The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of the world, and it can be difficult to grasp how things will change because of it. I sat down (virtually, of course) with Laura Williams, the Event Service Manager at Southcoast Conferences, to get some insight into how events could potentially be run post-pandemic.
Q: How do you think the corona-virus situation will affect the events industry long-term?
A: Long-term obviously would be social distancing measures and how we can keep delegates safe and comfortable in the event spaces. It’s not just about how big the spaces your events are taking place in are; it’s more about the psychology behind the delegates who will be attending. For example, we don’t expect everybody to be flocking to music festivals and large group events once the lockdown is over as there will obviously be a level of caution and trepidation still prevalent. I think as event organisers there is a lot of responsibility on our part to make sure that if and when we are able to run live events that we are very mindful of that. This can be down to the way event spaces are set up, the layouts of rooms, how we manage the social spaces. It’s clear that in order to bridge this gap, we will see a rise in hybrid events that mix live and digital events. One of the Webinars I’ve attended had an academic from the University of Westminster who studies crowd-psychology and how that affects events. The statistics are that 70% of event partners are looking at running hybrid events post lockdown, which I totally understand.
Q: Can you explain what a hybrid event would look like? Is that part online, part in person?
A: In its simplest form, it is using video conferencing in a way to bring the event to more people. Traditionally, our events are asking people to travel in person to a certain location for a set amount of days. However, a hybrid event would mean that we are not asking everybody to come to a place, it’s more bringing people together online. A really good example of a really successful hybrid event is TED talks. TED talks are lectures, but they are then broadcast out, which reaches a much, much larger audience than any live event could.
Q: Right, so it would, for example, be the case of people who live super close to the location of the event could go and watch it with social distance measures in place, but the event would also be broadcast out so people wouldn’t have to travel very far and get hotels?
A: Absolutely, and I think what you’re saying about getting hotels and travelling, that’s a really interesting point. We are always very mindful of running green events and our responsibility as event managers to make sure that the events we do run are sustainable. I think one thing that we all have seen with the lockdown and the travel restrictions being very tight is that actually moving back to live events, to how it used to be… is that really the preferred method when we know we can run rich, engaging talks without the airfare and impact on the planet? It’s an interesting question and one that I’m not sure I know the answer to yet!
Q: The only question would then be how to get the more human aspects of live events to work virtually. Obviously, a big part of a lot of the events we run is networking sessions and social programmes. So the question is how to move that online.
A: I think that is a really good point. I’m not saying for the moment that virtual events are going to replace live events. There are just some elements of live events that you can’t replicate in a virtual sphere. Networking and the social aspect of it are difficult to replicate online. So that is an important point – as much as we can run virtual events, it’s never going to give you the same experience as a live event, and I think any event manager would tell you the same. But certainly, while we’re in the lockdown phase, some excellent practices are happening out in the industry of how to try and replicate that networking and bringing that social element to virtual events. Let’s say, for example, you are attending a conference, and there is a coffee break. You’ve got that time to chat and network with peers and colleagues, whereas that is quite difficult virtually. But some professionals have come up with an idea of making their virtual coffee breaks a sensory experience. The event manager might send sachets of different coffees to all the delegates that are attending this online event, and then they have a virtual coffee tasting. So there is something quite tangible and sensory about the coffee break. I think it’s a really great idea, and it’s adding extra value to the virtual event. It is trying to give that live event feeling in a virtual space. For example, an online drinks reception or pub quiz would have drinks. There are ways to partner with businesses to send out craft ales or some local wines to delegates and holding the networking in a virtual space but actually giving those delegates who might be sat on their sofa at home something sensory, something physical, to supplement the experience.
Q: Are there any other big challenges to hosting virtual and hybrid events?
A: Trying to keep delegates engaged and measuring these levels of engagement is tricky. We all know what it feels like to be sat for long periods of time at a computer. For example, where I’m sat in my home office is really in my kitchen, so whatever is happening on my screen needs to stop me from reaching behind me, opening my fridge and grabbing some chocolate. There are tools out there that we can use to help with this like polls and Q&As and so on. Some sessions I’ve done have brought in engagement through social media, which I think is a great idea. For example, one session I attended asked us all to take a picture of the view from our home-office. We were all dialling in from different locations across the world. We would share the picture on Twitter with a particular hashtag, and it’s great because it’s content for the event, but it’s also really nice because you can see where people are and what it looks like outside their window. So it’s just a nice way of engaging with your fellow delegates, but it’s also the added bonus of content for the event itself.