Anthony Smith, project manager of ADB Exhibitions, reflects on 2020 and the lessons eventprofs can learn from the virtual world of gaming.
The year 2020 will live long in our memories for many reasons. While we can’t ignore the impact Covid has had on society, I would like to focus on its impact on the exhibitions and events industry, and specifically the rise of virtual and hybrid models.
Opinion is split on the shape of the overall marketplace post-Covid and what part virtual will play in its evolution. Before we look ahead, let's take a glance backwards to appreciate the steps we’ve taken so far and what we need to learn from them.
When Covid rode into town, closing down face-to-face events in its wake, there was a rapid rise in the number of virtual platforms willing to step in. Broadly speaking, these fall into three overarching categories:
Websites on steroids – featuring video streaming, in-built text chat and the option to book meetings
Streaming platforms – with enhanced chat room options and video-to-video chat
3D environments – giving visitors the chance to ‘walk’ in a virtual exhibition or event
Some of the challenges are around ‘experience’ and matching the serendipity, spontaneity and interaction levels of in-person events within a virtual environment. Event planners are being forced to build their events around watchable content. A major downside is that once attendees have viewed a few speakers, the fatigue can begin to set in.
Gamification is very important for audience engagement, but often this approach leads to further attendee isolation. Delegates not au fait with gaming can be put off by the interface while gamers find the limited ‘game options’ a turn off. Gamification is part of the solution going forward, albeit not in the way it is often being used at the moment.
We can learn from the gaming industry, which is reported to be worth around £165 billion. It has become a massive sector, full of innovation aimed at constantly improving the user experience. One of the most pivotal innovations of fairly recent years is online gaming. The industry realised the way forward was to build communities, allowing gamers to play, talk and share with friends in real time. Gaming moved from something played in isolation to something shared in a group, with friends working together. This changed the gaming experience from a predetermined path to spontaneous sessions, and therein lies the lesson.
We need to take note of the gamer’s interactions and bring spontaneity to virtual events. We must also bring the face-to-face magic we are used to creating at live events into the digital world.
So how do we do this? Same as the gamers – we innovate. I mentioned earlier the three overarching types of platform we have experienced this year; the future is a hybrid of all three.
Imagine the perfect virtual event, would it look something like this...?
Attendees get a personal invite to a show with a unique access code. On arrival they have options on what to do – jump into the Main Stage and watch a keynote speech, hit the networking area to meet their peers, walk the exhibition hall to see who’s exhibiting or go into a breakout room for more intimate presentations, Q&A or educational sessions.
There would be video chat throughout, so even when ‘walking the exhibition floor’, they can ‘bump’ into people and start conversations. You can meet exhibitors on their stand for guided tours. You can interact with presenters, sponsors or other attendees.
Although there will be an agenda, if not followed there is plenty of other content to digest. The ability to interact, meet and talk with people in any part of the event brings back spontaneity and serendipity. Suddenly the experience is unique to the delegate, allowing their day to follow how they want and not what is prescribed.
If you happen to miss that keynote speech because you were wrapped up talking with other people, you can hit the on-demand button and take it all in.
So, what of the future?
Even as we create events as described, surely they will disappear as fast as they rose when face-to-face returns?
I don't think they will. The future is hybrid. For example, if a traditional face-to-face event runs for three days, there will now be online content before the live event – exclusive and designed to build interest and interaction. During the open period, keynote content will be broadcast to the virtual audience. Post-show the event can continue with more exclusive content to include reaction to the ‘live’ exhibition.
In between the physical events, organisers can also run virtual summits to their marketplace, keeping a greater flow of communication during the year.
The future of events is changing. Virtual content will change with it and will become just as vital as the physical element. After the biggest shake-up live events have seen in decades, how we innovate now will shape the format of live events for years to come.