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Virtual and Hybrid Events

Making Virtual and Hybrid Events More Engaging Than Ever Before

In 2020, the event planning industry underwent a massive transformation as in-person events were halted. We asked our panel of experts about what innovations made last year mean for future events. 

Joe Schwinger

CEO, MeetingPlay

Can you discuss the need for virtual and hybrid events in 2021 and beyond?

The need for virtual and hybrid events in 2021 and beyond is driven by the new normal that COVID-19 has brought on the event industry and its attendees. Virtual events were around before COVID, however, it was the pandemic that created this “Uber moment” in the industry. As a result of being forced into this new normal, event organizers, planners, and attendees clearly see the value of having a virtual event, as well as an onsite event and now, combining the two together.

Virtual has brought the masses to meetings and events with a far and deep reach. Events that used to have 5,000 attendees now have 70,000. Hybrid will introduce the best of both worlds with a global reach and audience, and a concentrated onsite attendee base. Now, event planners have the privilege of producing Super Bowl-caliber events that attendees not only want to go to, but are just as excited to participate in virtually.

Why is it important to revolutionize virtual events, to keep up with trends, and keep consumers and attendees engaged?

It’s important for event technology providers to continue to maintain a competitive edge because the world has gone all-in on virtual events. The event tech industry was one of the most competitive prior to COVID-19. Now that virtual platforms are serving as an event venue where the potential for creativity is endless, it has created an even more competitive environment. This has resulted in the kind of virtual experiences that attendees never knew existed previously. As attendees become more educated and accustomed to elevated virtual experiences, they will come to demand even more.

How do you accomplish this goal?

We accomplish this goal by skating where the puck is going. We keep up with trends and stay in front of them. MeetingPlay is fortunate that we were able to build a platform that allows for us to bring new functionality and customized solutions to our customers at light speed. Typically, our customers request specific enhancements, and we are able to accommodate these requests in record time because our technology is native. Our No. 1 rule of thumb is to provide customers with beneficial solutions they want and need before they realize they need it.

What does meeting planning involve?

The role of meeting and event planners has evolved post-COVID. It has brought them out of their comfort zone when working with technology, to embracing it in order to meet their goals. There are now technology-based roles, opportunities, and career paths available to meeting planners that weren’t available until now.

What might the future have in store when it comes to virtual and hybrid events?

The future is very bright for the event industry. Hybrid events have introduced a whole new world of opportunity that was previously untapped. We like to tell our customers, “You now have a very robust toolbox to create experiences that you’ve never been able to create before.” The future is exciting for both our customers and the event industry because of how technology has bridged the gap with attendees globally. Barriers of travel no longer exist, and we’ve successfully created a community-like experience for events where everything revolves around their passions. 

The next iteration is turning attendees’ passions and these newly created event communities into a 365 solution. With this solution, attendees’ interests will not only be piqued by the event itself, but with smaller touchpoints year-round where they can interact, engage, and consume content around their interests.

Ben Chodor

President, Intrado Digital Media

Can you discuss the need for virtual and hybrid events in 2021 and beyond?

As more people consider heading back to the office and business travel is picking up, many of us are looking forward to the return of business trips and the personal connections made through handshakes and shared experiences during in-person events. 

However, the business events industry has undergone rapid digital transformation in the past year, ushering in a new era for event planners and attendees. As a result, virtual events are here to stay — there is no turning back. The benefits of events delivered through multiple channels are impossible to ignore. 

Industry experts like to use the term “hybrid” as a buzzword to describe the potential for the future of events, implying that a conference will need to include a virtual component and may not be entirely purpose-built for in-person audiences. In the very near future, there won’t be a need for any label at all, and the next generation of events will include multiple channels to expand attendee experience in both time and place. This always-on delivery model will empower planners with boundless creativity, opportunities for engagement, and ultimately a stronger ROI. We will now extend event engagement before, during, and after a live or digital event. Moving forward, I believe all events will be delivered through both digital and in-person channels. 

Why is it important to revolutionize virtual events, keep up with trends, and keep consumers and attendees engaged?

