What is the future of events after COVID-19?

The future is hybrid: What will events look like post COVID-19?

As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps event venues shuttered and people more than an arms-length apart, it is imperative to rethink events and its future.

In 2019, around 52.6 per cent of event professionals reported having invested more in event tech than the previous year; this year, those numbers might skyrocket. To say that COVID-19 has thrown the events industry into disarray would be an understatement.

This enforced physical isolation has led to an en masse shift towards digital solutions: from virtual birthday parties to virtual music festivals, to large-scale trade conferences such as Facebook’s Oculus Connect 7, that took its annual San Jose conference online — events are going virtual.

But is this digital migration just a fad, brought about by necessity, gone by the time the pandemic ends?

On one hand, it is true that this new age of virtual events won’t be the death knell for traditional, analogue events: Long-term quarantines have only made clearer that we are social creatures who go stir-crazy if left alone for too long; and, the serendipity of meeting and networking face-to-face is something that virtual alternatives cannot yet capture.

On the other hand, while we need to meet other people — as the COVID-19 keeps event venues shuttered and people more than an arms-length apart, it has become imperative for us to rethink what meeting requires.

Hybrid will be the new normal

Physical events may be impossible for now, but they will still be a part of the post-pandemic world — though they won’t be the same. For one, concerns about health and safety will persist — according to a survey conducted by SACEOS in May 2020, only five per cent of respondents said that they would be comfortable attending events in October without safety measures in place — thinning out crowds as fewer people flock to physical event spaces and mandating stricter hygiene standards.

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As event venues operate under capacity, events will require a digital component to keep participant numbers high.

And, the current pandemic has forced even the most resistant of the old guard to adopt and adapt to digital solutions. Almost 60 per cent of the respondents to a survey conducted during our digital event on how to run digital conferences reported that they believe digital conferences will be a part of physical conferences in the future, despite only less than 10 per cent of them having organised digital conferences before.

From live streaming events to remote viewers outside conference venues, to chat rooms that facilitate interaction between online viewers and participants on-site, digital elements currently being tried-and-tested will see greater implementation in physical events as they prove their worth — bringing into being hybrid events that marry the best of both worlds.

Hybrid events will be the next normal. The digital side of events of our near future will leverage features we already know well, stretching the limits of familiar technologies to provide new ways for participants to experience the event and engage with its offerings.

Is the future is hybrid and what will events look like post COVID-19? So, what will the future hold?

Device-agnostic, portable events

According to Cisco’s 2020 Global Networking Trends Report, the video will come to represent approximately 82 per cent of all business internet traffic by 2022. In addition, over 70 per cent of the global population will have mobile connectivity by 2023, with smartphones representing the second-fastest growing mobile device in the period between 2018 to 2023.

More people are watching videos online, and an increasing number of them are doing so on mobile devices — and embracing this digital transition will reshape how and where we participate in events. With modern streaming technology, it is now entirely possible to have an entire event in the palm of your hand, to take with you on-the-go.

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Of course, to make these borderless events possible, you need technical literacy to ensure the cross-compatibility of their event on different operating systems and devices:

Does your video streaming platform of choice work the same on both Android and Apple phones? How does your live stream landing page look on different screen resolutions? These are issues you must tackle to ensure an optimal experience for all your participants.

New opportunities for generating revenue

In our survey, when asked how much they would be willing to pay for a digital conference in place of the physical edition, which used to be US$1,000 per ticket, 89.2 per cent of the participants were willing to pay for the online conference.

However, 82 per cent expected the price of a digital conference to being around 10-40 per cent of the price of the physical equivalent — owing, perhaps, to the lower set-up costs, the lack of face-to-face networking opportunities, and in some cases, even shorter duration.

If you want people to be willing to come to and pay for your digital event (or the digital offshoot of your physical event), you need to add value to their experience — and going digital creates new opportunities for you to do so.

Think about “freemium” events, for example: With the main session helmed by well-known keynote speakers, available for all participants to view and learn from — and paid breakout rooms, for participants who want more in-depth knowledge or networking opportunities with the speakers. “Freemium” models aren’t new — they’ve been used extensively in SaaS software — but it is significantly harder to implement in physical events, short of stationing a ticketing booth outside of every breakout room.

Looking beyond the event industry

Digital and hybrid events have been around before COVID-19. What the pandemic has done is force the event industry to adopt them at an unprecedented scale and speed, pushing many experienced event managers into unfamiliar territory and creating a new breed dedicated to navigating the new virtual terrain — the digital event managers.

As we build the skills needed to make the most use of digital spaces, we’ll see more digital event managers take a page out of the playbook of digital veterans in other industries — such as e-commerce, or gaming.

When developing features for online exhibitions on GEVME Live, we had to think about how we would digitalize exhibitions. Would it have made the most use of our digital tools to have simply mapped out the physical event verbatim into the online world — or could we go further?

The benefit of a digital exhibition is that it is not constrained by space or time: Participants and exhibitors can come from anywhere, at any time. To make the most of this, we took inspiration from e-commerce, creating an online marketplace where exhibitors can have year-long exhibitions, and engage participants with live streams, networking sessions, and other features like showcases and seminars.

Digital event managers also have a lot to learn from the gaming industry. Gamers know how to work online engagement via video streaming: Two out of the top five most-subscribed Youtube channels feature gaming-related content; on the live-streaming platform Twitch, the average user spends 95 minutes per day watching live gaming.

How do effective game streamers maintain this high rate of engagement, curate their communities, and generate social media buzz on their streams? Events tech is constantly evolving in response to global needs, industry trends, and the wider world of technological developments.

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Still, the most impactful changes are likely to come from close by — things that are tried-and-tested and have proven themselves to work, even if they haven’t been applied to the event industry yet.

The future is hybrid: What will events look like post COVID-19? Would you agree?

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