Last reviewed 22 April 2021
Online events have been common for decades. Here we consider if the pandemic has permanently changed the events space and if we are now in an era where hybrid events will become the norm.
The events space has been transforming for several years. COVID-19 has accelerated the changes, which appear increasingly likely to change B2C and B2B events forever. As businesses look towards a post-pandemic future, the events they hold will change.
A study of 200 B2B event organisers in UKI finds 72% of businesses will maintain virtual events in the long term, and 77% are interested in organising hybrids. Businesses' future event mix will be 32% physical, 45% virtual and 23% hybrid. Given £31 billion a year was spent on UK B2B events pre-pandemic, this suggests the virtual events industry in the UK could be worth £14 billion a year.
Says Ruby Sweeney, Founder, The Events Hub: “The trends that I have seen working well are interaction, a dynamic pace and facilitating focused discussions. One-way presentations work in some situations – mostly with short, keynotes or very experienced and top-end professional speakers - but generally, a two-way conversation is becoming more popular. Rather than one presenter talking into the screen, panel discussions are being favoured and a varied agenda keeps delegates on a virtual platform.”
According to Bizzabo, 93% of marketers will be investing in virtual events this year. Research from IDC also indicates virtual conferencing platforms are now mature enough to allow high-quality live chat and Q&As – something that event attendees want to use when interacting in the virtual events they attend.
Speaking to Croner-i: Business Inform, Rob Nash, MD of Intelligent self-service agency 4 Roads, says a new kind of event is taking shape: “Businesses and event organisations are quickly coming to realise that digital events are not just a passing phase, and ‘hybrid’ event models that incorporate both in-person and digital elements will become the norm.”
Nash concluded: “Success in this arena will come down to ensuring that virtual attendees are not treated as second class citizens and have experiences that are just as good as in-person attendees. Using technology like AR, VR, polls, questionnaires, sharing resources via virtual communities, and leveraging self-service tools like chatbots to ensure people can easily access the information they need will be essential for optimising event experiences for people sitting behind a screen.”
Croner-i: Business Inform spoke with Jamie Benedict, Event Director at Retail Marketing Group and began by asking what constitutes a successful virtual event today?
“Understanding, planning, communication, creativity and flexibility,” Benedict responded. “It’s the same set of guiding principles that underpin achieving success for any event, be it virtual or face-to-face.
“Understanding the client’s brief and asking the right questions to really probe at the aims of the event, what the desired outcomes are, who the audience is and what their expectations are, and so on. A clear understanding allows the setting of goals and tasks, which essentially forms the basis for effective and efficient planning. Planning is key; taking stock of core event elements and ensuring that all that can be planned for is covered ahead of going live.
“Creativity is called upon in all aspects of the event lifecycle; it's what delivers that innovation and takes the experience beyond the mundane. Be it in the style of the comms or the way the schedule is designed, through to the virtual delivery of the event; it is the creativity of the experience that will deliver that all-important hook for the audience.
“Finally, flexibility: being able to adapt at a moment’s notice as situations inevitably change. This is especially true in the virtual space, a discipline that is still in its infancy and continues to grow and develop in terms of technology, options and techniques at an astonishing rate.”
Are there any trends you can identify in the virtual events space?
“The virtual event space seems to follow one of two trend paths: the simple, direct video or webinar path or the hosted studio to streaming path. Both offer viable solutions in a digital space, with pros and cons for each. The former approach is most commonplace and has been the 'go to' format since the COVID-19 restrictions began; it's perceivably low-cost, simple and widely available.
“However, it is also restrictive, non-immersive and flat. The latter path allows for greater creativity, a high-end feel and more of a ‘show’ experience. It requires greater investment yet offers a more involved experience, with stronger audience engagement and greater capacity for content.”
Businesses have always used virtual events (webinars etc.) to reach their customers. What’s changed because of COVID?
“The global pandemic has driven awareness of virtual event solutions to the next level. By practically removing the option for any and all physical activity, everyone has been funnelled down the virtual path. This has led to rapid development in digital event technology, new production techniques, training environments and methodology, and it continues to develop and grow. As we head out of restrictions, I see companies thinking more and more about how they better use digital and virtual options for future activities, be this as standalone activity or part of a new blended approach.”
Are more exotic virtual event technologies such as VR becoming more attractive to event organisers?
