The future of events is not in-person or virtual; it’s a combination of the two

Tobias Raper, CEO of Babl APAC, looks at what 2020 may have meant for events in 2021 and beyond.

2020 and the impacts of COVID-19 brought about huge challenges and ultimately changes to the events industry. At the start of the pandemic I was working at a company that ran large events for business owners across Australia and in March, at an event in Brisbane, I distinctly remember thinking how strange it was that I was ordering 50 bottles of hand sanitiser. The following week I was calling up conference venues asking them to refund the tens of thousands of dollars we had paid them.

Fast forward six weeks and I joined Babl, a global video conferencing and virtual events technology company being inundated with requests to use our technology globally. We have run virtual Christmas parties, education events, corporate client entertainment events, member association networking and AGMs.

As we move into a post-lockdown scenario, I have heard people make bold statements saying that the industry will move back or stay where it is, but in truth it will be neither. People have been exposed to a new way to consume events and some loved it. Others get a thrill ‘from being there’ and experiencing it in person. The matter of the fact is that events are a consumer driven product, and event organisers must abide by the demand. As such the ideal solution is a hybrid one and this is a practical scenario, not just a theory.

In the past people would have cringed and scorned at the thought of attending a large industry conference from the comfort of their own home, in an ergonomic chair, access to a private bathroom and without endless travel. Frankly, after attending a number of virtual events myself, the thought of taking what is likely to be a long uncomfortable journey to arrive at a crowded dull space, with over-zealous temperature settings, chairs that were likely made in the eighties and endless queues to use the small number of restrooms is not appealing. Lisa Goodhand, director of Wildman Fishing Tours talks about the opportunity for tourism and trade: “For the past five years, I have attended numerous tourism trade shows both domestically, and internationally. Personally, I now prefer attending online because it means avoiding the long queues, travel times and crowds. I’ve enjoyed the ease of access, the ability to still network and a way to keep me engaged throughout.”

There are mutual cost benefits for both organisers and attendees. From an organiser perspective, larger conference venues are astronomical in cost compared to smaller ones and they save on the human capital in running large in person events. From an attendee perspective no travel costs, hotel expenditure or overpriced food and drink. “We hosted an online Christmas gala event,” says Alison Airey, CEO Australia China Business Council NSW Branch. “Guests were excited about being able to jump from virtual table-to-table and connect with a range of people throughout the night.”

Perhaps the biggest upside to the hybrid solution is that you substantially increase your potential audience through the virtual element. Having a virtual element opens doors to those who would otherwise be unable to attend in person for geographical, financial or mobility reasons. All of a sudden your audience isn’t just in Australia or needs to travel to Australia, it’s truly a global one. As a recent study entitled “Future of the ‘In-Person’ Business Economy” found 71% of marketers expect virtual events to continue beyond 2020 and thus will be making such plans with their budgets.

The planning of a fully virtual or hybrid event is still critical to the success of the event. Decision makers and organisers need to invest time and resources in the right way. They must ensure they choose the right technology from a consultative and flexible provider who will assist in the setup, training and delivery of the virtual elements. In large scale environments and complex delivery setups, like live events, off-the-shelf DIY technologies are not worth the risk. Neither is one that disrupts brand connection at the event. A seamless virtual and physical experience is as important as the continuation of brand exposure and recognition of your brand, not that of your technology provider!

Ultimately, a hybrid approach in this “new normal” is a no-brainer. You appeal to all preferences, broaden your target market, there are financial benefits to all and it heightens the experience. The conversation is rightfully now focused on how to deliver the best hybrid event and what the best practices will be.

No matter what the future holds, event organisers definitely need to ensure that their virtual events allow their brand to shine and prosper.

I for one will not miss three day conferences away from the family sleeping in a moderately priced hotel.


Tobias Raper is the CEO of Babl APAC.


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