“I’m devastated,” says Mike Walker, CEO of MGN Events.
The company went from generating millions of pounds to almost zero in a matter of weeks, due to blockages.
“Over 10 years of hard work building the company out of thin air, reinvesting each year for growth, cruelly carried away in a matter of weeks, with no clarity as to when the industry can recover,” says Walker.
Thousands of others in the event industry will face the same uncertainty. The pandemic has completely destroyed a huge sector and many companies are struggling to survive. According to a 2018 report, corporate events alone represent an industry of $ 1.5 trillion (£ 1.2 tn) globally.
This is without considering the huge number of consumer events, exhibitions, experiences and weddings.
All these events are based on people who come in person, and this is not currently possible with some closed or reduced capacity locations and travel restrictions in place – not to mention the various other safety precautions required at the venue itself.
“Even if you organize an event in a bigger place, if you have delegates who fly to the hotel and stay in the hotel, and one person tests positive for Covid-19, then you will receive a call from the hotel telling you that ‘we will have to give the venue deep cleansing and closing it, “says Steve Parrott, co-founder of Alternative Events.
This type of scenario is the reason why companies are forced to consider technology as an alternative, with virtual events becoming the norm for the whole block.
Most companies have turned to a technology that has become familiar to many people: Zoom’s video conferencing software or MS Teams.
However, these technologies were in circulation before the pandemic and, although they offer an alternative, they do not provide the same level of involvement as physical events.
“Most virtual conference platforms are built by third-party vendors who don’t organize events,” says Paddy Cosgrave, co-founder of the Web Summit, one of the largest technology conferences in the world.
Since videoconferencing tools were created for the mass market rather than for specific sectors, event organizers and sponsors are looking for an alternative.
One option, taken up by The Moodie Davitt Report and the marketing and design company FILTR, was to bring together existing products into a single system.
“We looked at existing software in the industry and didn’t think any of it would be enough to attract the brands we needed to attract,” says Martin Moodie, founder of The Moodie Davitt Report, a publication focused on retail travel.
Using existing software, he creates a virtual version of a physical event, allowing people to walk around and view the different stands and communicate with brands by talking to people in a chat format, all from their laptop.
The company integrates it with web conferencing capabilities and meeting planning software.
But for some of the larger conferences, the integration of these products isn’t necessarily enough either. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which welcomes 170,000 delegates to Las Vegas each year, will continue with its 2021 event in January.
Jean Foster, senior vice president of marketing and communications at the Consumer Trade Association, which manages the event, says the organization is creating its own digital platform for CES as it expects that turnout will be lower due to the virus and is therefore moving to a hybrid offering.
“We are working on what that platform will look like … there is nothing extraordinary about the scale and capabilities we need,” says Foster.
Web Summit also created a platform from scratch. Cosgrave says that for most corporate events, the network is the primary reason people participate. It is also critical to the success of an event, as sponsors can communicate directly with their target audience.
Cosgrave’s team had already worked on trying to design serendipity in the physical event of the Web Summit, putting people next to other people who may have mutual interests. Now that the event, which will be held in Lisbon in December, will be at least partially online, his team has worked to allow this serendipity to flow even in an online environment.
The company takes the information, with consent, from the social media and phone books of the delegates to create an algorithm that matches people with other people they would probably find interesting or to talk to.
“Delegates will see the people they recommend, while other people will see them in a very personalized way,” he says.
“On the platform, they can make individual video calls to each other, they can make group calls to each other, or they can start a group video chat and invite people or participate in questions and answers with the speakers, for example.”
Some tech companies see a gap in the market to allow attendees to have more control during an event.
Box Bear Digital provides virtual reality headsets (VR) to customers who can then distribute them among delegates. Headphones must be returned at the end of the conference.
During the VR conference, participants are represented by their avatars in real life. Users can take notes on slides, get some quotes transcribed and sent to e-mails, zoom in, change their point of view and interact with virtual elements.
“The fundamental difference is to be completely immersed and involved, there is no escape as soon as you put on the headphones,” says Graham Addison, global marketing director of the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, who has tested the technology.
The added value provided to organizers, according to Box Bear Digital, is that they have a better idea of what the audience is doing, as technology can track whether the person is shaking their heads or raising their hands to ask a question.
Typically, event organizers don’t tolerate getting the same amount of revenue in a virtual alternative. However, there are numerous advantages to holding virtual events.
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Virtual events are much cheaper to manage and at a time when companies are more aware of the environment, they offer a sustainable alternative to flying people from all over the world. In addition, they offer organizers the opportunity to attract viewers from around the world, in different time zones, to tune in and potentially attract even better speakers for the event, since they don’t need to travel.
There is also more room for measuring results.
“We can constantly tell those people attending the event how many people were involved, how many visitors they had, how many people downloaded their content – it can’t be measured the same way for a physical event,” says Walker.
Despite this, many event organizers can view the use of these virtual events only as a gap gap or as part of a global hybrid event in the future. Perhaps that is why the likes of Microsoft and Zoom have not moved quickly to provide new features for their platforms.
“Four months after the blockade, why is there nothing new on the market? Maybe digital [events] it is not worth investing because even if they are part of the mix, they will not be the main part of the event, because people think that we will soon return to normal, “says Parrott.