Events of the future will be hybrid and “always on”
In-person will return, but the virtual genie can't be put back in the bottle
“Reinventing Live,” the new book by Denzil Rankine and Marco Giberti from Anthem Press is a comprehensive analysis of the past, present and future of events. But it’s really the future marketers are focused on right now, whether as event organizers of attendees.
Most marketers expect live events to return next year. But does that mean saying goodbye to the virtual environments rapidly constructed in 2020, and will brands be as willing as ever to pay the cost of live event attendance — including the carbon footprint of business travel?
We dug deeper into these questions in conversation with one of the book’s authors, Denzil Rankine, founder and Executive Chairman of AMR International, a strategic consultancy for the events industry.
We’re going back to in-person, right?
“We’re going to have a mix,” he said. “We’re going to find that some versions of events are working very well online; businesses are having an impact, making money, and so on. And certain models — for example, one-to-one meetings work that way.”
Some in-person events will certainly return, but there will be fewer of them, and attendance is likely to be reduced. “We’re going to find that some of the digital only events are going to continue, and then of course anything face-to-face will need to be supported by digital tools. It’s clear how it’s going to pan out — it is to me, anyway.”
This doesn’t mean that some events organizers aren’t looking to abandon digital. “I think a lot of people will try to,” he said, “because they’ll just say, ‘oh, that was a nightmare.’ Some people only like to read newspapers on paper; they’ve got ink in their blood. And you’ve got that in the events industry too.”
The return of events will be a mix. “In a few years time,” said Rankine, “we won’t even be talking about virtual or hybrid. We’ll just be talking about events; it’s a given that you’ve got all these digital extensions.”
The cost of in-person events
There may be obstacles to holding successful virtual events which are independent of organizers and attendees. In addition to the negative environmental impact associated with unnecessary air travel, the people at brands who hold the purse-strings — and perhaps don’t attend events themselves — will be highly conscious that businesses continued to function last year without the need to expense flights and hotel stays.
“The same with offices,” said Rankine. “Let’s never go back to an office. It’s going to be the same answer. People are going to go back to offices, but they’ll be smaller, time spent in the office will go down, and people will do more home working. Of course bean-counters will get in the way, and of course some people will continue to get on airplanes because that’s what they like doing — you’ll see all the extremes.
An always-on event strategy
One thing brands worked hard at before the pandemic, often with little success, was sustaining and engaging with the community of attendees year round, in the months between big live shows. Rankine thinks getting this right will be critical in the future.
“365 is ambitious and tricky,” he conceded. Where there’s a 365-day workflow, however, it may become a realistic goal. “Where you just come at it from ‘we just had the annual celebration, let’s do something else, let’s stay in touch’ — that’s tougher. And part of the reason is that the people organizing it are event people, and they’re not thinking with the right tools.”
Digital platforms can be leveraged to create a seamless extension from events, with engaged communities. It’s also worth considering partnering with business media already reaching the right audiences. “Take baby steps. Don’t think you can get there overnight.”
The limits of virtual networking
One thing which has become apparent to event organizers and attendees under the pandemic is that although many people say they value networking opportunities, virtual networking turns out to be not very satisfying.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Rankine, “but never say never with software. I can’t think of any platform that’s perfect for networking. One-to-one does seem to work, but organizing that at scale doesn’t work. Walking around a bar and saying, ‘oh, you should meet so-and-so,’ we’re a long way from that.”
The meaning of hybrid
Hybrid events can mean anything from a global live-stream of an in-person event, to an in-person event with certain digital assets or an event app associated with it. How does Rankine view hybrid? “I think we simply say it’s live plus a digital extension,” he said.
A full-scale live-stream of an in-person event seems daunting, like producing two events at once. “I think it’s the future. A lot of venues are creating studios. We would advise hotels to have (audio-video) facilities available.”
It’s time to jettison old-school events thinking, he said. “Wake up one day, get out of the other side of the bed, get a completely clean sheet of paper and say, ‘how are we going to do this differently?’ and pretend you’re Craig Fuller of Freightwaves” (a highly profitable disruptor in the logistics and transportation space).
“Think about the customers. Don’t just think about the budget and the organizing. You need to come at it differently.”