The Future of Virtual Events: Unpacking the Hybrid theory.

The Moonshot

“I’ve never seen anything like this.”, I exclaimed to my CEO over a Skype call on that cool, spring night.

March 2020.

I was working from the dark & dusty annex of my house — a makeshift clinic my father once used back in the day. My only companions were an oddly loud rotating fan and an evil squadron of mosquitoes that silently made merry on my sockless feet.

The numbers on my laptop were making me squint hard. The spike in incoming leads was something I had never witnessed in my time leading growth at vFairs.

Even hockey-sticks aren’t made with such obtuse angles.

Younas (CEO) and I watched with awe as emails rained in on us. Messages elegantly flowed through our inbox much like the ending credits of a summer blockbuster. And the web traffic stats made it seem as if we were running an e-commerce site that just announced a clearance sale.

The pandemic had officially arrived.

As conferences and tradeshows got cancelled, event organizers were caught in a state of frenzy. They were scrambling hard and desperately needed a way out to appease sponsors that had already paid them in months prior.

Most eventually arrived at the same conclusion. They ended up knocking on the doors of the most viable & logical option at the time: virtual events.

Interestingly, before the chaos unraveled, the online event category was romantically classified as niche by event industry experts.

Virtual events were thought to be like expensive art pieces that got auctioned at charity galas. They certainly looked cool but were only bought by true enthusiasts. Naysayers thought they were solely meant for eccentric, early-adopter organizations with deep pockets.

And suddenly, as the world froze over, the online events industry was mercilessly thrust deep into the mainstream fold with no warning.

It caught us all off guard. No one saw it coming.

An odd amalgam of emotions filled my stomach.

  • I was excited about the prospect of accelerated growth.
  • I was sad because the backstory of this influx was quite tragic.
  • I was scared because I had no idea how our lean team was supposed to meet this insane demand.

But we did what any startup would had been expected to do.

We hustled.

In the months that followed, vFairs expeditiously graduated from an exciting side-project to a big fish in a fast-expanding pond.

The team ballooned from a paltry 35 to 220 in a year’s time. We had employees in every time zone all of a sudden. Our customer footprint grew 20x. Our revenue skyrocketed & won us attention from elite investors. We competed with the best of the best and were giving everyone a run for their money.

It sounds and feels like a dream.

But…is it just that? A dream?

With so much of this glory tied with the pandemic’s after-effects, is this sweet slumber poised to eventually come to a screeching halt?

I get asked this question. Every. Single. Day.

Now that the world is opening back up, will there be a reverse shift back from virtual to physical events? Is this the beginning of the end?

Sounding Board

Let’s take a step back, shall we?

Think about any football world cup before the pandemic.

Thousands of fans would line up at the stadiums & fill the stands.

At the same time, every match was being broadcasted to millions of viewers remotely who tuned in from offices, sports bars, parks & homes.

Would it ever make sense to limit the viewership to only those present at the stadium? No.

Why?

The telecast massively expands viewership interest. This, in turn, allows organizing committees to reel in huge sums in sponsorship money, taking revenues through the roof.

This “hybrid” model — where you have in-person & remote spectatorship — is hardly a new concept but that’s what the world is moving back to.

It’s not about either or. It’s about both.

Why now?

The counter-argument I hear to the above:

“By that logic, virtual events should have been popular before the pandemic too. What has changed?”

In short, we moved to more fertile lands.

Businesses, organizations and individuals are more aware of how & where virtual events fit on their strategic canvas.

While speaking to several customers this past year, we learnt the following:

  • Virtual events were never as popular as live events because no one really drank that Kool-Aid with intent. But when thousands of businesses battled an existential crisis in 2020, they were forced to embrace the technology for the sake of business continuity. Our customers revealed how many of them would have been run to the ground if the channel didn’t exist.
  • Several businesses didn’t even know what a virtual event really was. The RFPs and initial inquiries we received were all over the place. Most thought of virtual events as glorified Zoom calls. However, when they immersed themselves in the world of online events, the exposure to unique possibilities therein induced a shift in mindset.
  • There just wasn’t enough mental bandwidth available. A number of our clients were event management companies. By no fault of theirs, they historically had very little reason to explore our side of the fence as the live events industry was demanding enough. Few had the time, energy or the will to really evaluate what virtual could do for them or their clients. The pandemic, however, permitted them to escape this tunnel-vision, run online conferences first-hand and finally, better comprehend the potential of hosting virtual conferences & tradeshows.

