Forget hybrid and virtual: it’s time for the blended experience

Forget virtual and hybrid – in the future, events will be sold as a single blended experience, says Christopher Bo Shields, chief creative officer and co‐founder of Totem…

As we look to 2021 and beyond, we need to rethink our concept of events and the categorisation of events into real life, virtual, and hybrid which have emerged so clearly over the last turbulent year.

It is my opinion that such terms will soon become meaningless and terribly old‐fashioned.

In the future, people will no longer consider the platform they are using to experience an event as an important factor in the value they take from that event. Think about how the majority of people experience Glastonbury every year via their TV sets. These people still think of themselves as having “watched Glastonbury”; they still feel like they are properly participating in the experience, albeit with a lot less mud on their shoes!

Terms such as real life, hybrid and virtual devalue the events experience. Instead, events organisers will talk about the blend of experience that they will be sharing with their delegates, and selling it as a single proposition.

We must learn the lessons of other industries such as retail – ultimately, the rise of the digital native cannot be ignored. Just because we will all (hopefully) be vaccinated in 2021, it would be a huge mistake for the events industry to turn its backs on the progress that has been made and stop investing in platforms that blend online and offline experience. Because, regardless of Covid or anything else, the move towards digital is inevitable.

The winners in the events space are those that will take on this point of view, and they are the ones who will also nail the four keys to achieving events leadership in 2021 and beyond: data; interactivity; monetisation; and scalability.

1. Data
Remember, clients have experienced a wealth of great data from their events since they went online over the last year. This sudden change has been one of the surprise results of Covid, so the threat of whipping that added level of data away from them now that we’re going back to physical events will not be welcome. So the challenge is to ensure that the shift back to real life does not impair the improvements in data collection that we’ve experienced. We need to be equally adept at gaining data from attendees taking part in the offline ‘real‐life’ side of the event, as that which is gained from the online delegates.

2. Interactivity
The problem with many events platform is the lack of interactivity. If you think about the best experiences that you’ve had at real‐life events, you will probably think mostly of the people you met, the relationships created and the deals made. Events platforms need to be geared up for interactivity, with features such as interactive exhibition stands that allow for one‐to‐one meetings, supported by curated content. Think about live polling, Q&As, exclusive downloads and live video content across multiple tracks. Real time metrics and data should also provide immediate ROI for sponsors and exhibitors.

3. Monetisation
In 2020 it was difficult to find ways to show sponsors the value of their involvement in events. Organisers need to have a flexible range of sponsorship opportunities of anything from meeting rooms and roundtables to exhibition stands and virtual delegate bags. There are still a lot of advertising opportunities at events that have an online element. Sponsors can get involved with mailers, social media, banners on attendee’s screens, push notifications, video ads or even on your registration platform.

4. Scalability
The other key imperative for any events organiser looking to hold valuable events is the question of scalability. You need to have scalability built into any platform that you use, so that you can host events of any size – from a roundtable of ten to a multi‐track event for 10,000 people. With this kind of flexibility built in, organisations can launch a wide range of events while collecting data from every event and storing it in a single place. This will help you build broader insights from data to identify which of your events are making the biggest impact.

When the events industry finally nails these four issues in 2021, then I predict a more positive attitude towards the blend of online and offline will follow, regardless of what else happens in the wider world.