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Digital disruption: How in-person events will change

As in-person events start making a comeback around the world, how will they be different? The digitization of the events industry means it won’t be business as usual, and nor should it be, say industry leaders.

Audiences have changed. Video calls have become the norm, and the way we now meet, organize and consume events has altered.

Accelerated digital transformation has taken place and physical events cannot return as they were. Everything from event formats and business models to the role of tech is being completely overhauled.

Here are a few of the ways in-person events will change for the foreseeable future...


One of the biggest changes to physical events is the re-positioning of tech and digital solutions at the forefront of event delivery. “Technology needs to be a cast member now in how we design live events,” says Kristina McCoobery, CEO of INVNT.

“The new world expectation of attendees is that events will have a virtual element, and so it simply needs to be included in physical experiences.”

Adam Charles, executive vice president at Freeman, agrees: “Events will come back built upon a digital platform. Digital will be crucial for everything, such as how to acquire attendees, registration, the experience at live events etc.

"It won’t be a digital bolt-on, it will be a platform with true interconnectedness with live events, and part of a year-round campaign where you're talking to your audience and stakeholders 365 days a year.”

This idea of long-term, ongoing engagement is where a significant opportunity lies for event profs. Greg Cherry, managing director of QD Events, says: “Community building will become increasingly important and exhibition organizers will strive to create an active marketplace, and communication channel, for buyers to go to 365 days a year, as part of a wider event strategy that features live in-person events.”

Another reason in-person events will feature a digital overlay is the diversity and inclusion aspect. This is something Charles strongly believes in: “I think the reason why we need to continue to work with hybrid activity is that the barrier of entry is a lot lower and we can get a very different audience. We have seen more diversity and different age groups

attending our digital events. These are often the people we were never able to reach before.

"The task now is to move them through the marketing funnel to the live experience. Now the marketing funnel is wider at the beginning, this could mean there will be higher quality attendees at in-person events.”


Of course, as more and more events become digitized, a variety of hybrid event models will emerge and become more commonplace. For this, a different approach to event design is needed, and TV and football can provide a lot of learning and inspiration, says Duncan Reid, strategic advisor of Reset Connect.

He says: “Organizers need to look at the way television presents content. Football is a good

example of hybrid as you have viewers watching on TV globally, spectators in the stands, and others in corporate hospitality. The game will be packaged up post-match as a highlights program, which can also be available to watch on-demand. Each audience has

a different experience.

"This format won’t be as neat for business events but you can see how audiences in a different time, place, and location will want different experiences, and this will be a key consideration for event design.”


Isobel Peck, chief marketing officer at Informa Connect, also notes the impact sustainability may have on physical events.

She explains: “Sustainability, combined with Covid may, may increase the reluctance to travel, so events, at least in the short term, may become more local rather than big international gatherings. It may also mean that event products are broken down to smaller molecular audiences.”

This idea of segmenting audiences is something Charles also believes will become a major trend. “We're going to have to build the experience carefully tailored around the segmentation of an audience and build micro experiences for those different people.”


Event strategies will change, too. Rick Stainton, founder and group executive director of Smyle, and also the founder of One Industry One Voice, believes event organizers will take a more considered strategic approach.

He foresees: “Events may well take a more rationalized and measurable investment assessment so that they are deemed really worth going to, rather than the same event being done again and again on an annual or half-yearly basis for the sake of it.

"There will likely be increased needs for impact measurement, better sustainability practices with credible reporting, and also clear value adds linked to the core objectives."


Data collection and insights are one of the key strengths of digital events, and this will inevitably become more of a focus at in-person events. Peck points out: “NFC beacons, for example, and other types of tech will be more valued for their data on the behavior of event attendees. It wasn’t taken seriously enough before.”


“The experience has got to be bigger and better than it's ever been,” adds Cherry. “One of the brilliant things virtual has done is encourage events to really sharpen their content. One of the hardest parts about running a virtual environment for a consumer show is that you don't want to compete with Google. You need to create an experience, and something more intimate than Google.”

A key trend that will become more important than ever before will be the ‘return on emotion’ from events, says Stainton. “This will be important in making events worthwhile enough to secure the investment and demonstrate the resulting impact on the audience.

"It's really about how impactful the whole experience has been, and how can we measure that on the stages of engagement? What's the actual general output of that emotional

connection with the product and individuals? What behavioral change or results has it delivered? This will enable event agencies to solidify their position within business partner relationships better.”

Ultimately, it is abundantly clear that digitization of the global events sector will impact physical events in a plethora of ways and the evolution will continue into the next decade.

Of course, by then we will no longer be using all the adjectives now dominating the conversation, such as hybrid, virtual, in-person, blended, composite. Events will simply be events.

This article originally appeared in VEI's new monthly newsletter, The Fix, which includes exclusive features, case studies, and interviews with industry leaders and experts on virtual and hybrid events. Check out the issue here.


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