Event expert Taylor McKnight on life after coronavirus and what organizers need to be thinking about next
Taylor McKnight has been immersed in the conference/event world for more than a decade. He co-founded Sched, a mobile-centric event-scheduling platform that became enough of a sensation that Wired called it “this year’s Twitter” at SXSW in 2008, and which went on to be used by thousands of event planners and hundreds of thousands of attendees at gatherings around the world. He’s also served as an experiential consultant, helping companies including Edelman and Pinterest execute activations and pop-up events.
In 2019, after exiting Sched, McKnight launched Emamo, which offers event tools and serves as a community and resource center (complete with a podcast series) for event-planning pros.
Emamo, like Sched, is a virtual company with no fixed address. The three-person Emamo team is based in the U.K. and the U.S., with CEO McKnight operating for the moment out of Temple, Texas. He and his fiancée, photographer Kaitlyn Reed, have been living thoroughly event-centric, nomadic lives. In 2012, the couple, after selling most of their stuff, left their home in Austin (a city McKnight fell in love with and moved to after attending SXSW there) for a global adventure that has had them spending more than 2,802 days (and counting) in Airbnbs and living briefly in hundreds of cities across four continents.
Emamo’s mission, says McKnight, is simple: “It helps you bring people together. There are a lot of people working in silos in this industry, so it’s our hope to help connect them so they can learn from each other.”
What follows has been lightly edited and condensed. This Q&AA was updated with an additional conversation in the wake of a wave of event cancellations.
The first thing I want to say is that obviously this is an extremely traumatic time for the event-planning community, with conferences like SXSW canceling, and other events rescheduling for the fall. Advertising Week Europe, for one, already locked down new dates, September 14-17, which is pretty impressive given that they had attendance of 35,000 last year. The logistics of moving an event that size are daunting. Doing that requires people behind the scenes who are ready and able to turn on a dime.
Event planners are incredibly resilient. Consider everything that’s been thrown at the events world, from economic downturns to previous epidemics, and the industry has always emerged bigger, better and stronger than ever.
I’m seeing three main options being explored: postponing the event until later in the year, canceling the event until 2021 or moving to an online-only component for 2020.
Successful events serve their community. The best event planners are communicating consistently and listening, even if they don’t know exactly what to do next. Your community will still be there on the other side of this, eager to reconnect.
I know that at Emamo, you were already having conversations among your clients about exploring webcasting options even before coronavirus really started to hit hard. How do you see the crisis changing the culture of events long-term?
Long-term, there is no way virtual events will replace most in-person events. People coming together to share and bond is in our DNA. As the world gets through this crisis, we will see the need return in late summer or fall, maybe even with larger demand as we make up for the lost connections.
Some of these new virtual platforms are building in a Chatroulette-type networking component to help you meet people over video or audio, but they miss some emotional awareness. The off-the-record conversations I have with folks I meet from events are often the most valuable. I’m not going to have that same level of frankness on video.
Most larger events already record their talks or live-stream, so they have infrastructure in place already. For anyone new to streaming, I’d caution them to look closely at contract terms, and think hard about the ROI, before deciding whether to try to salvage a canceled live event with a webcast. For instance, one platform I’ve seen charges a 25 percent cut of ticket sales. Is that worth it?
Many of these webcasting platforms will find success with events that focus on learning. These new streaming options coming out will be a game-changer for niche audiences and the ability for anybody to set up an online summit and share ideas.
OK, now let’s jump ahead to a recovering events ecosystem, once the coronavirus situation has stabilized. What should event planners be thinking about going forward?
It’s a prime time for event planners to look at their content and community strategies with a fresh set of eyes. There have never been so many opportunities to grow a single event into a year-round community. From Slack-hosted communities to podcasting to live-streaming older recorded talks along with live Q&A and commentary from speakers, à la “90 Day Fiancé: Pillow Talk.” If you have something valuable to say—and you shouldn’t be throwing an event if you don’t—it’s an absolutely great time to be creating event content.
In recent memory, what brands have done events or experiential activations that you thought were particularly well-done and effective?
