The Elephant in the Room
The research that I’ve read about the future of live events all points to the fact that no matter what happens with the Pandemic, having a virtual attendance option is something that an overwhelming majority of organizations want to incorporate in 2022 and beyond. But having said that, if you make that statement to event organizers, they may agree in principle, but not in practice. It seems as if the big elephant in the room is that to them, virtual represents a set of complications that make it harder to plan, execute and fund when you’re having to create an event for both the virtual and physical world.
Now, I’ll have to admit bias because our company delivers technology that powers virtual and hybrid events. But I feel that if we don’t acknowledge the complications of virtual and how to address them, then the benefits that organizations receive by having those options may not be enough to keep the momentum that technology has offered alive in the event space.
I know that we all are tired of having Dr. Fauci tell us what we already know: wear a mask, socially distance, and the Pandemic still has a hold on live events. But the Pandemic is not the only thing that creates event disruption and reduces attendance. As an example, this week, Southwest Airlines cancelled thousands of flights leaving passengers stuck in airports for days. Why? Weather, labor shortages, planes in the wrong location – who knows? In 2020, 6.2 million hospitality workers were laid off, but in 2021 as organizations try and staff up, they find that many of those laid off workers have left the industry for good leaving hotels and restaurants struggling to serve guests. And what about the transportation industry? With a severe shortage of truck drivers, those big fancy booths may not make it to Vegas or Chicago.
According to Forbes, in the entertainment industry, interactive media is growing with traditionally consumed live events declining. This stems from trends that have been in process for a decade such as streaming, digital services, online gaming, and online content. The pandemic only made their growth accelerate. Whether it’s entertainment, tradeshows or conferences, people now want their experiences to be more personal, mobile, interactive, available, connected and rewarding.
Now, let’s get back to the Elephant in the Room. Why do event organizers find virtual difficult to execute? After working with quite a few customers that are doing virtual for the first time, here is what jumps out at me.
Event organizers work harder because they attempt to cram too much into their virtual events. The biggest area of overproducing a virtual event seems to be in sessions. Attendees get overwhelmed with too many choices, especially during the 2-3 days of the scheduled event. An overwhelming amount of content feels to them as if they must be chained to their computer reducing their time to visit exhibitors, network and do other activities. When we get feedback from our event hosts, that’s one area that they wish they had cut back on.
Failure to incorporate sponsors as partners. Sponsors want leads from a virtual event, but they also want to showcase their industry expertise, be part of the conversation, and enjoy attending. Remember that these companies are often larger than the association or organization producing the event. They’ve got great marketing teams, strong speakers and industry experts that can fill up the agenda with roundtables, keynotes, and sessions. And if you set the right ground rules, sponsors can show off their expertise without being salesy or blatantly promotional. Partners participation takes the burden of having to do it all off the event organizer and raises their overall satisfaction level.
Not enough ways for attendees to weigh in. School teachers will tell you that if you simply lecture kids, you’ll lose their attention quickly and the same is true for adults. People need to participate, share their ideas, and hear from others that overcame common challenges. Technology should be used to create online discussion forums, roundtables, networking opportunities and more intimate connections with speakers and panelists. Do that, and satisfaction among attendees rises when they think about their virtual experience.
Overcomplicating the technology. Platforms can be intimidating, but they shouldn’t be too hard for the average non-technical person to use. If the platform is loaded with features, as ours is, you don’t have to use each one of them. Pick the features that are most impactful, turn those on, and skip ones that are less significant or not relevant to your event. Figure out what you can customize and control and leave the rest to the technology organization.
Not making it fun. You can’t be boring. We’ve now had almost 2 years of executing virtual events who have used a variety of ways to amp up the fun beyond the traditional cocktail party. Our customers have done virtual 5K races, held contests, had “hangout” spaces, and invited fun people to appear at networking events. One show even had the bouncer from the Jerry Springer show. You can imagine how interesting his stories were! Events have had cartoonist draw what was happening in the networking lounge and the list goes on and on. The internet is a treasure trove of ideas that you don’t have to think up yourself, just borrow and add them.
Now that we’ve talked about the elephants in the room that make virtual seem more difficult and some strategies to get around those issues, let’s talk about how a shift in all our mindsets can turn virtual from a negative into a positive.
First, the at-home attendee is not the enemy. If the attendee didn’t purchase a ticket for the live event, they are still worthy of an experience that educates, informs, and engages them. Your most loyal audience may be the ones watching at home. It’s not our job to gatekeep how people consume content or interact with each other, but to expand our horizons to include everyone. Of course, the live attendee will spend more, but only serving that person runs the risk of alienating a growing segment of your audience.
We must recognize that technology is improving at an accelerated rate. In the past, the difference between experiencing an event in person or from home was staggering, but technology is rising to the occasion and continuing to evolve. Video platforms offer amazing streaming experiences. Event platforms are building in interactivity, competition, feedback, social media, and offering more options to keep attendees engaged and involved. Automation is improving so once you set up the platform, the routines kick in and do the work for you freeing you up to focus on strategy not technology.
It’s time to embrace that your audience has changed forever. They’ve had almost two years of working from home. They are used to Slack, Zoom, BlueJeans, robo-watching and consuming content online. Live event hosts must determine how to merge the worlds of digital and live attendees. It’s a challenge to add interactive elements into the at-home attendee experiences and at the same time improve the integration of live experiences into the virtual event world to create better experiences for those that come to the venue. But it’s worth and ultimately, we must engage attendees wherever they are — on their phones, TVs or in the exhibit hall.
There doesn’t have to be an elephant in the room when it comes to your thoughts on the work it takes to deliver a great virtual and live event to the same audience at the same time. Let’s acknowledge that it takes more work, a higher-level strategy, and partnerships to ease the burden of doing both live and virtual. But we also must acknowledge that virtual events and the digital ways we consume content have always been there. The pandemic only served to accelerate trends that were already poised to upend the status quo. Attendees and exhibitors have changed, and we need to keep moving forward and change with them.