It’s been nine months since the arrival of COVID-19 in the US began the domino-fall cycle of cancellations across the event calendars of our clients and of pretty much all companies nationwide. Since then the events landscape has been completely changed. Over the intervening months, we’ve participated in the successful transformation of some of the world’s largest events into completely virtual affairs – from IBM’s Think back in May to Salesforce’s Dreamforce, kicking off this week.

Of course, not only the event industry has been changed. Industries like retail and hospitality and travel have also been transformed. And office workers in every industry have been introduced to telecommuting on a scale never before seen. Many have observed that the changes we’ve seen during the pandemic amount to an acceleration of technological and behavioral trends that were already in progress. Two months into the pandemic, McKinsey estimated that we had seen about 5 years of technological adoption by consumers and businesses over the course of 8 weeks. A few weeks ago The Economist coined the term “tech-celeration” for this phenomenon.

That dynamic has certainly been evident for things like videoconferencing and e-commerce. And few observers expect the clock to rewind or for those behaviors to return to where they were pre-pandemic. Consumers will continue to shop online at rates much higher than they did in 2019. Employers will continue to be more flexible about remote work and workers will continue to find it more productive to work from home sometimes. Meetings that once were held in person out of force of habit will continue to be held on Zoom when there’s no good reason to convene face-to-face.

And clearly the same is true for the technological acceleration we’ve seen in the event world. Many companies have been holding virtual events and webinars long before 2020. The canceling of in-person events simply forced all events into that mode very quickly. The drive for face-to-face connection is extremely powerful, and many in-person events will return in 2021 and beyond. But some types of events, and some types of activities within events, work better virtually. When in-person events do return, they will be different – hybrid events will be the norm, not the exception.

By hybrid events, I simply mean that the virtual technologies we’ve been using to replace physical events will not be abandoned. Rather, they will be integrated into the fundamental structure of events, even as in-person events return. The sheer fact that marketers and customers have all accustomed themselves to virtual technologies opens the door to continued use of those technologies where it is more convenient or more effective to do so.

Any in many cases it will be. Brands might opt to keep physical venue-based elements of their events smaller and more focused. They might try smaller regional in-person activities to help reduce travel. Large-scale virtual activities and digital activations can help tie such an approach into a cohesive experience. Companies likely will continue to create pure digital mechanisms for engaging with their customers and for communicating their brand messaging.

As vaccines emerge and cases fall and virus fears subside, the things we’ve put on hold, events included, will return. But it will be a long and slow evolution into a new (and likely better) future, not a return to the past.

Featured Image: Tim Gouw on Unsplash