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Tracing the digitalization of events since 2005

VEI’s guest blogger Anthony Smith, co-founder of 3D-VR, looks back to 2005 to trace the events industry’s journey to a digital era.

The year is 2005...

James Blunt has the UK’s biggest selling single with ‘You’re beautiful’, ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’ is the world's biggest grossing movie and ‘The Apprentice’ TV show debuted in the UK.

Netflix launched in 2012

Netflix is seven years from launching in the UK. The first iPhone is two years away and Facebook is only a year old.

YouTube launched in the US. Amazon introduced its Prime service and Dominic Allport published his paper ‘The UK high street: Current issues and their implications’.

The last one might have passed you by...

Part of this study has a section on the impact of technology on the retail sector. It states that revenue ‘through the internet accounted for 7% of all sales’.

The overall opinion is that ‘internet shopping would be a complimentary selling channel’. What it doesn't state is how online shopping would be a threat to the traditional High Street.

How things can change in a generation

Technological development from the mid-noughties to now had a major impact on how we live our lives. The biggest selling phone in 2005 was the Nokia 1110 – no camera, no internet, no colour screen.

Cultural change: The iPhone launched in 2007

Although there had been smartphones before, the launch of the iPhone in 2007 marked a cultural change in how we used the internet. Suddenly we were able to browse on the go, email people whenever, take photos to compete with digital cameras, and make videos.

And then there were apps. Games, productivity tools, and banking changed the way we perceived some of the traditional aspects of life, but their impact was tiny compared to seismic changes shopping and social media had on society.

Initially, online shopping wasn’t for everyone and not widely accessible for every kind of product.

Back in 2005, the idea that we would now be purchasing our groceries online and choosing the delivery time would have felt like a stretch for many. Buying books online is one thing but choosing fruit, really?

But that wasn't the only habit of ours being affected by this cultural revolution. It is estimated the sales of newspapers fell from £7.2 billion in 2005 to £2.7 billion in 2019 in the UK.

Combine that fact with the 53 million active social media users in the UK (as of January 2021) and you will understand how the population digests news has massively shifted since 2005. Social media has become an increasingly influential factor.

Gradual change

We have seen advancements in the type and use of technology at events themselves but change has been very much rooted in the on-site experience.

Until the first quarter of 2020, there was no desire or perceived need to change how events run and serve their audience.

Broadly speaking, it was accepted that attendees, delegates, exhibitors, visitors, sponsors would come to the event. I appreciate this is not the case for all events (especially events aligned to sports and entertainment industries), but this was the general rule for business conferences or exhibitions.

Virtual events did exist but they were somewhat niche and the majority were not particularly interactive. However, virtual events have evolved so much in the last 18 months and they will be crucial going forward.

Of course, not all virtual events delivered last year were that good. In fact, some of them still aren’t. But this isn't due to the format itself, more a case of inexperience in the format.

In 2020, the expectation was for virtual events to pick up where physical events left off, cramming 15 years of growth, understanding, and development of how the online world works into one year.

How did we rise to the challenge?

Eventprofs worldwide escalated their learning and understanding of how virtual could work and what it could offer and as events started to roll out, the offering improved week on week.

Clients started to report increases in the size of the market they could reach, how much they could focus their message and how much ROI had risen.

The wiser among us knew this wasn’t a cheap alternative. Implemented correctly, virtual can be cheaper but it isn't something that can be ‘done on the cheap’. In some cases, the preparation work required takes longer than a physical event but the results are worth the effort.

Fortunately, the worst of last year is behind us and there is a clear roadmap for physical events returning through 2021 so no need for virtual events anymore, right?

Only if you wish to travel back to 2005.

The immediate future for the events industry is rightly focused on recovery. Getting people back to work, getting venues open, and getting shows up and running again.

But it’s incredibly naive to ignore the reach and engagement that can be achieved by successful utilization of the online world. The truth of the matter is, for the events industry to remain relevant in a continually evolving digital world, we need to embrace the work carried out in 2020 and build the best into what we offer.

Attendees want to be able to choose how and when they digest content. Sponsors want to reach as wide an audience as possible. Organizers want the best possible results for both.

Now is not the time to look backward, but to forge a new way to create events and serve the communities that drive them.

Step one: change the vocabulary. Live, virtual, hybrid… drop them all, they are all events.

Step two: build events that focus on the needs of the community you are serving. Whereas the focus was very much once-a-year physical experience, now we can build experiences all year-round – physical and online.

Step three: don't fear the future. We are now faced with the greatest opportunity in a generation to bring new life into events, offering all parties the best value we’ve been able to offer for a long time. Online events are not here to replace physical events, but to complement them.

In 2005 few would have predicted the development, growth, and influence the online world would have in our everyday lives. With online events – as they will become, not as they were – practically at ‘year zero’, now is the time to embrace the future and work together to see just what we can achieve in the next generation.


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