The year 2020 took the business events industry by surprise. Organizations were forced to cancel their events altogether, or quickly pivot to a virtual strategy based on necessity. Many of the organizations that called Intrado Digital Media for virtual event support in 2020 had never executed a webcast, let alone a large, global user conference with no physical component. There was true digital transformation at break-neck speed across the industry in 2020, and it drove massive adoption for event tech. 

Today, attendees of business events have quickly adjusted to virtual formats, and their expectations for engagement are higher than ever. Virtual event attendees don’t want to feel like they’re sitting at home staring into a screen; they are demanding a more immersive experience. A webinar with a roster of speakers flipping through PowerPoint decks won’t cut it. Organizations are under pressure to take their virtual event strategy to the next level, making the experience more meaningful and engaging for every stakeholder. 

How do you accomplish this goal?

Experience design in this next chapter of business events is critical and largely two-fold. 

First, planners must take the time to understand the mindset, goals, and challenges their entire audience across channels — virtual and in-person. For virtual attendees specifically, it is critical to understand their unique needs, from potential technology issues to ease of use, to distractions that naturally happen when you’re participating remotely. 

An excellent event breaks down barriers standing between your brand and your audience — that’s why choosing the right tech partner is incredibly important. 

Second, businesses should focus on making better use of data and analytics to build their strategy around content, commerce, and community; the organizing pillars of a business event. 

Events of the future will use the combined data collected from physical and digital audiences (e.g., engagement with content, foot and web traffic, number of attendees at keynote sessions) to create events that deliver a better experience. Virtual attendee analytics provide even more insights and feedback than traditional in-person session surveys, helping brands understand the attendee journey, preferences, and behavior. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) uses demographic and behavioral data to drive targeted engagement that is relevant to the attendee. Speaker recommendations, experience design, sponsor selection and positioning, and a host of other event elements are all favorably impacted with the use of AI. The result is a more powerful event that commands a larger footprint in size, scope, and impact.

What does meeting planning involve?

Meeting planners are creative, highly adaptable, meticulously organized and incredible problem solvers. They work under the reality that there is no second take in events. They need to get it right the first time, every time. Those traits will always be important to execute a successful event. 

The rise of event technology will require planners to put those innate skills to use in new ways. They are now using new tools to enhance the experience of their entire stakeholder group: attendees, sponsors, content providers, and event owners. 

In addition to learning how to use emerging tech, planners should think of themselves as community managers. Events will no longer come to a halt after a day or more. Events have always presented a powerful opportunity to build an active, thriving community of brand advocates. With digital channels now in play, that power is amplified across time and space.

For example, user conferences can become more frequent, shorter, focused sessions over several months. Sales launches and product demos can be scheduled or accessible after hours, and missed sessions are available as recordings for consumption at another time, giving attendees in any channel a great degree of elasticity in their consumption and engagement. 

What does the future have in store when it comes to virtual and hybrid events?

As we think about the future of business events, we know technology facilitates meaningful interactions and seamless engagement at scale. Here are three examples of how technology may impact events in the future:  

  • Outfitting a tradeshow booth with cameras (or virtual reality devices) for ongoing, two-way interaction between digital and in-person attendees and exhibitors, with special hours for live demos and on-demand content that is available pre- and post-show.
  • Curating a VIP experience for virtual attendees; concerts, behind-the-scenes opportunities, or networking events set up to facilitate conversations with the talent, and both digital and in-person attendees.
  • Using AI technology to analyze physical and virtual attendee data from previous conferences to create an ideal event in the future — from optimizing the booth layout, to speaker recommendations and content planning. 

Mahoganey Leigh Jones, CMP, DES, HMCC

Founder and Principal Planner, Event Specialists

Can you discuss the need for virtual and hybrid events in 2021 and beyond?

While the idea of hybrid events isn’t new, the need for virtual and hybrid events from 2021 and beyond is going to depend on how the world opens up. Hybrid events now more than ever have a need based on the fact that we have already seen lucrative and successful switches to virtual events. Organizations are now understanding the value of adding a virtual component to their events.

