Striking a Balance Between Live & Virtual Events
I think all event planners understand conferences, tradeshows and events being planned for the latter part of 2021 and beyond will not look like meetings from the past. Although we’d love for everything to go back the way it was a year ago, returning to live events will be more gradual than we think. A recent Harris poll of 2,000 people revealed that 60% of those polled would not be comfortable in large events and crowds until herd immunity is achieved.
Although creating a virtual event was hard for most of us, having online options for event attendance is what audiences in the fall and beyond now expect, so we can either fight the change or embrace it and evolve our strategy. Because we will now have audiences that travel to the venue, those that are behind their laptops and some that do both, our goal is to create an experience that is equitable and meaningful whether the attendee is logged in or on the exhibit hall floor.
Now, many of you are likely thinking that we’ve not seen a hybrid event so we’re right back where we were a year ago...in the dark, not really understanding how to satisfy an audience that participates in the same event but in different ways. The reality is that we’ve been involved in hybrid events for decades but perhaps just didn’t think of it that way. You may love watching football games from the comfort of your living room, listening to the sports commentators, and watching the instant replays. However, there is another audience that traveled to the stadium and experienced the same event, but just in a different way. That football game is a good example for both audiences, despite the fact that one group watched it from home while the other was in the stands in the middle of the action.
We still have to figure out what hybrid means when we plan our tradeshow, conference or summit, but the change is upon us and our audiences are expecting us to figure it out for the fall shows. Here are three things to consider in your virtual vs. live event strategy design.
#1. Start with the primary purpose of the event to determine what elements should be virtual or live. Although events have a number of purposes, there are often those that are more prominent than others. Here are some examples.
· Informational events are designed to share news, inform and present information.
· Educational events have people share ideas and develop new strategies or use the time to update their professional licenses with continuing education.
· Inspirational or motivational events are designed to get people fired up and inspired. Everyone can picture Steve Jobs walking out in all black to share the latest iPhone model with the goal of motivating you to run out to the Apple store and buy it.
· Some events exist to recognize and reward achievement and identify people that have done well in the past year. Think about the annual sales kickoff.
· And last but not least are events that are designed for people to network and connect.
The entire event or elements of the event that are heavily weighted to being informational and educational often do the best in a virtual environment. Events or certain elements heavily weighted to recognition, rewarding achievement or networking and connecting often do best in a live environment. When you construct an event that will have elements of both, then take those elements that are informational and educational and consider heavier delivery over the virtual platform with the networking and connection opportunities to be more heavily designed to be delivered in the event hall.
#2. Consider what needs to happen in a short, compressed timeframe and what should be extended over longer periods of time.
It’s obvious that live events must compress the most meaningful elements into a very short period of time. However, having a digital platform allows the event planner to take other elements and shift them to the virtual world to extend the time attendees engage with the content, the event, or the sponsors. As an example, some sessions can pop up in the weeks before the event. The exhibit hall can stay open when the live attendees are on their flights home. And content that is recorded and preserved can live on long after the doors have closed.
#3. The budget strategy for a hybrid event needs to shift to accommodate higher costs, but higher revenue opportunities.
Hybrid events will cost more because you have to plan for two different arenas. You have to plan for the venue, travel and other traditional live event costs, but then add to that the virtual platform, more event resources to setup the environment and likely some production costs to make sure the elements you deliver over the digital environment are high quality and engaging.
But just because the cost is higher doesn’t mean that the revenue has to be the same. We’ve learned from the past year that virtual events attract larger audiences that would be very unlikely to participate in the live event. Think about the citizens from those countries that aren’t as far along with their vaccine strategy as we are in the United States and the potential revenue they produce from registration fees. What about those exhibitors whose budgets to travel were cut, but who could purchase a virtual booth? The budget planning process needs to take into account higher planning and setup costs but should have a strategy to offset the higher costs with ways to increase revenue from the virtual audience and exhibitors.
Events will look much different on the other side of this crisis and will be characterized by catering to an audience that has expanded, whose desire to connect has taken on additional pathways, and whose fears of large places and crowds are in the front or in the back of their mind. Event planners need to determine those elements of their event designed to inform, educate, motivate, recognize and provide connections and determine which of those elements are best in a live environment, a virtual environment or both.
We need to expand our concept of time, recognize that we now have extended timeframes to engage our audiences from our digital platform and more people willing to come earlier and stay longer. We need to be smarter about budgeting and understand that a having both a live and digital environment will inevitably be more expensive but has the potential to deliver greater revenue from a larger audience and produce analytics that make the investment worth it.
The next time you watch a football, baseball or basketball game on TV, and see people in the stands, you are in the middle of a hybrid event. It’s the same game, just delivered in different ways to different audiences. Now we just need to change our game, embrace hybrid and be smart about how we let our audiences attend the same event, but experience it in different ways.