We’re in the second year of a pandemic that has brought many industries to a standstill, forcing them to sink or swim. The event industry, that once upon a time gathered crowds in massive conference halls for a collective experience, has been left with no alternative but to rethink human interaction and how it can be done online to reassemble and fill the gap left by the lack of face-to-face interaction. Mediated communication between people has not only become the norm in the last year but indeed, some have even grown more comfortable with the screen than with real life.
As massive vaccination programs are rolled out, restrictions eased and things slowly go back to normal, the event industry might find that normal is not the normal it once knew. Rather, the new normal is now in the making. The industry is going through a process of self-reflection and reinvention, imagining the new shape of large-scale gatherings. There are difficult fundamental questions to be answered in a context that has changed human interaction perhaps for good.
As the whole world is gauging the impact the pandemic has had on social interactions, how does the event industry see its future?
How will event organizers reimagine the spaces, whether virtual or physical, to offer attendees an experience that is not tedious but enjoyable, one in which they don’t feel restricted and burdened by rules and regulations?
Will event organizers be able to leverage the data they gather to meet the ever-increasing demand of the public for personalized experiences?
If you’re the contemplative type, you may have already explored these questions, found some answers, but have been left with just as many questions. In this article, I will try to give event organizers a sense of the bigger picture. Beyond event planning and production, in keeping with new rules and regulations, the challenge now is to make changes appear seamless, perfectly integrated into an event designed for the future.
Redefining social interactions
For an industry that is highly dependent on Zeitgeist and the people that make up their audiences, predicting how people will behave and interact in large gatherings post-Covid, and how events should look for them to feel comfortable coming together in large groups, is a challenging yet essential undertaking. During a webinar hosted by the Event Leadership Institute (ELI), its founder and executive director Howard Givner warned of the biggest downside of the return to in-person events: unpredictability. He said, “I think you’re going to see attendees wanting to wait until the last minute to register; they’re going to wait to book travel; and of the people you do register, you may get a lot more no-shows than we are used to.”
This is, and actually always has been, every event organizer’s nightmare. It’s like throwing a party no one RSVPs to. People might be showing up in greater numbers than expected, or you might find yourself all alone with months-worth of snacks and drinks. This risky business just became riskier.
Despite the great unpredictability, the lesson that 2020 taught us is that face-to-face interactions, once taken for granted, are now valued even more. We learned a lot about ourselves as humans and our social nature. Online communities and interactions do not quite fulfill people’s need for social contact. Interactions with peers and colleagues were so common pre-Covid that we hardly ever thought of them as a privilege. Until they were taken away, that is. After over a year of technology-mediated interactions, some might find it difficult to go back to real-live at first, but most of us are eager to get back out there as soon as possible. Eventually, in-person events will make a strong comeback. Whether they will look the same is still to be seen.
Human nature is not the only thing dictating the shape and form of the industry. From a financial point of view, last year’s big takeaway for event organizers was that virtual events are more cost-effective. With restrictions still in place and limiting the numbers of in-person attendees, online or hybrid events become the only viable options. The online is here to stay, and will impact how we engage with one another in the future. The author of Reinventing Life: The always-on Future of Events, Marco Giberti suggested in an interview in Forbes magazine in March 2021 that “Events were built to succeed hundreds of years ago, but they are built to fail in the 21st century.” He does not mean events in general, but events as we know them. Last year’s restrictions have had event organizers scrambling to find ways to facilitate a social connection in virtual spaces. The argument Giberti makes in the book is that events can now build and maintain communities and nurture relationships all year round. Event organizers now face the challenges of managing and engaging online communities, creating FOMO while continuously offering content and avoiding audience fatigue. I don’t believe online communities will render in-person events superfluous, but I do believe it will force content curators and event organizers to raise the bar on their real-life events and community-building strategies. Strong online communities will be eager to meet in person every now and again, but those meetings will have to be different from the online interactions to be worthwhile.