After 2021 and as we continue to navigate this new world of events, we will need to have strategies that can be reinforced by client and organizational goals, and that address everyone’s safety concerns. Hybrid events are not only a solution to help us meet our attendee goals — they also allow us to meet our attendees where they are. Not everyone will be comfortable with returning to in-person meetings, which will make having a virtual option even more crucial.

Why is it important to revolutionize virtual events to keep up with trends, and keep consumers and attendees engaged?

The simple answer to this question is not being left behind. Virtual events have allowed us to continue delivering on our goals and objectives, while also allowing us to continue to generate revenue (yes, many organizations saw higher profit margins off their events in 2020), and meet corporate goals and expectations. 

If we do not continue to seek out trends and understand new ways to meet our attendees where they are, not only will we be left behind, but our attendees will register for other events that are more enticing to them. It is no longer enough to plan an event that you believe attendees will attend. You have to know they’re interested in what you have to offer, and how it is different from everything else in the marketplace.

How do you accomplish this goal?

Accomplishing this goal will take internal and external research, as well as an understanding of attendee demographics, client goals and expectations, and stakeholder expectations. Understanding the landscape of your event will allow you to be better prepared for delivering on those goals and on the objectives. 

Setting specific business goals for your events will allow you to track and benchmark the event goals and objectives against the actual ROI of the event. Having a team in place will also help you to reach your goals without having to do it alone. Research from various suppliers will allow you to understand what is happening in the landscape so you can meet the demands of your audiences.

What does meeting planning involve?

Meeting planning involves everything from design and ideation to the execution of your event. Meeting planning is the act of following project management principles, and ensuring your event is designed and delivered to meet your expectations.

What does the future have in store for virtual and hybrid events?

The future of virtual and hybrid events is exciting. Although it has been around for many years, the focus to extend the reach of your event globally has allowed us to reimagine and redesign events that we didn’t even think were possible two or three years ago. We now have the ability to rethink how content is being delivered (think about the broadcasted events that now have a TV or Netflix feel), how learning can be accentuated with different technologies, how we can use events to meet our goals, and do this while working with suppliers worldwide! 

The future of hybrid events is all about the curated experience. We are going to see the rise of high-touch event experiences like we’ve never seen before. This is opening up the opportunity to host micro-events with meaning.

Corbin Ball

Event Technology Speaker, Consultant, and Writer

Can you discuss the need for virtual and hybrid events in 2021 and beyond?

Although virtual events have been around in some form for more than two decades, the pandemic has created an unprecedented explosion of innovation and development of best practices in using them. Virtual meeting technology has easily changed more over the past year than in the previous decade. 

During the pandemic, nearly everyone, from grade-school kids to grandparents, have been getting video conference training through Zoom and other products, and we are getting used to them.

Billions of dollars of funding and acquisitions in the virtual/hybrid event technology space have been made this past year. Nearly all the major event registration software companies and many of the mobile event app companies have pivoted to develop virtual and hybrid event counterparts to their existing face-to-face (F2F) event technology offerings.

As F2F events emerge from the pandemic, hybrid event technology will be a bridge back to a different normal. Many attendees may still be cautious of air travel, many may not have the funding to travel, and many may find the greatly improved virtual technology is good enough for them. Hybrid events will be able to provide for both worlds. 

Why is it important to revolutionize virtual events, keep up with trends, and keep consumers and attendees engaged?

The two major reasons people attend events are for education and networking. Virtual meetings have been good with the education component, but engagement has been more of a challenge. Fortunately, many best practices have been developed to improve this.

How do you accomplish this goal?

There are multiple ways to accomplish this depending on the event purpose. These include gamification, unified polling and text-based Q&A with upvoting for the virtual and F2F attendees, virtual breakout rooms, easy-to-use immersive software providing a virtual reality interface and artificial intelligence to find best networking and education matches based on attendee social profiles, registration information, and actions during the event. 

