Events are undergoing a paradigm shift amidst the pandemic. Even as countries ease up on lockdowns and quarantines, the fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 has placed event organizers in a tight bind — forcing them to either operate far under capacity to ensure the safety of their participants, or to even take their events (some planned months in advance) entirely online. In this new world where going virtual is not simply an option but a necessity, almost every gathering has a digital iteration: from birthday parties to yoga classes, to global conferences and tradeshows.
But, will these changes last beyond the pandemic? It’s true that traditional, physical events won’t be going away forever. There are things unique to meeting others face-to-face that virtual alternatives cannot capture yet. However, this mass adoption of digital events has made more people, be it event owners, stakeholders or event participants themselves, more aware of the versatility that digital events bring to the table. To unleash the full value of events, event owners of the future must leverage the now tried-and-tested digital tools in the new “traditional” events of the future — blending the boundary-breaking potential of digital events with the serendipity of analogue meetings. The future of events will be hybrid.
What does this hybrid future hold?
Blending best of both worlds
Maximising the potential of hybrid events means event owners need to transform the way they look at the digital components of their events. Digital components can no longer be viewed as an afterthought or optional “add-on” the way they had often been implemented before, but a key part of the events, with participants joining digitally being just as important as their in-person counterparts. Bolstering an event’s digital platform will facilitate almost-seamless interactions between the physical audience and the digital attendees, enabling real-time interaction between all participants logging into the same centralised platform throughout the event. Shared chat rooms and Q&A sessions ensure that everyone gets to share their thoughts and bounce ideas off others — networking is no longer limited to people on-site.
Moving towards hybrid events will give more people opportunities to participate, and not just the audience: We will see a blend of speakers as well, with some conducting their conversations in-person, and others doing so remotely. This will make events richer and more diverse, as speakers who may not have had the means to travel long distances to costly events are given the option to join in discussions virtually, connecting them with a wider network of people. And, with advances in interpretation and translation technology, language barriers will become less of an issue, allowing participants to connect beyond not just geographical, but linguistic boundaries. Hybrid events might be the secret ingredient to unlocking a borderless flow of ideas.
With participants from all over the world joining in, accommodating all timezones will become crucial: Events need to be available around-the-clock during their duration — something always needs to be happening. However, that doesn’t mean that everything has to be live. Similar to how events will blend physical and digital components, they will also blend live and pre-recorded segments in 24h digital booths, ensuring that everyone, no matter where they are, gets to participate.
Most importantly, to make it worth the participants’ time, hybrid events must add value to the event experience. As stated previously, the digital half of the event is not an add-on. It's not enough to set a camera in front of a podium or a stage and call it a day. Both digital and in-person attendees should have a high-value experience: The future will see digital streams of live events have the production quality of TV shows. Think of talk shows like the Ellen Show, or even web shows like TED Talks, with a smaller, live attendance in a built-in studio, and a massive audience watching online — and both audiences equally as engaged.
The changing landscape of events: Implications and opportunities
As we move into the future, the transition towards hybrid events will mean that events will have a new list of must-haves for smooth operation.
Safe events: The pandemic has given rise to new safety standards and regulations, usually set by governments in collaboration with the industry. To keep their attendees safe, event organisers need to implement them accordingly for in-person events. With the appropriate technology, organizers will be able to track crowd density to prevent overcrowding and ensure safe-distancing between eventgoers. Furthermore, they can implement an additional layer of safety via touchless technology — minimizing contact at areas such as check-in points, or even while exchanging name cards or information brochures.
Free and reliable wi-fi: Where access to the event’s digital platform will become the crux of many interactions during the event, it is crucial for every attendee to have access to the Internet at every location within the event venue. And, equally important is ensuring that the organiser has access to a separate, stable and steady wi-fi connection, to minimise disruptions to the digital stream.
Instantly-available recordings: Previously, it may not have been odd for event owners to take three or four weeks to make recordings of events available — but with the digital audience becoming just as important, it is no longer feasible to prioritise only physical attendees. Recordings should be made available immediately on-demand, though not necessarily for free.
Likewise, the increased implementation of digital components will give rise to new opportunities.
The ability to capture data on end-to-end journeys: Without the right tools, capturing the end-to-end journeys of in-person event participants has traditionally been difficult, done only during registration periods and check-ins or maybe only post-event, with little opportunity to do so during the event itself. Now, participants can check in at every stage of the event with little effort on their part. This information can then be used to estimate crowd density (as discussed above) and even to engineer serendipity — ensuring that the right people meet, and to match people to sessions they would be most interested in.
New types of venues: With smaller crowds, event organizers can look into smaller venues — with built-in studios that are plug-and-play, to facilitate easy delivery of the event contents to their digital audience. An example of a venue like this would be Marina Bay Sands’ new hybrid event broadcast studio, that houses a small audience, but has powerful broadcasting capabilities.
New, emerging technologies: Virtual reality, holograms and even robots that allow remote participants to “move” around a physical event venue — these may seem like gimmicks for now, but hybrid events will give these technologies a place for experimental and even practical implementation. Given enough fine-tuning, we could see them become mainstream.
A way for the industry to go green: From wasted food at buffets, to the en-masse disposal of unwanted brochures and name cards, events have generated a lot of waste. Hybrid events might become a way for the industry to reduce this waste and go green. Less attendees means less trash, and virtual name cards won’t need physical disposal at all.
The rise of the digital event manager: Coordinating all these many moving parts are the digital event managers, Hybrid events will require a new hybrid skill set: digital event managers combine technical and technological expertise with their event management experience, to create engaging experiences for event attendees both physical and digital.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of digital transformation within the events industry — but change was happening since before the pandemic started, and will continue to evolve in response to global trends and technological developments even after the pandemic. To succeed, everyone must adapt: by staying abreast of the latest developments, understanding what has worked so far, and carefully combining them both. Hybrid events are a new, exciting territory for everyone involved, with a wealth of opportunities left to explore.