During Web Summit in Lisbon last year, Samsung provided a micro-experience in a macro-world. To set the context, Web Summit has more than 70,000 attendees—an incredible place to meet people, but every moment feels chaotic and loud.
As an official sponsor, Samsung used its exhibition space to set up an enclosed room called ClassroomX. Right in the middle of the giant arena with 70,000 people walking around. It held only 25 people, with comfortable chairs and desk space. The best talk I saw at ClassroomX was by Reggie James of Eternal, who they flew in just to speak to the 25 of us.
Ad Age has actually been doing that kind of thing with its Ad Age House events, which are these small-group, invitation-only gatherings held in beautiful borrowed homes adjacent to big events—most recently at Sundance in January. It’s amazing how much clamoring there is to attend something quiet and welcoming that’s away from the fray.
Another interesting trend I’m seeing is the apply-to-attend model. I’ve seen more events, from conferences to small music festivals, add an application process in front of their registration, to give the organizers the ability to better curate the audience.
One more standout event in recent memory was Indie.vc’s Founder Field Trip in 2018. It took place at Tuft & Needle’s headquarters in Phoenix. T&N is an incredible direct-to-consumer company that grew to $100 million-plus in revenue, with no venture funding, selling bedding.
Indie.vc’s founder, Bryce Roberts, moderated while T&N pulled back the curtain on every area of their business. Each hour, we got a deep dive into a specific area given by the director responsible and ultimately ending with the founders telling their origin story and opening up for questions.
It really takes a lot of vision and guts for a company to participate in something like that. OK, let’s shift gears again—from inspiring events to maddening events, or at least maddening things at events. What’s a recurring logistical screw-up at conferences that drives you nuts?
There are a few ways events are making mistakes on social media and missing opportunities for growth and engagement. While an event is happening, the number of hoops I have to jump through as an attendee to live-tweet a speaker’s talk is crazy. I know I should use the official hashtag and tag the speaker if I want visibility, but usually I have to track down the info manually. If events tweeted an announcement when each session began, with the session title and speaker handle, I could easily retweet with extra insight. I would share more content and events would get more engagement. It’s a win-win, but nobody takes the time to do it. At Emamo, we’ve actually started building a social media tool to help event planners with this sort of thing.
Before I forget, what does Emamo mean, anyway?
I bought emamo.com because it was short and pronounceable and available. I knew we’d be building tools to help event planners, so I’ve had some fun backfilling it with meaning. How about “an event’s magic moments”?
Speaking of magic moments, what stands out to you as a really memorable, moving conference presentation—excluding things like film screenings and concerts at the likes of SXSW—that is archived online?
Wilson Miner, a designer who used to work at Apple, gave a talk called “When We Build” at the Build Conference in Belfast in 2011. I wasn’t there for it, but it’s something that I found and watched later and it drove me to attend the following year’s conference. It’s an exposition on the responsibility and opportunity creators have in shaping the digital world—the world that will then shape us.
I just rewatched it again recently and it feels more relevant than ever. It makes me feel inspired and energized that I have the opportunity to build tools for event creators.
Andy McMillan organized the Build Conference series in Ireland. All of his events are incredibly inclusive and lay out a platform for talks like this. He later joined Andy Baio to start the XOXO Festival in Portland.
One last thing: In addition to being in the event-management space over the past decade-plus, you’ve also been a big data guy, in that you help event planners track attendees and schedules and sessions in basically a giant cloud database. It’s interesting to me, though, that in some of your recent posts and podcasts, you’ve basically endorsed some no-tech approaches, like event organizers using color-coded Post-it Notes on a wall to have internal discussions about session-picking and scheduling. What’s that about?
In my 20s, I was much more stubborn about technology solving everything. Now in my 30s, living in the current state of the world, I have a much better perspective about the limitations of tech. Pen and paper can actually be more democratic at times. Everybody in the room can use them instead of crowding around a laptop.
Finding solutions beyond tech is also why I’m so bullish on events over the next decade. I think our collective obsession with online attention-seeking will hit a breaking point and more people will seek out ways to forge connections in real life.