Tough lessons during the transition from in-person to hybrid events have laid the foundations for a brighter future for business gatherings, where attendees can join in from anywhere and benefit from enhanced engagement. Events specialists tell Karen Yue how.
The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting disruption of face-to-face events in 2020 has catalysed the digitalisation of business events, forcing event owners and organisers into unfamiliar and complex territories of hybrid and omni-channel event formats within short months.
For Joe Ciliberto, global director sales and marketing with EventsAIR, a specialist in cloud-based events management platform, the steep learning curve was critical for the future of events.
“There was initial fear (among clients when events were first disrupted by the pandemic) that events would never be the same, and 10 months later that statement was proven (true). With the evolution of digital event technology, we have been able to meet, network, learn and do business remotely. In some cases, event clients achieved higher attendee numbers and learnt how to engage with customers in a whole new way,” Ciliberto told TTGmice.
He likened the digital event evolution to that of mobile phones: “10 years ago you would never have thought that smartphones would become part of everyday life and business today”, and that learning to use a smartphone then was a critical journey.
Event specialists are unanimous that there was much for everyone to learn from turning face-to-face events into digital and hybrid productions. Discoveries included the need to construct an event that can engage both offline and online audience; work with new technologies; deliver on much shorter lead times; rework revenue models; and manage and train remote speakers.
“These lessons remain relevant even after in-person events return, as hybrid is the future of meetings and events,” said Aventri’s vice president-channel and partner management, Brad Langley, adding that a 2020 Aventri study found that 89 per cent of global event professionals said virtual components would continue to play a role after the lockdown.
When Kuoni Tumlare first brought its established virtual and hybrid event solution from Europe to Asia in December 2020, COO Tim Martin discovered that there were corporate clients here in the region that did not understand how a virtual or hybrid event should be planned and delivered, although they had clear messaging objectives.
“We needed to help them understand that a virtual event isn’t just using a Zoom-based platform and expecting it to fulfil their (usual) programme that includes CEO and VIP addresses, plenary sessions, breakout meetings and interaction with 300 people from around the world, and other elements,” said Martin.
“Before they know it, they have a packed agenda of four to six hours, which doesn’t quite work for an online event. So, our role is also to guide the client on programming, to recommend shorter sessions, gamification, online polls, etc to break up the flow and improve engagement.”
Langley agrees that a successful shift from offline to digital requires letting go of traditional approaches to event programming. He warned against duplicating an in-person event for digital, as “no one wants to sit at a computer for an eight-hour conference day”.
“Short, fast-paced sessions work well for virtual attendees,” advised Langley. “Bring them into the conversation with engagement tools, such as question submissions, chat, surveys, social sharing, video conversations, and instant polls. Speakers can get real-time feedback to customise sessions to audience needs.”
He also recommended short sessions of under an hour for remote audiences, but over more days.
Deeper engagements are also possible at virtual events, noted Langley, who suggested virtual networking lounges and cocktail hours, music breaks with live deejays, live-streamed yoga sessions, as well as video meet-ups and dedicated chat feeds.
Another key difference in the planning process is the shortened timeline.
Reto Kaufmann, vice president – sales & operations South East & South Asia, Kuoni Tumlare, said an online event RFP for 300 people across 30 countries could come in just seven weeks ahead of the big day. Considering how online event production is as intense as producing a live TV show, Kaufmann said such a lead time is “super short”.
This high-pressured lead time must now also fit in speaker training and rehearsals. While scripting used to be done only for critical speeches, Mathilde Gabriel, account manager, Chab Lab said every word must be scripted for digital and hybrid events.
“Some clients are unable to visualise the entire event with just rundowns, unlike how it used to be with physical events. We tackle this problem by using mock-ups and silhouettes to create scenes and scripts, so that our clients are able to visualise the actual event and know what to expect,” she explained, adding that rehearsals conducted at least a day ahead of the main event would allow producers to coordinate the many components of event designs. These components could include scenes, overlays, backdrop, lower thirds (speakers title), videos and slides.
“With rehearsals being done a day before, our design team will have at least four to five hours to fine-tune colour contrast, pixels and other minor changes. That being said, (rehearsal time) is also determined by the amount of designs an event has and how complex they are,” said Gabriel.
Better management, better ROI
Events specialists are turning lessons throughout 2020 into solutions that ease the shift from offline to omni-channel events.
“With existing solutions, virtual attendees must use multiple solutions, including calendar tools, messaging bots and lead generation forms. Then, they often wait hours in a queue before connecting with experts. Sponsors and exhibitors spend part of their meetings manually qualifying leads. This leaves them less time to address prospect needs,” recalled Langley.
That has changed, and new tools today enable immediate connections. For instance, Aventri Digital Lead Capture combines tools for chat, lead qualification, video conferencing, content delivery and reporting on a single platform. These solutions not only mirror the showroom experience at in-person events, they also allow virtual exhibitors to provide prompt answers via one-on-one video calls and relevant event follow-up.
“They shorten the sales cycle and improve return on investment,” he said.
In addition, the new Aventri Virtual Event Platform is said to be the first solution enabling event and marketing professionals to manage their virtual, hybrid and in-person events on a single platform and without having to master complicated, new processes with reduced staff and resources.
Over at EventsAIR, version five of OnAIR, a virtual and hybrid event platform, is close to launch. It promises an enhanced online experience with a range of new features, such as a new visual mode for even greater online engagement.
Since the solution first debuted in May 2020, OnAIR has more than 300,000 virtual attendees on the platform. These users provided a wealth of knowledge and feedback that EventsAIR channel back into the product to help clients produce even better events.
EventsAIR’s efforts to get clients up to speed on the digital event transformation include virtual training bootcamps and research into different methods of interfacing video and audio elements of a hybrid event.
The only constant is change
The journey deeper into omni-channel events would continue to spring new lessons, opined events specialists.
Ciliberto expects a range of technology around contactless interaction, attendee tracking, and blended-style content delivery for live and digital events will surface this year as people start returning to venues for in-person gatherings.
“At the end of the day, the goal of an event planner is to provide an environment where the audience can learn, engage, network, and do business so that their attendees will come back for more. The year 2021 will see greater adoption of event technology to ensure that the industry can continue to deliver attendee experiences,” remarked Ciliberto.
Lessons picked up in 2020 will only serve to strengthen clients’ confidence in the new event formats, observed Gabriel, who said her customers are now more open to innovative solutions to achieve their desired event goals.
Looking forward, she sees new event technology, from green screens to extended reality (XR) stage and environment becoming more affordable and with options to suit every budget.
For now, Gabriel is betting on XR solutions being the new trend in 2021, and Chab Lab is currently developing fresh ideas around the concept.