TBI In Conversation: NATPE’s JP Bommel on what’s next for events & going virtual

JP Bommel

TBI’s latest instalment of its In Conversation strand catches up with JP Bommel, president & CEO of NATPE, who discusses how TV’s once-packed event schedule might look as the industry adapts to a new normal.

It has been a summer of long days and headaches for many working in the TV business this year, something NATPE’s JP Bommel knows all too well.

As head of the US-based global content association, Bommel and his NATPE team – along with thousands of others working on the events side of the industry – have been attempting to navigate a business that is almost unrecognisable from that which was in operation six months ago.

Where once the rhythm of the global TV industry was punctuated by regular travel and physical events, execs are now finding their lives dominated more than ever by what’s on their laptop screens. For event organisers, the potential of this locked down audience is clear but securing their attention is another matter.

Revamping & rethinking

“It’s important to understand that for us, a virtual event isn’t a degraded version of a physical event,” Bommel explains to TBI via video call from his base in LA. In essence, that has meant the organisation has had to completely rethink what it offers to the industry.

NATPE was not alone in finding its events schedule thrown into disarray by Covid-19, but in the six months or so since the pandemic’s international impact was first realised, the organisation has transformed its offering. NATPE Budapest International, originally destined to take place in Hungary, is now NATPE Budapest Virtual, taking place over four days from 24 August.

It plans to offer panel sessions, screenings, a marketplace for trading rights and even breakout rooms that will all sit online, with screenings and regional focuses exploring Latin America, MENA and a spotlight on Indonesia. Oh, and more than 400 buyers are registered.

“We recognise that this is a people business and face-to-face is key and we will resume that as soon as possible – and it will happen,” Bommel says. “But in the meantime we have to look at technology and look at creating a closer virtual experience, and it all goes back to our main mission – to be the ultimate resource for business intelligence and opportunities.

“Within that we’ve put together a really robust and comprehensive offering, working with our clients and partners. We understood a lot of what they need to do, which is to engage viewers, screen their content and hear what’s happening.” The NATPE Budapest Virtual platform includes a “virtual hub, almost like a big virtual lobby” Bommel explains, from where you can choose to visit the exhibition hall or a session, or watch a virtual screening or break out for a discussion with a colleague.

Tapping into ‘intimacy & energy’

A key focus for NATPE has been flipping the challenge of having execs unable to travel into an opportunity. There is, Bommel adds, “a kind of energy and intimacy” that comes from having speakers talking from their own homes, and even a vulnerability that can allow for more engagement.

The wholesale shift to virtual events also means the offering has to “work seamlessly”, the NATPE boss says, but “the main point is that you need to be sure you are focused on content and community, you have to completely rethink the event’s communication – its goal is to create engagement and interaction, it so far beyond a chat box.”

Virtual also allows events to be scheduled for various time zones, with staggered start times, and Bommel says one of the key takeaways from this period has been that content from the event can “have a longer shelf life, it can live in time and space.”

There is also now an understanding from studios that “virtual works”, Bommel adds, which he says is “a turning point. But you have to be very careful to add value, you have to make sure the pricing is right and you can’t go too crazy on technology – there is a dance of sorts.”

Future of events

Just how the events calendar looks this time next year remains to be seen, but Bommel admits there are elements from the new virtual offerings that could become permanent even once global travel to physical events becomes more feasible.

NATPE’s Streaming Plus event – again online, running 14-17 September – is also on full throttle. ViacomCBS’s chief digital officer Marc DeBevoise, and Julie McNamara, EVP and head of programming at CBS All Access, were recently announced as keynotes, while the organisation’s popular January conference and market in Miami is still in the works but will be refined depending on how the pandemic progresses.

There is understandable caution from Bommel on how the events industry will look in the near future, given the weekly – even daily – changes to advice. “It’s a question we ask everyday, but for us, in our business, during this pandemic there is the pre- and post-vaccine period,” he explains.

“We’re pre-vaccine now so we act accordingly with virtual events but we’re still thinking of events if we have a vaccine, and we’re considering how that situation might look. Once there is a vaccine, you could certainly envisage having smaller events but enhance them with a virtual element, perhaps having 500 people in a hotel where you can manage everything safely,” he says.

The big picture is that even with a vaccine, the business has changed. “The industry has learned how to harness technology,” Bommel continues, but adds that despite this, there is a sense of “cabin fever” and a deep desire to reconnect.

Over the next few weeks, however, the focus is on NATPE Budapest Virtual. “I am so proud of the team putting it together, of Dann [Novak] and Garrett [York]. What we are trying to do is to be different. When you put it altogether, you have lots of long days and headaches, but – and I don’t want to jinx anything – it looks terrific, and we’ll continue to improve on it.”