborated with us in the past by mobilising their networks to drive attendance at China Conference: United States. They also worked closely with us by recommending speakers and moderators.
This time around, we reached out to the China General Chamber of Commerce/United States and the China Institute to gauge their interest in hosting side events programmed by SCMP on their premises. While we were confident we could plan and develop an engaging programme and invite great speakers, we had to rely entirely on our partners in terms of execution and logistics on the day of the event.
To our delight, they agreed to collaborate and organise a dinner and breakfast for VIPs. In the weeks leading up to the conference, SCMP and our partners worked very hard to curate a list of influential guests for these two VIP events. Our newsroom colleagues from the North American bureau were able to moderate the panel discussions.
While our main conference programming continued to run as a virtual event spanning two days, we hosted a VIP dinner with the Chinese Chamber with a panel discussion called “China’s financial system — open or shut?” which took place on December 6.
On December 8, the China Institute hosted a VIP breakfast at its premises with a panel discussion called “Business at a crossroad: Assessing economic, commercial, and investment risks and opportunities in the new age of U.S.-China relations.”
We kept a focused list of invitees and enjoyed a successful attendance rate of 80% for both events. Our sponsors at these events were very happy with the added programming and results. Our partners, despite being quite anxious, were satisfied with the outcome as well.
The experience of launching and managing in-person events remotely proved that there are always creative ways to work around pandemic restrictions and to step up our game in delivering better event experiences.
Events remain an important revenue channel for the SCMP, and this comes from sponsorship, ticketing, and post-event content access. As the world starts to return to some level of normalcy worldwide, we recognise that virtual events will continue to be popular, and in-person events will make a major comeback. Knowing when to use one format over the other — or combining both to create hybrid events — becomes a question of judgement and understanding of how best we can serve our event audience and drive impact.
Each experience should be carefully designed and thought through with back-up plans in place, regardless if they are virtual panel discussions or VIP guests networking over coffee. This is especially important if you are unable to be onsite when the event happens, as we were in 2021.
We also recognise that our sponsors and partners offer immense knowledge, expertise, and connections with a wide network of experts. While SCMP events play a key role in terms of event programming and our editors lead and moderate the panel sessions, when we partnered with the China General Chamber of Commerce/United States and the China Institute, we worked together to co-create discussion topics and shortlisted the most suitable speakers.
Events continue to be the most immersive platform for news companies to amplify and strengthen their brand purpose and promise. For news media organisations like the SCMP, events bring our journalism to life by demonstrating our expertise and connections while creating value for our attendees and delegates.
Our SCMP events team looks forward to returning to the United States for our fourth China Conference, virtually or otherwise.