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Virtual and Hybrid Events

Why Continuous Innovation Is Key to the Future of Events

Kimberly Gishler

Executive Director, Corporate Event Marketing Association (CEMA)

In February 2020, no event industry executive would have imagined upending every live event they had planned and moving it to a digital platform within weeks. Yet that is exactly what we had to do when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down travel and in-person gatherings around the globe.

Thanks to determined and courageous event trailblazers, we made the pivot and we accomplished at scale — from global mega events like CES and iconic customer events like Dreamforce, to mid-tier conferences and even specialized events like our 2020 CEMA Summit. We harnessed our inherent creativity, ingenuity, and resilience to deliver truly remarkable virtual event experiences.

As the world begins to recover from COVID-19, we are seeing restrictions loosen and brands starting to plan and hold in-person events. In April, Caesars Palace hosted its first large conference since reopening: the “Dr. Mattox: Trauma, Critical Care & Acute Surgery Conference,” the longest running event in the history of Las Vegas events. Other brands and venues are bringing back both live and online events this year. 

Improving virtual events

While we are delighted to see the return to live, we are still putting a lot of energy and creativity into making virtual events more meaningful, engaging, and valuable. This is a mission-critical endeavor because virtual and hybrid events are going to remain a big part of our portfolios — likely forever.

Every event executive I talk to is energized and encouraged by the progress we’ve made and the incredible innovation we’ve seen in evolving digital experiences — born out of necessity, but becoming more mainstream. We learned a great deal in a short time about planning and executing virtual events, and have begun to pivot again; away from traditional virtual venues toward more immersive, authentic digital experiences that complement and augment live, in-person events.

We are learning to capture and master the rich data collected at hybrid events. We can measure beyond qualified sales opportunities and net promoter scores. We can look at attendance goals, registered versus attended, and our conversion rate target. We can also track average dwell times; how many people are really watching our programs and which programs are being watched the most. 

We’re expanding and enriching lead generation by leveraging digital platforms to allow customers to book informational meetings based on their needs. Inbound meeting request links can be integrated into pre-event campaigns, offered during the event in virtual/hybrid event lobbies and in post-event follow-up activities. Further, meeting automation platforms (MAP) can automate meeting scheduling, capture key meeting information, and deliver it into CRM systems.

Lasting impact

We’re creating new robust and meaningful thought leadership content opportunities for our exhibitors and sponsors to engage customers more intimately during the event that can live well beyond the show closing. Sponsors and partners can host rooms within the platform to provide tailored demos, or have focused conversations between customers and product experts. Event hosts can collaborate with partners to jointly create virtual educational and advisory content that can be serialized and delivered on demand for weeks or months.

We’re perfecting the technology and expertise to create virtual production environments with countless possibilities for delivering engaging and immersive experiences. For example, extended reality (xR), a new approach that is revolutionizing film and television production, is transforming what is possible on live event stages. Event production teams working virtually can use xR to deliver Augmented and Mixed Reality in the studio, and deliver it live onto a green room screen, an on-stage digital display, or to the small screen via livestream. 

The horizon for hybrid events is promising, yet with all the exciting things we can do with digital media, one thing that will not change is the power of great storytelling. It is on us to produce, craft, and deliver stories, experiences, and entire events that make people care, rallies them around an idea, and leaves them enriched and energized. 

I believe we will continue to achieve and evolve digital engagement to complement the live experience. The future of virtual and hybrid will be one of continuous innovation. It has always been this way for the events industry. There is no “new normal,” just the next normal, born from something extraordinary. 

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