“From the conversations we are having with people, yes they are. Remote working has highlighted new concerns over screen time, concentration spans and levels of engagement on screen, all of which link to mental and physical health factors.
“The common theme of our discussions is that clients are looking for something more than a flat-screen video experience. They want a digital experience that provides a far greater immersive, interactive feel; they want to come as close to real human interaction as is virtually possible. Businesses want to engage with their audience, whether in a more personal one to one setting or en-masse in a virtual auditorium; they want to include the ability to network at virtual events and be able to celebrate with colleagues. These new technologies are getting so close to all of that.
“I speak from a position of great interest on this topic, as we run events in our own virtual avatar-based event world. We (RMG) also operate from a virtual office within our E:VENT world, so have truly embraced this innovative technology. Every time we take a client on tour of our island, it fires peoples’ imaginations as to what wonderful experiences they could bring to their people in a digital world.”
Is the era of large multi-hall events over as virtual events platforms have matured?
“Probably not, but they do now have viable, cost-effective and eco-friendly digital alternatives. Part and parcel of those large-scale events is the networking element, and realistically nothing yet beats face to face, human interaction.
“However, virtually every other element can be replicated and enhanced in a digital space, and the networking capabilities of digital event platforms are constantly evolving and improving. There are obvious benefits of a digital expo event:
“Amazing digital design of stands and displays that are not necessarily limited by physics or gravity. No need to wait for a product demonstration with digital content on demand. No real limit to staffing a virtual stand, and it's far more cost-effective. Build and breakdown become a programming process, not a physical juggling act of builders, riggers and techs vying for floor space. All these points amass to mean the environmental cost of virtual events of this scale (or any scale) is minimal.”
Physical and digital
A report from HubSpot is telling as it concluded 49% of respondents had attended a virtual event in the last year. Employees aged between 18-40 years old (76%) were more likely to have attended a virtual event than their more senior colleagues (42%), demonstrating an appetite for hybrid events amongst younger people. And over-55s have had to make the most significant adjustment to remote working as they were more reliant on face-to-face meetings than younger colleagues pre-pandemic.
The Events Hub’s Ruby Sweeney commented on how the events space will change: “Large multi-hall events might still have a place for B2C events. I believe that the habits of B2B exhibitors and visitors have evolved further than they have for B2C. Global events have come so far in the past year and show organisers will continue to capitalise on the benefits of global exhibitions and shows.
“Multi-hall events could work well in future for genuinely engaging and immersive experience or AR/VR-based events. Multi-hall events will work well for hybrid events - event organisers must offer as much choice as they possibly can to appeal to diverse audiences and communities.”
Sweeney also offered this advice:
Define your strategy.
Great virtual events can typically be harder to organise and run than face-to-face events, so being crystal clear on the outcomes you expect for all involved – the hosts, sponsors, attendees, or other stakeholders is crucial.
Decide how your event will be resourced.
It's important to know who will be involved in the virtual event process and what capacity. Do you need to take an internal resource away from their day job for a certain amount of time, and are they experienced enough to handle technical challenges that might come their way?
Will you outsource some aspects of your virtual event, or will you hand the whole project over to an experienced specialist? It's also vital at this stage to allocate that one person who will take complete ownership of the virtual event, whether that's a member of your team or an external consultant.
Set a realistic budget and communicate it.
Know whether you’re planning on spending a few hundred pounds on an event or thousands. This helps to set everyone’s expectations, particularly if you’re outsourcing. Will your virtual event be funded through sponsorships, ticket fees or a combination of both?
With Tom Pepper, head of marketing solutions UK, Ireland & Israel, LinkedIn, concluding: “The B2B events industry will not return the way we know it. Businesses are reflecting what their employees are demanding and that is less time travelling and spending time away from home. This means more virtual and hybrid events. And this research shows budgets are following suit. The big question for event organisers is what does a successful hybrid event look like? As a new concept, there will be a period of trial and error as businesses find what works for them and participants.”
All businesses are now re-imaging how their companies will hold events in a post-Covid-19 trading landscape. The use of virtual meeting platforms has exposed more enterprises to these environments. The physical event will return, but these communication channels will be supported increasingly by their virtual counterparts.
The hybrid event will inevitably become the default for every business that has used these spaces in the past. Some events will become digital-only, but business leaders can see the value of connecting their physical and virtual events together.