A pre-COVID report by The Business Visits and Events Partnership gives some indication of the importance of the UK’s events industry. It sets its value at around £70bn, with business events contributing over £31bn, leisure events a further £39bn, and 700,000 people employed across the sector.
In the 1990s the internet had a massive impact on the events sector, revolutionising the way events were marketed, increasing reach and attendance levels, whilst reducing costs. Since then the sector has continued to evolve, drawing on new event technologies such as mobile apps, QR codes and e-ticketing to boost promotion and streamline event delivery.
However, COVID-19 has forced a more rapid adoption of digital technologies than could ever have been foreseen, with event companies put under extreme pressure to shift to virtual event hosting. We have witnessed how the sector has faced these challenges head on, adapting rapidly to a virtual, value-added solution as in-person events disappeared overnight.
As we tentatively return to physical meetings, let’s consider how the sector might now continue to evolve and realise the benefits of a hybrid model.
The rise of virtual events
In the context of COVID-19, virtual events were seen as a temporary fix to an immediate problem. Little did we know that going virtual would present new opportunities for a hybrid approach that could change events as we know them for the better.
The events sector is in many ways thriving, from online conferences to virtual raves and everything in between. We have witnessed businesses rolling out live streams of product demonstrations, virtual roundtables, international conferences and interactive Q&As. Virtual events have set new standards for content delivery, communications and collaborative working.
Admittedly, this hasn’t been without significant pain for organisers who have been forced to pivot their strategies beyond many other sectors due to COVID-19. In place of face-to-face interaction and personal connections, virtual events organisers have switched focus to maximise reach and depth of engagement, creating platforms for information and knowledge sharing across wide and diverse audiences.
What have we gained from the move to virtual?
Although initially, it was hard to consider how we would cope without in-person events, the industry is now embracing the many benefits of virtual hosting.
Virtual events, despite initial investment in hosting technologies, have dramatically cut costs incurred from venue hire, accommodation, travel and catering. Cost savings benefit both hosting companies and attendees, who also save days out of their schedule by avoiding travel to physical venues.
Virtual events can be attended from anywhere, on any device, with few geographical constraints, dramatically increasing reach and providing simultaneous engagement with vast audiences. As a result, virtual events are much kinder to the environment, reducing travel emissions as well as replacing physical materials with virtual assets that can easily be reused and repurposed.
Sponsors also benefit from increased exposure with higher numbers of individuals attending virtually than would be possible with physical-only events.
For attendees, virtual events provide greater convenience and increased flexibility. Pausing a video stream and not missing a minute of the action while you step out of the room is a major benefit. Audiences can participate at their own convenience, wherever they are, and get maximum value from attendance by revisiting online content and recorded sessions.
Measuring event ROI (Return on Investment) can be tricky at the best of times but particularly if reliant on post-event surveys and questionnaires. With online events, you are not just able to quantify the number of attendees or popularity of each session, you can measure levels of engagement and interactivity and draw detailed insight into audience interests throughout. Not only does this allow you to the measure the success of each event and benchmark your events across a programme, it provides valuable intelligence to feed your future event strategy.
The value of in-person events – what have we missed?
Virtual events are not without their challenges. Event delivery requires technical expertise and a small technical hitch or connectivity issue can have a massive impact. Combatting virtual fatigue and sustaining audience engagement is also a significant challenge.
Some things just cannot be mimicked in an online environment. The atmosphere of a room buzzing with peers or professionals, the human connection of a networking event, open discussions in a room of like-minded people and shared reactions to a light-hearted joke are what makes in person events so valuable.
Whilst the world begins to open up and vaccines give us hope of a return to face-to-face, it may still be some time before we turn the clock back to large scale physical events the likes of which we saw pre-COVID-19. This perhaps explains why 62% of events organisers believe a hybrid model is the way forward, allowing us to rediscover the joy of face-to-face interaction whilst retaining the convenience, reach, cost savings and other benefits gained in the virtual world.
What can we expect from the hybrid event model?
A hybrid approach may seem like the best of all worlds but it again challenges event organisers with a whole new way of working. It isn’t as simple as running a virtual and physical event simultaneously. A good experience will require the seamless deployment of technology and close integration across both platforms.
Whilst there are massive benefits to be gained both by organisers and attendees who will enjoy even greater choice and flexibility, the complexity of the hybrid model makes smooth delivery far from trivial. Whether accommodating the needs of sponsors and exhibitors in terms of exposure and demand generation, measuring overall ROI from both environments, or facilitating an interactive experience for the audience which works on both platforms, there are additional layers of complexity at every stage.
New technology platforms are reaching the market at pace to facilitate delivery and help measure the value of the hybrid event experience and, no doubt, these will become more and more sophisticated. It make take some time for organisers to refine and perfect a hybrid approach but those able to harness this technology and successfully bridge the gaps between virtual and live events will certainly reap the rewards.
As specialist event telemarketers, we’ve worked with hundreds of organisations to drive attendance and secure maximum ROI from their event programmes. Whether in-person, virtual, or hybrid, working standalone or alongside digital programmes, we offer a full range of services to help you realise your event’s full potential.
If you’d like to discuss how our expert telemarketing services can add value to your event marketing strategy, get in touch.