These are just some of the reasons why over 80% of our surveyed customer base plan to stick with virtual events in the future.

I should point out that during this journey into virtual events, organizers did stumble on benefits that apply beyond the lockdowns and curfews:

  • Possibility of engaging busy speakers
    Since a primary selling point of a conference is who is coming to speak, coordinating logistics and availability with high-profile speakers was both a costly & taxing endeavor. Virtual events offered a way to circumvent such constraints and easily bolster speaker rosters.
  • Capturing attendees & exhibitors that can’t make the commute.
    The risk of a virus is not the only reason why people can’t make the trip. Costs, family commitments, fear of travel & other conflicts meant many attendees & exhibitors would be left out from participation. An online avenue presents a practical alternative.
  • Overcoming limited seating capacity.
    Venue rentals can be costly. This meant organizers can only accommodate a certain number of attendees at a location & would need to throttle registrations accordingly. With a virtual channel, however, attendance can be scaled to record numbers.

Having said all this, it was also made clear to us that both form of events had their own place.

Certain aspects of in-person events just were irreplaceable.

Nostalgia would sweep over some customers as they described the festivities at a venue. They genuinely missed the vibrant colors, accidental run-ins with long-lost acquaintances, the serendipitous hallway chats with interesting strangers, the passionate conversations riddled with hand-gestures, the loud murmur of the halls, the concert of applause & laughter at live keynotes, the gestures of keeping the door open for the one behind you and the delight of sharing a bite with colleagues.

Physical events will make a comeback — just not at the expense of their online counterpart.

The Pie

The iPhone changed the world in 2007. Apps had just hit the market and progressive businesses that previously relied solely on a web presence were forced to explore this astonishing invention and make strides into a mobile-driven future. In less than a decade, the mobile apps industry was generating $300 billion in revenue.

However, the meteoric rise of the mobile app industry didn’t necessarily take away from the overall internet pie which previously was limited to desktop-based web apps. It extended it.

The pie became bigger. Mobile apps generated more jobs & enabled new business innovations.

Virtual and physical events, in tandem, are expected to run a similar course.

It is to be noted that the world of events isn’t a small enterprise by any means.

According to Allied Market Research, the global events industry size (even before the pandemic hit) was valued in the trillion dollar ballpark:

Now, with COVID-19 sending shivers down the spines of commercial entities worldwide, adopting a strategy barren of a virtual component would be akin to taking on unjustifiable risk. Thus, the dollar pie for virtual events will remain relatively large.

Let me give you a specific example.

A Fortune 500 company we serve revealed how they conducted 4 major live events in 2019. However, when they resorted to virtual events in 2020, they ran 35 of them, from internal benefits fairs, training events, onboarding sessions & business review sessions.

In the first quarter of 2021 alone, they have already hosted 15 online events with us with no signs of slowing down.

While they certainly do plan on resuming their live events schedule once the environment becomes favorable, however they don’t expect their virtual event counts to plummet as a result of that.

Their appetite for events just became bigger. This is because they realized that virtual events are:

  • Cheaper & easier to setup compared to in-person events that involve several moving parts like venues, stage, A/V, signage, equipment, security, F&B etc.
  • Scalable & Easily Repeatable. Once they’ve setup one event, running a similar one in the future requires a fraction of the effort. Moreover, instead of running events across multiple cities, they could afford to run one that brings in audiences from an entire region.
  • Insightful. Since digital activity is so easily tracked, they offer digestible numbers that their marketing analysts can slice and dice to justify future investments.

Therefore, there is enough room for physical and virtual to co-exist and grow together. In fact, the prediction is for them to join hands and power a new breed altogether: Hybrid events.

What are hybrid events?

Last year, businesses had different definitions as to what constituted a virtual event.

Naturally, every online event provider ran a narrative aligned with its respective offering. A year later, event organizers are much wiser and educated about the online event market and we see this every day with the quality of questions they ask us during demo calls.

