Five months ago, the World Health Organisation suggested a ban on mass gatherings to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Gatherings were no longer allowed to take place at our favourite venues. Event organisers cancelled or postponed trade shows at rapid rates. And the event industry was left in the dark about the whole thing.
As the first industry to shut and little clarity about when we would be back up and running we had no choice. The events industry went virtual aiming to offer value to exhibitors and attendees who were missing the buzz.
I’m proud to say that I belong to an industry like this. We didn’t just sit back and take it. We rose to our feet, accepted the challenge and got on with our jobs. Virtual events have been centre stage throughout the lockdown. And I’ll be the first to share my admiration and utter awe for everyone that has made them happen.
Virtual events aren’t new. People have been experimenting with a digital concept for a long time but it was never felt that these events could offer as much value to exhibitors or delegates. During the lockdown, these online events have been invaluable. They’ve attracted thousands of visitors from all over the world. They’ve given businesses who were left in the dark about their trade show marketing an outlet. And they’ve offered a few benefits that none of us saw coming.
Firstly, virtual events cost much less. Business owners don’t have to fork out for travel, accommodation, furniture rental or that stupid square of carpet. Event organisers aren’t charged to hire a venue. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
Secondly, exhibitors get access to a larger audience. People can visit a virtual event from wherever they are in the world, at whatever time they are available. Online platforms offer keynotes on-demand rather than sticking to a timetable. And, virtual events give you access to tons of valuable data which simply isn’t possible when looking at physical events.
That being said, the internet isn’t real life, is it? Think about what it is that makes you love live events. Of course, trade shows are a fantastic place to generate leads but you can do this online.
What you can’t do online is build relationships. You can’t read facial expressions and qualify leads based on gut instinct. You can’t have a mosey around the hall to keep an eye on your competitors. And you can’t schmooze that client into signing their contract over dinner. Business happens in person.
Finally, we have a restart date. Business events can take place from October 1st. Venues are ready to open their doors and organisers have put their heads down to get on with planning.
Of course, to be able to go ahead safely, events will have to follow certain health and safety regulations. This includes social distancing guidelines such as the 1m+ rule in the UK. Overall, these regulations will make for a very different trade show floor in the future.
Experts predict one way systems, capped visitor numbers and temperature scanners for the return of physical events. Travel bans are still in place in some countries which will make international events difficult to run effectively.
The other thing that the event industry is dealing with is consumer confidence. People don’t feel safe in crowded places and it will take time to rebuild this trust. These factors have event organisers thinking.
People are desperate to get back together and start connecting at business events again. But will these events still offer value? With fewer people and more rules can event organisers make the same promises they made last year? Or even the same promises they made with their virtual events?
Now we launch hybrid events.
Hybrid events are supposed to bridge the gap between virtual events and the predictions of future physical events we mentioned earlier. Organisers want to get everyone back together but they understand that they have to offer value.
A hybrid event could be a physical show that has an online platform with webinars and a directory. They could have a booking system to schedule virtual meetings with staff who are working on the booth. The exhibition stand team will still have a physical presence and can reap the benefits of face-to-face communication whilst marketing to an international audience. In theory, it sounds like a fantastic idea.
In reality, I predict that very few people will be good enough to achieve their ROI objective. Why? I’ve been watching these virtual events over the last few months. As a content marketer and self-professed #EventProf, I am not impressed.
Content marketing and virtual events go hand in hand. Both require useful, engaging and relevant content. And both require an audience.
The virtual events I have witnessed have been extremely disappointing. Especially when you consider the amount of talent employed within the events industry. 2D images of exhibition stands that ask you to click through for more information aren’t my idea of innovation.
Why is that more enticing than putting your query into Google?
Unfortunately, this poor quality content has come out of a “need to be present” at these online events. Nobody is stopping to think about the content they are putting out there or how it reflects on their business. They just follow the crowd and jump on the virtual event train.
If this mindset doesn’t change, I fear nobody will be great at hybrid events. Don’t join in just because everybody else is. If you’re great at live marketing and face-to-face communication then stick with that. If you have something great to put online then do it.
I can’t wait to see what the future of events looks like. Good luck!