As the boundaries between the lives we lead online and in-person become blurred, event organizers will have to get creative with the virtual side of events and the ways in which they engage with their online community so that the in-person event becomes a continuation of the interactions had online. In the same way, maintaining connections made in person should be made easy, either through online platforms or virtual events that follow up on the in-person meetings. The value of an event also lies in the ways in which it impacts audiences and the changes it brings to their lives or careers. In reality, very few event organizers dedicate time to maintaining the communities around an event and analyzing the impact they have. Online communities can no longer be neglected in favor of traditional communities. Virtual events have created a space and imposed processes within event companies for that to be done with ease. In-person and virtual need not be clearly separated but rather seen as an extension of one another, as Giberti suggests in his book. This means that neither the in-person event, nor the virtual one will stand on their own, but rather they will feed off each other. This is the real hybridity the industry should chase, one that mixes the highly engaging aspects of real life with the highly personalized experience and low production cost of virtual experiences. If done right this marriage can be a long-lasting one.
Spaces designed for a post-Covid era
Virtual events have opened up alternative spaces. Even in the post-covid era, it doesn’t seem likely that we will go back to traditional conference halls. Rather, we’re seeing a tendency to move outdoors, where the risks of transmission are lower and the rules much laxer. Event organizers seem to be caught between high-tech and a return to nature. I don’t imagine every business conference will look like the field at Glastonbury, but we are seeing event organizers experimenting with public spaces more than they had before. We might have some attendees in AR environments online, while others explore the same pavilions in an outdoor location. An outdoor location means events will be able to gather more attendees, not only because there will be fewer restrictions but also because more people will feel comfortable in an open space where the risk of transmission is considerably reduced. Similarly, requiring pre-event COVID tests, setting up facilities for health checks on-site, offering free masks, planning for more restrooms and sanitization stations around the venue will become the way to reassure attendees that they are as safe as possible.
Lindsay Johnston, director of Pattern Design said in an interview for The RIBA Journal in March 2021: “We have recently been designing new stadia with the provision to swap some areas to safe standing in the future, but this may be put on hold as we deal with the pandemic because it’s harder to stop people moving around when they’re standing.”
To accommodate all these things, event spaces, including outdoor ones will have to be redesigned and reimagined for our times, i.e. as “clean” spaces first and foremost. It’s hard to imagine that we won’t be required to keep a safe distance anytime soon, or that we’ll ever go back to payment methods that aren’t contactless.
For now, any shared space that is not virtual will be designed to encourage attendees to keep a safe distance without being a constant reminder of the risks of sharing that space. Floor stickers and adhesive ribbons are ubiquitous nowadays and event and interior designers are thinking up other innovative ways to encourage certain behaviors in public spaces. The requirement to keep social distance is now a central consideration in the design of every space. Similarly, wearable technologies that reinforce social distancing are slowly but surely becoming the norm in our society. We are yet to see what the stadiums and conference halls of the future will look like and whether crowds of people rubbing shoulders will become a symbol of a past life.
Data and Personalization
In a world in which companies know more and more about their customers and can automate processes so that every email in your spam folder addresses you by your first name, it was only a matter of time before the event industry also entered the personalization race.
According to Cindy Lo, CEO of RED VELVET, a full-service creative events, experiences, and activations agency, what virtual events have taught us is the importance of personalized experience. I would add that they have not only underlined its importance but also facilitated it becoming a reality. The data event organizers now have about their audiences far surpasses the data they had access to before. Offering personalized in-person experiences can be easily built off the back of the personalized online experiences. Gathering and managing data, and most importantly, turning data into knowledge that can inform the concept and planning of the next event is the new focus.
In the near future, event planners that have not yet mastered data analytics will be left behind. Gathering data is no longer a challenge since events moved online, but interpreting the data gathered and understanding what it means in terms of customer behavior and how to translate that into an engaging experience is another new, yet exciting challenge.
The future of the event industry is not looking bad. But the industry has gone through a year in which it has seen how dependent it is on the social context and on other industries such as design and architecture, to be able to deliver at the scale it once used to. At the same time, it has seen itself overwhelmed with priceless data it wouldn’t have dreamt of gathering in real life.
It’s an exciting time that can only come after a complete reset. Let’s make the most of it.