History seems to repeating itself with all the mystery surrounding “hybrid” events. Depending who you ask, you’re bound to hear a different definition.

In an attempt to de-mystify this situation, I’ll try to summarize the more popular notions and variants so we can create a shared understanding.

As the name suggests, hybrid events merge aspects of a live event with a virtual audience. It’s supposed to be the best of both worlds.

However, that nature of interaction can vary across multiple variables:

1-Time

  1. Sequential: an event where a live and virtual event (with the same theme) take place at distinct days and times. These are much easier to manage. This can work for trade shows to give audiences flexibility on when and how they’d like to attend.
  2. Parallel: an event where live and virtual audiences are in attendance at the same time. This model works better for conferences where live speaker sessions take place.

2-Audiences

  1. Common: the demographic profile of attendees for the live and virtual events is the same OR the exhibiting entities/sponsors are the same.
  2. Distinct: the attendee base or exhibitors/sponsors invited for the live event is entirely different from the virtual version.

3- Networking

  1. Linear: events that don’t allow physical and virtual audiences to cross-interact. In this case, networking is limited where physical attendees can only converse with other in-person attendees. Similarly, virtual attendees can only interact with those logged in online.
  2. Inter-woven: attendees can network with any other attendee regardless of their mode of attendance (live or virtually).

4- Content

  1. Shared: the collateral, multimedia content & sponsorship presence on the in-person event is similar to the virtual event.
  2. Distinct: the content resources and sponsorship for both events is entirely different.

The next natural question is how will this cross-networking even happen?

The Tech Stack

Hybrid events will require an enabling technology stack which comprises of the following elements:

  • Virtual event platform: an online venue which attendees at home/office can log into, attend sessions & consume resources.
  • Live Event Mobile app/site: a smartphone app that allows live attendees to understand agendas, chat with other attendees, follow floor maps & receive push notifications.
  • Attendance Tech: physical devices that issue identification wrist bands with bar or QR codes to track turnout and activity of live attendees.
  • Screen Tech: live screen panels hoisted on the physical venue’s walls that display upcoming sessions, relevant social feeds linked to a hashtag, gamification leaderboards & survey results.

With that in mind, let’s review some common touchpoints during a hybrid event that industry pundits surmise will be pivotal to deliver a meaningful experience.

  1. Live Sessions
    The common denominator across all hybrid event flavors is that live speaker sessions are broadcasted to online audiences via a live stream. This is expected to a staple feature for all events moving forward. With recordings made available post-event, capturing live sessions with an audio/video setup will be the focal point of efforts in running successful hybrid events.
  2. Hybrid QnA
    Fielding questions from both live and virtual attendees by speakers will be important to keep both audiences hooked. This, however, is hardly a new concept as moderators on panel talks have in the past taken questions from Twitter.
  3. Hybrid Polls
    A poll thrives on high participation counts. Since input of a virtual audience can instantly skyrocket submissions, running polls across both audiences in parallel has the capability of generating impressive insights.
  4. Cross-Networking
    This will enable in-person attendees to search attendee lists and network with like-minded people remotely by using a mobile app or site. In theory it sounds exciting, but live attendees will mostly prioritize meeting others at the actual venue, rather than constantly secluding themselves to have chats on their mobile phones with their virtual counterparts. There is surely utility here but primarily before or after the in-person live hours.
  5. Unified Registrations
    Virtual and physical attendees will be directed to a single point of registration (a landing page) with customized workflows for each. This will be a handy tool for personalized outreach post-event.
  6. Consolidated Reporting
    Organizers will be provided with a single dashboard that reports attendee turnouts in both modes of the event. While it might centralize the data, the overlapping data points are far & few to make this anywhere close to critical.

The point of building this foundational knowledge was to broaden your mind on how hybrid executions can potentially work. However, I feel it’s equally important to weigh in on which configuration will realistically dominate the playing field.

But before I go on, I would like to throw in a little caveat.

Every business or organization will not prefer to jump on the hybrid bandwagon in every scenario. In fact, some might still opt to keep things fully virtual.

For example, internal events like information sessions, benefits fairs & sales trainings will probably remain purely virtual because of their cost-effectiveness, especially for firms with a multi-national presence or a sizable freelance workforce.

