Anyone expecting 2021 to offer an immediate improvement on the final quarter of 2020 may have been surprised to find the New Year is starting out just as changeable as the last.
One big difference is at least we have some idea of what to expect when it comes to the economic, corporate and social turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — and how it might affect us.
In the events industry, some organisations — among the most high-profile being sporting bodies and theatre-based entertainment productions — will rely on smaller, physically distanced, in-person audiences attending live events.
Others — such as the massive Consumer Electronics Show usually held in Las Vegas every year — have taken a completely virtual approach.
However, a key trend this year is expected to be the broad adoption of a hybrid event strategy designed to allow organisations to cater for smaller, in-person events, when circumstances allow, along with a virtual version of the event that caters to growing remote audiences.
If we learned anything in 2020, it’s that elements over which we have no control can change very quickly; interstate borders go up and come down, geographic regions are locked down and reopen, and personal mindsets and remote work habits alter accordingly.
That means that organisations that were hoping for a return to normality in 2021 are having to contend with the realisation that physical events will be constrained for the foreseeable future.
If you’re looking to take the risk out of your event strategy in 2021, you’ll be best served not by taking your existing events online — but by planning engaging hybrid events in which virtual experiences run concurrently with your physical events in formats that can prosper without big in-person audiences.
Here are some things to consider.
1. Safety first
No organisation wants their event to be a ‘super-spreader’ occasion. Smaller audiences, physical distancing, contactless registration, mask-wearing, seated mealtimes, COVID-19 marshalls, improved ventilation and hygiene measures, and even on-site temperature checks should all be under consideration.
2. Design your content formats for live and virtual consumption
Choose a mix of live-streamed keynotes and panels, intimate Q&A interviews with live interaction that works both for in-person and remote audiences, and downloadable presentations. Experiment with new formats, such as offering an audio-only event podcast. Host some sessions in a studio with the green-screen background of your choice. Film pre-recorded video. Consider shorter sessions that run over more days. Don’t simply translate your physical event to the virtual space.
3. Charge for virtual attendance
Relatively few virtual events are big revenue-generators, but online events are not the cannibalizers of physical events that people think. Many organisations with highly desirable content are generating seven-figure amounts for virtual content alongside physical ticket sales: for example, the Professional Conference Management Association live-streams its annual conference, adding 1800 new association members over 8 years and creating a million-dollar revenue stream for online attendance.
Consider charging a lower price for online-only ticket sales (while targeting more attendees), bundle memberships and subscriptions to multiple events to maximise revenue, offer limited access events for top-tier ticket holders, and create an online community that extends (and adds value) beyond the event itself.
4. Invest in experienced virtual presenters and training
It’s no longer enough for presenters and moderators to be experienced at addressing live crowds: your speakers must also be trained in how to use remote technology (if they’re presenting from home) as well as how to engage a virtual audience. This might include calling for remote attendees to pose questions and contrasting responses to polls from in-person and remote audiences.
Using an experienced facilitator to moderate your event can further de-risk your events, ensuring your events stay on track while allowing your speakers to focus on delivering great content. Ask your event delivery partner about the training and facilitation support they offer.
5. Ensure you have the right technical, production and marketing support
Physical events can be demanding to organise; similarly, virtual events require significant resources as well as production and technical support. Ensure you have broadband redundancy, technical support for in-person, remote speakers and attendees, an experienced AV production team and contingency planning in the event of connectivity issues. If your team is small, consider a provider that offers fully managed events, including marketing support, which can be crucial for attracting the bigger online audiences that will make your hybrid events profitable.
It’s not unusual for virtual events to attract four times the number of attendees of in-person events. With the right mix of virtual and physical content, training and support, you’ll be well-placed to minimise risk and maximise the return on your 2021 events program.