It’s time to embrace virtual and hybrid events — beyond a Covid countermeasure

As the cancellation of Christmas parties makes headlines in the media, owing to concerns over the Omicron Covid-19 variant, the events sector is remaining somewhat calm.

As the cancellation of Christmas parties makes headlines in the media, owing to concerns over the Omicron Covid-19 variant, the events sector is remaining somewhat calm.

Across 2020 and 2021, the widespread adoption of virtual and hybrid formats has made events more flexible and more adaptable to the Covid crisis.

The reintroduction of Covid-19 restrictions has reinforced the need for virtual and hybrid events in the long-term and has given Chief Marketing Officers a new level of responsibility in creating exciting online events that drive engagement. So, it’s encouraging that 73% of event marketers expect hybrid events to continue their growth in popularity in 2022 .

Enhanced engagement

For a vast majority of events, I believe a key objective should be to create meaningful engagement, whether that engagement is sparked between the event content and the audience, sponsors and interested parties, or between groups of delegates – ideally all of the above. An engaged audience who feels valued and leaves knowing the event was useful to them should be a goal close to event organisers’ hearts.

Event organisers that have embraced virtual and hybrid formats now find themselves at an advantage. These formats allow events to supercharge the approach to engagement and data, giving more insight into audience behaviour than could ever be achieved at an in-person event.

Virtual platform provide intuitive and flexible spaces to deliver virtual and hybrid events to meet clients’ audiences. The infrastructure of these platform allows engagement features to be built directly into the event strategy; features such as profiles, chat rooms and one-to-one video chat, gamification, polls and quizzes, all of which draw an audience into the event content.

The aim of virtual and hybrid engagement isn’t to replicate the opportunities a delegate might have when attending an in-person event, but to create new methods of connection which lean into the strengths of digital and hybrid event formats. This objective underpins Live Group’s Hive, for example.

In order to meet the growing demand for virtual events, it is critical that leaders focus on innovation, developing new methods of digital engagement and maximising the online customer experience. To facilitate this, some have called for companies to appoint Chief Engagement Officers to board level to take responsibility for driving these changes.

Embracing the digital shift

For many workplaces, remote working practices are here to stay and, with the Omicron variant refreshing Covid safety concerns, 60% of employees plan to work from home frequently in 2022. Work-from-home flexibility is now expected by most employees, with one study revealing 83% of people see this as a deciding factor between two similar jobs. Looking to 2022, the current Covid-19 situation has created yet more uncertainty regarding any return to face-to-face only events.

These new practices mean colleagues have become spread out across the country and beyond. For a long period of time now it has felt unsafe to gather in large groups in-person, and we have adapted to this sentiment. Under the conditions of the new normal, technological solutions have thrived, and ingenious solutions to keep us connected have emerged.

Virtual and hybrid events reduce the barrier to entry to an event. An in-person gathering presents a number of obstacles which must be overcome by an attendee: logistical pressures such as travel time, expense and accessibility. A virtual event mitigates these factors, bringing an engaging, content-rich experience right to the delegate’s device, wherever they might be viewing.

The elimination of these barriers to entry massively increases the potential of any event, where location and accessibility, for example, are no longer limiting factors. For example, Live Group recently produced an event for 1,300 employees across 17 different countries. Virtual events allow collaboration and connections despite the distance between delegates, something which simply would not have been achievable through the deployment of an in-person format for this event.

The case for virtual and hybrid events, made across the Covid-19 pandemic, has been compelling. Pre-Covid, 65% of the briefs that Live Group received were for in-person events that made no mention of hybrid or virtual. Now, the emphasis has shifted, with fewer than 5% of new briefs desiring a purely in-person experience.

This is no short-term trend. With over 65% of event planners calling for a drive to learn how to design better digital events, it is clear the evolution of event technology is only just beginning. At Live Group we’ve seen a 200% increase in clients wanting a strategic partner in the virtual and hybrid space. Evidently, these emerging event formats are more than pandemic compromises.

It’s all about data

One of the greatest benefits of virtual and hybrid events is the enhanced ability to harness data, with new technologies significantly increasing the scope and sophistication of event analysis. The virtual environment lends itself to in-depth behaviour tracking and analysis, in real time, to help understand which elements of an event are driving meaningful engagement and which areas could be further optimised.

Successful events do not just happen overnight. They require in-depth planning, creativity, and meticulous delivery. Data collection is key to this strategic element. By looking at behavioural data collected from previous events, organisers can predict which types of content are going to resonate best with their audience and build in features which have been proven to entice their delegates.

The cycle of data collection fuels a process of constant iteration and improvement, which ultimately means more effective events for event organisers – and more useful, enjoyable events for audiences.

Data tracking from virtual events can also be used to measure and demonstrate return on investment (ROI) in a way that in-person events simply cannot. This insight can help to attract sponsors for a future event and reassure existing sponsors that their money is being well spent.

However, that isn’t to say that in-person events cannot be enhanced to gather behavioural data on attendees. Bluetooth beacons, which are designed to help a delegate navigate a large venue, feed data into an interactive map which shows audience hotspots.

This is not only great for networking, but the data can be useful from a strategic perspective too. The event ‘heat map’ can show us where delegates were drawn to and where their engagements happened, which can then inform how to lay out events and floorplans in the future.

Unsurprisingly, a recent study revealed that 70% of event planners are looking to improve their data collection strategies over the next year, and 30% want to invest more time and resources into data analysis.

A sustainable approach

Before the pandemic, the UK events industry alone was found to emit 1.2 million tons of CO2e annually through the use of diesel generators. This is just a fraction of the total carbon footprint of in-person events.

With consumer demand for sustainable practices growing, such statistics could be hugely damaging to those that persist with wasteful in-person events. According to the Deloitte 2021 sustainability survey, 32% of consumers are now highly engaged with adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. Similarly, almost half of internet users have ditched products that don’t align with their values.

Environmental stewardship should be positioned as one of the key tenets on which the event industry is built and on which its successes are measured. Hybrid events can help businesses to showcase their sustainability credentials by minimising emissions from travel, as well as preventing the amounts of waste produced by unnecessary in-person events.

At large, the event industry is taking steps to ensure it’s easy for organisers to reduce their impact on the environment. For example, Live Group have an Environmental Impact Assessment tool that offers insights to reduce emissions, relating to travel, accommodation and waste.

Monitoring an events impact on the environment at the early planning stages, also demonstrates to clients the affects their proposition may have. This frank, often shocking process typically leads clients to consider their event more thoughtfully from a sustainability perspective.

Time for change

With the renewed uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant, the need for virtual and hybrid events has never been greater. Thankfully, developments in hybrid and virtual technologies, as well as core behavioural shifts in how we engage with one another, mean remote experiences provide a worthy alternative to the pre-Covid in-person experience. And in many ways, whether through the richness of engagement, the usefulness of data, or their ability to hurdle logistical barriers for delegates, virtual events provide their own benefits.

Demand for virtual and hybrid solutions is increasing substantially, in part due to Covid, but also thanks to the increasing recognition of the convenience, business and sustainability benefits these events provide.

Toby Lewis, CEO at Live Group