Hybrid is here

You’ve heard it before, but it’s becoming more and more clear as time goes on – hybrid events are the future. Keeping events purely virtual risks missing out on the pent-up demand for face-to-face interactions. Returning to exclusively in-person events risks alienating those still wary of the virus as well as those newly empowered by the relative ease of attending from the comfort of home. Like it or not, brands will be expected to cater to both groups of customers.

CES recently announced that they’ll move forward with an in-person event in January of 2022, showing increased optimism about our state of affairs. They’ve even announced that there are roughly 1000 businesses lined up for in-person exhibitions. The news surprised some, since the show draws over 100k attendees from around the world and the COVID situation is still precarious on an international level. But in fairness, Mobile World Congress has plans to go forward with a big live event even sooner – this July in Barcelona. 

Looking forward

As we slowly return to face-to-face business, the organizers of ever more events are trying to get back to in-person attendance. In Northstar Meetings Group’s latest PULSE Survey, 80% of event planners polled in the U.S. planned to hold in-person events in 2021. The optimism is similar in the U.K. and Europe, where 71% of event planners were making arrangements for face-to-face meetings, trade shows, and other brand activations. The latest PCMA survey results were more skewed towards virtual-only but still had nearly half of respondents planning hybrid events in 2021. PredictHQ found that people are eager to get back to traveling and attending live events, with over half of respondents feeling so confident in the vaccine that they’re definitely planning on attending live events after vaccination. 

Not all customers and affiliates will be eager to be in crowded physical spaces again, so the industry will need to be sensitive to that (especially as outbreaks recur around the world). Most of us don’t need a survey to know that concerns over safety and reduced travel budgets will affect attendee counts at in-person shows, meetings, and events. Northstar found that most respondents were planning to require masks and distancing at their next event and some were going to ask for proof of a negative COVID test or full vaccination. For some, the responsibility of collecting and protecting that delicate information could encourage a significant tech investment.

Virtually there

While the pandemic took much away from us, the pivot to virtual events hasn’t been all bad. It can allow for a broader, and potentially larger, audience that has much lower barriers to entry. And in many ways organizers and brands have risen admirable to the creative challenges.

Take SXSW, for instance, which has been bringing creatives together since the mid-80s but was the first major event casualty of 2020 when it was forced by the city of Austin to cancel entirely. In March 2021 SXSW returned as an online event, which was a tall order considering that getting together, enjoying live music, experiencing brand activations, and meeting new people are its core elements. But the organizers proved that they could provide a digital platform to host much of the same content. After that, it was up to the exhibitors to figure out how to stand out and express their brands.

The Creative Industries Exhibition was one answer to transforming the in-person to virtual. Attendees that previously would roam an exhibition hall now had a digital menu in which to choose from dozens of organizations, start-ups, and brands to visit. Once they were in this “online booth,” each exhibitor needed to give people a reason to stay and explore. The template-based CIE didn’t allow much design latitude, but it did allow good content to stand out. Of course, marquee brands like HBO Max could rely on film trailers that people were eager to see. But what about less well-known names, like New Dutch Wave television? As it turns out, they did a very good job of taking advantage of the digital platform with videos, links to and from conference sessions, and good storytelling about who they were and how they wanted to accomplish their goals.

By way of more experiential activations, the organizers created SXSW Online XR, an artistic 3D representation of some of the most iconic festival locations like The Paramount Theatre and Cedar Street Courtyard. This provided attendees from elsewhere to at least have some sense of the city of Austin, a crucial component of the SXSW experience. Attendees could watch 360-degree videos of panels and talks that helped them feel like they were in a physical space, to some extent.

Digitally engaging

Though large, SXSW is manageable for attendees to canvas all of the exhibitors to find what’s of interest to them. Not so, for a show as massive as CES, which always presents attendees with significant content overload, even in person. While no one could ever visit every booth at CES, the serendipity of exploring amongst the small booths of startups and small companies is one of the advantages of a live show that may not be replicable in a virtual format.

Having dodged the bullet in 2020 simply by falling early on the calendar, the CTA its CES exhibitors had plenty of time to prepare for the 2021 show, and partnered with Microsoft to build a robust virtual platform. Here again, the biggest exhibitor challenge was to get people to visit their virtual booth. This is something that small companies without name recognition understandably struggled with. But many larger brands were able to really effectively utilize digital engagement.

FCA’s digital experience combined the familiar environment of an automotive trade show booth with a large variety of rich digital media, providing visitors with all the information they could ask for. The virtual vehicles all included interactive hot spots. There was an augmented reality experience where visitors could place the vehicles into their own driveways. And there was even a 360-video experience of the Jeep 4×4 navigating through Moab’s Hell’s Revenge Trail.

IBM, LG and Phillips were also among the well-regarded digital experiences at CES 2021. On the content programming side, many long-time attendees reported that the virtual format actually provided them more ability to attend (or at least watch) all the keynotes and sessions they were interested in. And not having to travel also allowed for more productive time attending the show. Clearly there are aspects of the virtual show that are worth retaining.

For their 2022 show, CES plans to maintain the virtual elements they created for this year’s event. But they also expect around 75,000 to attend the physical show. The challenge will be how they integrate the physical and the virtual instead of running two simultaneous shows.

Bridging the gap

We expect that’s going to be the challenge for every exhibitor at every type of event, in fact. We now know that virtual events are not just possible, but in some ways preferable, especially for the largest brands. And we know they’ll be the preferred option for some people. But we also know that people are longing for in-person interactions, so we need to embrace the return to live physical events when it’s safe.

After all this time, connection is what we’ve been craving. The questions remain: How do we make the best of both worlds by making truly hybrid events? What engagement strategies will be of use when trying to tie these two audiences together? How will we determine the most effective ways for brands to tell their stories and attract customers?

Sadly there are no easy answers to these questions. We can’t just copy what’s worked in the past because it’s a brand new world for everyone. It will probably require both new technologies and new ways of thinking. That’s bad news for followers. But it might just be great news for the brave and innovative and creative marketers among us. If ever there were a time for bold experimentation, surely it’s now.

What an exciting opportunity!

Featured Image: Fiat Chrysler’s virtual booth at CES