Creating Events in a Virtual and Hybrid World

By Ben Taylor, CEO, APAC at George P. Johnson

“Unprecedented”, “the new normal”, “we’re pivoting to virtual”, “you’re on mute”, “…This event will start in 3 hours 45 minutes” — these are just a few of the common phrases we have become accustomed to over the last year in the virtual event world.

Virtual events are not new, but traditionally they have been a secondary execution to a live event, which is typically no more than a video stream. Thankfully, fast-tracked technological and creative innovations have developed in record time over the last year to ensure our virtual experiences are altogether more bearable.

But, will virtual events last post pandemic?

They were given an opportunity during the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 when travel bans were imposed by corporations, but they did not really last then. So why will they post COVID?

To answer this question, I shall take you on a journey from when the pandemic first hit early 2020 and Virtual 1.0 kicked in, how things moved fast into the Virtual 2.0 era, which arguably is where we still are now and what the expectations are for events of the future (which many are referring to as the Hybrid future).

Virtual 1.0

The early days of 2020 saw quick fix virtual solutions that soon led to phases such as Zoom-fatigue. Some critical learnings were made.

  1. Don’t try and emulate a conference or convention centre space with guests navigating through the space as they would in a live event but with their mouse. At least don’t do that unless you have the budget to create something like Fortnight or a similar serious 3D world.
  2. Don’t think having the CEO presenting a keynote in his home office with dusty bookshelves as a backdrop is acceptable. It is not. Home film kits may have improved this slightly but the novelty of seeing an executive in their home-comfy wear and whose children intermittently appear stage left has definitely worn off.
  3. Don’t run the agenda as a mirror of a live event. Sitting in front of your laptop screen for a full day agenda would not the experience anyone yearns for.
  4. Don’t make the mistake of trying to get lots of speakers to join at once akin to on-line webinars. These “gatherings” are not “events”; they are designed for participatory video meetings — not for watching.

Virtual 2.0

I think it is a testament to the people working in the event industry just how quickly virtual events have evolved and improved. In technology terms we have probably leapt several years ahead, which has been a welcome benefit in an otherwise horrible period.

Whilst double-unicorn status was achieved from start-up virtual platforms such as Hopin in a matter of months (valued around US$5.65billion reported in March 2021). It has been the ingenuity and creativity of event producers that have defined Virtual 2.0.

For example, you may think this picture captured me sitting in my swanky Hong Kong office overlooking Victoria Harbour — but you’d be wrong — I was instead sitting in a box on the other side of the Island.

And then we have also developed ways of bringing people together “in the flesh”.

Yet it is not just technology that has evolved to deliver; we have learnt very quickly re-training ourselves to operate more like film producers and content creators. Strategically we have developed a framework to keep our virtual event solutions on track — we call it the “4 P’s”: People, Presentation, Participation and Performance.

a. People

It is important to remember that we are in the business of creating experiences and experiences are built around people!

We therefore need to understand and get under the skin of the audience — what they like and dislike, to which they will respond well and what will irritate or distract them. Being able to provide the right content to people who are stuck at home with their families is a make-or-break for an effective virtual event.

Instead of three days of non-stop content, think of creating the experience around the needs of the audience: Shorten the content in just an hour or two per day and space it out to allow people to do other things. We can also use other forms of technology — for example, using audio only to allow participants to engage away from their computers or trading computer screens for home TV’s to make the experience more relaxed and akin to their home environment. Another recommendation is to produce on-demand content, which has proven to be easier to consume rather than forcing participants to follow a strict event agenda as they would at a live event.

b. Presentation

We have always heard that “content is king” and that couldn’t be truer for virtual events.

Whilst many brands were perhaps a little flat footed to begin with, Virtual 2.0 has seen corporate virtual events become “shows” more akin to television than event. Excellence in broadcast has shone through: Camera angles and the use of tracking cameras, extended reality stages or sets built for broadcast, even the inclusion of entertainment pieces as a draw and shackle — many of our clients have engaged headline acts as diverse as Elton John, Sting, Lenny Kravitz, Metallica and the Foo Fighters.

We can also pull people together into a virtual studio, whilst they are miles apart — have a look at this clip and see if you can tell who is in the studio and who is remote!


c. Participation

A good virtual experience will have what we call “Lean Back” as well as “Lean Forward” experiences — watch or participate.

The “off-the-shelf” platforms may have standardized “interactive” tools set within them — such as chat, voting/polling etc” but these are still very underdeveloped. This is definitely the weakest part of the platforms out there right now but we are hopeful this will start to change wholesale. This will be imperative if virtual platforms are to survive in the forthcoming “hybrid era”.

Imagine the opportunity the mobile phone offers — a second screen for interacting with the content you may be otherwise watching on your computer screen (or on stage from the audience sometime in the future). Being able to overlay Artificial Reality (AR) content, being able to buy as you see (from a connected e-commerce site), being able to take “deeper-dives” into topics being discussed or read speaker bios as they are speaking — the opportunities are endless. But we are NOT there yet — the virtual platforms need to step up.

d. Performance

Physical analytics have always been hard to do, but with Virtual and Hybrid events, we now have the tools and datasets available to measure the effectiveness of our work.

We expect participants will be demanding for data enhanced experiences — meaning personalized, needs-centric and informed agendas, and experiences based on their personal preferences and profiles, much in the same way we have become accustomed to on the web.

We also expect that event owners and brands will demand better data insights and analytics. The opportunity to drive better sales and better event results by adjusting the experiences to the data-informed needs of participants is an opportunity too good to miss.

I, however, have a word of warning though: Remember that the event (regardless of medium) needs to be about the experience and not about data, and the experience needs to be defined and driven by the needs of the “People” not the “Performance”. Experience First and Data Second —  that’s a happy consequence.

To achieve all this, agencies need to make step changes and upskill. We need to stay focused on being creatively lead, but with ‘data armbands’.

Hybrid Events

How Virtual events will lead to Hybrid events will depend on the following factors, which, in fact, are now becoming reality.

  1. The ability of virtual technologies to reach far wider audiences than live events ever have
  2. The ability of virtual technologies to collect actionable data and properly measure the effectiveness of events
  3. The need to protect the environment for there will be increased pressures on corporations to avoid unnecessary business travel, which subsequently means that demand for remote participation will be increased

The development of interactive technologies bridging the experience between “watching the stage” or “watching the screen” are and will continue to be developed — and here lies the holy grail. Why would you fly thousands of miles to an event if you could enjoy a very similar experience from the comfort of your own home or office?

In markets that have the pandemic under control, governments are quick to reopen the events and travel sector in support of the economy. However brands remain cautious — nobody wants to be remembered as the brand that held the first super-spreader event.

In places like China, we are seeing live events returning — albeit with smaller capacities — and some but not all would be classed as “Hybrid”.

Time will tell of course but my belief is that live events will return as the principle medium, but it is very likely that many will become Hybrid — LIVE & VIRTUAL for all the reasons mentioned.

“Why do we need live events?” you may question. Well, we are human after all and humans are inherently social animals. That is until technology replaces us all with fully sensual avatars and we live a world akin to the Matrix movie franchise — but, I would argue that it is a science-fiction future beyond Hybrid. For now, let’s get Hybrid right first of all.

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