There are also attendee journey analytics where every click or touch can be trackable on virtual event software products, and the use of an experienced virtual emcee and provision of specialized content for the virtual attendee during parts of a F2F event.

What does meeting planning involve?

Generally, there are two major types of events: corporate meetings and association meetings. Corporate meetings may serve as sales meetings, user group meetings, brand awareness events, rewards for top sales people, and more. Association meetings bring people of like interests together to share information and connect buyers and sellers. 

What does future have in store when it comes to virtual and hybrid events?

Major innovations and best practices are still waiting to be developed. Hybrid events are just starting to happen. We will see substantial improvement in the next two years. 

What’s the bottom-line message you’d like to share regarding virtual and hybrid events?

The pandemic has pushed society forward several years in the adoption of online retail, online education, online takeout food ordering, telemedicine, and virtual/hybrid events. Virtual and hybrid technology is improving at an astonishing rate, and will be used much more widely in the future.

Matt Harvey

VP, Virtual and Hybrid Events, Encore Event Technologies

Can you discuss the need for virtual and hybrid events in 2021 and beyond?

In the short term, virtual and hybrid events are needed to achieve an organization’s objectives where the option to meet in person is restricted or non-viable due to the pandemic. Virtual and hybrid event technology has been around for at least a decade, but the pandemic has accelerated the development of both the technology and the attendee experience. Planners are now more familiar than ever before with the digital tools available to incorporate virtual and hybrid options into their overall event program strategy, and attendees are more accepting of the technology.  

Post-pandemic, we’ll see planners put that new capability to use to solve the broader industry challenges, including expanded reach of content and collaboration, diversity and inclusion of attendees, lowering the environmental impact of events, and improved accessibility for those with disabilities. Human nature drives a strong desire to meet in person, and virtual and hybrid events will be there to augment in-person events as part of an overall event program strategy.   

How do virtual events need to evolve in order to keep up with trends, and keep consumers and attendees engaged? How do you accomplish this goal?

All event formats, whether in person, virtual, or hybrid, require engaging, purposefully designed, experiences and learning to achieve desired outcomes. Prior to the pandemic, trends toward shorter-form content, more time devoted to discussion and networking, and higher attendee participation were already established and will continue for all event formats. 

Virtual events (and the virtual elements of hybrid) do, however, present unique challenges around attention, with compelling distractions freely available. Think about what makes for an engaging TV show — compelling stories, fast-moving plot lines, and well-produced visuals and audio. These concepts, coupled with experimentation around session lengths and timing, will drive up attendee engagement across all event formats.  

Virtual also presents a challenge around how best to orchestrate serendipity — those moments where an attendee magically stumbles upon some unknown information or a new connection; often the most fulfilling moments of an event attendee’s journey. The use of digital engagement tools like chat, polling, Q&A, word clouds, and heatmaps all help virtual attendees feel more connected to the event and drive the group conversation forward.  

The use of recommendation engines will also go some way toward helping direct who we should meet or what sessions to attend. The key question is “Will it ever be as good as being there in-person?”. The great news is that the craft of designing engaging events is the same regardless of the format — only the tools vary.  

What does the future have in store when it comes to virtual and hybrid events?

We’ll see virtual and hybrid used in conjunction with in-person as part of an overall event program strategy, taking the best elements that the different formats offer. For example, a software user conference that traditionally took place in person over four days might evolve into a month of virtual learning and online information sharing sessions, leading up to a shorter in-person event where ideation and networking are the focuses.  

An industry trade show event may extend its in-person tradeshow with a persistent, year-round virtual presence where suppliers can continue to connect with buyers. An in-person corporate sales kickoff may extend its message to more junior team members participating via regional watch parties with local collaboration, getting the message further into the organization more quickly. Captured content at events will also be repurposed on-demand, extending the life and message of the event and driving ROI.  

Overall, the acceleration of digital event technology and increased know-how driven by the pandemic will provide a lasting opportunity for event designers to purposefully re-evaluate event programs, taking the best elements of multiple formats to connect and inspire attendees in a more inclusive, diverse, accessible, sustainable, and global way.

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