Virtual event platforms have experienced enormous growth over the last few months as we sought out new ways to continue to do business, build connections, and generate leads. Among those prospering in the pandemic, unsurprisingly, is Zoom, which added a $47.9bn market cap. The software became integral to our lockdown life, in our business meetings, our virtual pub quizzes, and family gatherings.
This usage is set to rocket over the next 10 years - so the time is ripe for event organizers to grasp the opportunity. But, with the events industry struggling to survive, how can organizers balance the dual challenges of embracing the digital transformation driven by the pandemic and surviving the downturn caused by it.
After months at a halt, the UK Government has tentatively set a date for in-person events to begin again, albeit with restrictions. The 1st October will (hopefully) see the UK’s events industry spring back to action, a welcome assurance for the £11 billion UK events sector that has months of lost revenue to recoup. As long as the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t resurge in the meantime. The situation is similar across the rest of Europe and the U.S.
However, post-COVID events will look very different. Social distancing restrictions will see reduced capacities, with large-scale meetings not expected until mid-2021 (and, indeed, France banning them completely until July 2021). There’s also the knock-on impact of postponements to consider. Events in the first and second quarters of 2020 have been canceled or postponed to later in the year. Events in the third quarter are now under threat. What will be the long-term effects of this shifting of dates on the global event economy?
Taking the long view
Any assumptions that we will return to ‘normal’ are thankfully few and far between.. The days of planning an in-person event post-COVID with no digital contingency is behind us. Indeed, the conference industry and its attendees had been operating in an outdated physical-only model for years. A silver lining to the pandemic comes through organizers finally realizing the value of online experiences.
Now that we’ve seen the freedom, flexibility, and peace-of-mind that online events can offer, many organizers may be reluctant to return to the usual roster of conferences and exhibitions that existed before. 65% of consumers also report feeling uncomfortable gathering in large groups. Even if large events are given the go-ahead, there’s no guarantee that people will attend until they feel completely safe.
That’s not to say that live events won’t still have their place, but we will be more discerning and attendees will expect more from them. In-person events will become more of a premium experience, a complement to discussions and gatherings online. In other words, the sector is headed towards a hybrid model. Where attendees can engage with pre-event content before the day itself, come prepared for an in-person event, and continue discussions after the physical event with ongoing content, sessions, and workshops.
The benefits of hybrid events
Post-COVID, a hybrid event offers an enticing proposition. If the worst should happen, an event can continue in a virtual format if people cannot attend in-person. Event organizers won’t have sleepless nights worrying about cancellations, plus, virtual events can help businesses save money at a time when many budgets are tightening.
Holding hybrid events can ensure that organizers comply with new safety standards, such as social distancing and attendee limits. Virtual events run alongside physical ones will help attendees engage with content, even if they cannot travel to the in-person event. This makes it more inclusive, people won’t be limited by the need to shield because of medical conditions or age, by geographical restrictions, or lack of time.
It helps an event continue to survive, to build resilience into operations and ensure some kind of revenue in the shadow of uncertainty. Revenue for many events organizers plummeted to near zero in Q2 of this year.
But events that had virtual back-ups, were able to quickly pivot during the lockdown. Salesforce has shifted all events, including its large Dreamforce conference, online for 2020. Microsoft’s Build developer event has followed suit. In doing so, the companies’ revenue and brand value were protected despite the disruption.
Simplycommunicate and the ICA are just two of the clients that we helped to do the same. In fact, Simplycommunicate exceeded all expectations and more than doubled its audience by switching to digital. Attendance rose from over 300 participants to more than 700 due to the wider remit of a virtual event. It’s borderless, less labor-intensive to attend, so the potential audience for a digital event extends exponentially.
Times have moved on
Yet, many large event organizations were too slow to adapt. The result? Widespread cancellations and postponed in-person events. With a knock-on detrimental impact on the brand, loyalty, and value.
In the first phase, some event organizers weren’t given enough time to pivot. But it’s now obvious that the uncertainty and issues surrounding in-person events aren’t going away anytime soon. We have entered the next normal, and never again will audiences be quite so ready to part with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars in exchange for an in-person three-day conference.
Expectations have evolved. Attendees expect a different experience, with greater flexibility and agility.
Meanwhile, budgets are shrinking in anticipation of a global recession. Business travel budgets will be particularly hard-hit, and organizations are facing rising costs to factor into international travel budgets.
For someone to attend an event in another country, their leaders will have to factor in the costs of the travel itself, plus any quarantine or health requirements. Flying staff around the world to attend conferences will be unrealistic. Plus, with virtual options fulfilling our needs to network and meet during the lockdown, the cost of attending an in-person event may be hard to justify.
The growth of event tech
Due to this, event tech has come into its own as a solution to the sector’s current challenges. However, event tech is missing a critical ingredient: community. By holding an event online and solely focussing on that singular activity, companies are missing out on the wider benefits of building a community of attendees, speakers, and sponsors. Learn more on the differences between People Tech and Event Tech in my recent article.
By developing such a community of experts and attendees, all focused on a certain industry and specialism, long-term gains through relationship building and knowledge sharing are lost. Having an online community alongside an event (whether that’s virtual or in-person) provides greater engagement pre and post-event, opportunities to connect and network around the event, and even a feedback loop for event organizers.
It delivers expertise in the way attendees want to receive it. More flexibly, with a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning and networking.
Event organizers are the conveners of this community at live events. Therefore if they can effectively package and deliver their events with a digital community element, they stand to benefit from this increased demand and appetite for hybrid and virtual events.
|Community tech||Event tech|
|Year-round engagement||A transactional event|
|Multi-purpose - learning + networking + contributing||Singular purpose|
|Continual sharing of deep expertise and experience||Singular user experience|
|Relationship building and networking||No long-term user engagement|
|Flexibility of digital offering||Transient interactions|
|No time zone or geographical restrictions||One point in time|
Cultivating the community
The Zapnito platform facilitates live events, but unlike providers like Zoom, it lasts beyond just a couple of days. Working with event organizers, Zapnito provides a virtual ‘home’ for an event where attendees can interact with speakers and sponsors through tailored content, ‘rooms’, and discussions.
Event organizers have an unparalleled opportunity to capitalize on the increased appetite for virtual experiences. By taking the lead and innovating with this format now, organizers can fulfill the many different needs of their leaders and attendees. Providing hybrid events that can navigate the uncertainty of the coming months, that includes everyone in a wider community, and that continues to generate value and revenue amid an economic and public health crisis.