Moreover, university open days and job fairs meant primarily for international audiences will also continue to conduct virtual open houses & online recruiting events respectively as a real venue offers little benefit in such cases.

Coming back to hybrid now.

Based on my personal observation, I estimate the breakup of hybrid event models will be as follows:

  • Basic hybrid (roughly 70% of events moving forward): Events that have parallel & common audience but simply support a live stream component with linear networking.
  • Sequential hybrid (20% of events): Events that run a physical and virtual event of the same theme on separate days/time.
  • Complex Hybrid (10% of events): Events that will have several common touchpoints in play, most of the tech stack enabled and will explore inter-woven networking.

The prospect of offering a deep level of interaction between live and virtual audiences sounds incredibly enticing, however, it’s not that simple to execute.

The logistical & training overheads to pull off such events seamlessly adds a lot of burden and until organizers see consistent dividends, they will prefer to keep things simple in the start. This is why a majority of organizers will prefer to opt to just broadcast their live sessions for virtual audiences to consume.

The timeline

Short-term

We see two extremes here.

In North American circles, there is both excitement and urgency to get back into in-person events and understandably so. With people suffering from Zoom fatigue, audiences are desperately itching to get back to public meet-ups.

That’s why events like SaaStr that will be making a comeback this fall are hotly anticipated.

UAE also greenlit GITEX for October 2021 which signals a positive intent to local event organizers.

On the other hand, several audience pools are still cautious.

After being bludgeoned by multiple pandemic waves, each coming with a fiercer intensity than before, sections of international audiences will decide to wait it out for this year before there is complete assurance of safety. Moreover, restrictions on travel routes, befuddling quarantine protocols & unsettling friction in travel procedures will further discourage mass turnouts.

Mid-term

Once the vaccines find their way across the globe, the world will truly begin opening up and there will be a surge of in-person events. At this time, basic & sequential hybrid events will take flight. Pure virtual events won’t see explosive growth but will find a new plateau which will still be considerably higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Long-term

A new balance will be established where majority of events will exercise some flavor of hybrid, with preference given to low-overhead executions. Virtual events will start dialing up back again, with expectation of new use cases emerging, as organizers will leverage it to extend reach of their live content and maximize the share of wallet they can generate from sponsors.

Emergence of another category?

So, will we need a completely new set of providers filling up the hybrid space?

Yes and No.

If majority of hybrid events are of a basic nature, then existing virtual event solutions will remain sufficient as they have provisions to broadcast live streams already.

Moreover, customers will want to leverage vendors that specialize in their own domain. The skills needed for physical events management (logistics, audio/video production etc.) are vastly different from those in the virtual category (visual design, integrations, gamification controls, real-time reporting etc.).

However, in the case of more complex hybrid executions which mandate an extensive tech stack, full-stack providers will be preferred to tie everything together.

This will mean traditional live-event tech providers will build up their virtual capability and rise in prominence. On the other hand, we’re already seeing virtual-only solutions fast-track new product lines to become more “hybrid-friendly.”

Conclusion

To wrap up, I’ll leave you with a few thoughts:

  • With COVID-19 on it’s way out, we will witness a new era where live and virtual events will play a role in tandem
  • While in-person events bring back the social aspect that was sorely missed, virtual events will continue to empower organizers with global reach and a larger surface area to monetize.
  • Hybrid events are certainly going to be in vogue soon. However, “hybrid” for the most part is a severely loaded term that requires unpacking. Every provider will have incentives to run their own definition and narrative in alignment with what they have to offer as a product. It’s important to be wary of the spectrum of execution types that exist to be able to budget & plan appropriately.

The pandemic has certainly left an indelible impact and perhaps, has changed us for good in some ways. However, humanity has historically done well to adapt whenever it’s been presented with constraints. A new future awaits us.

One thing’s for sure. Virtually or physically, the world is set to become a smaller place as we strive to bring people together in innovative ways.

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Aatir Abdul Rauf

Aatir Abdul Rauf

Director of Marketing, vFairs. Product Management enthusiast, lover of marketing, LinkedIn writer & dad of 2 boys that keep me humble.