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Will we meet again? My predictions for safe live, virtual and hybrid events in 2021

No need to recap the many “pivots” hospitality and event professionals underwent in 2020 to re-think events and experiences. There were wins, plenty of flops, and lots and lots of learnings. As 2020 winds down and we look towards the new year, many are reaching out to me for advice and what to expect in […]

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No need to recap the many “pivots” hospitality and event professionals underwent in 2020 to re-think events and experiences. There were wins, plenty of flops, and lots and lots of learnings. As 2020 winds down and we look towards the new year, many are reaching out to me for advice and what to expect in events in 2021, so I thought I would share my thoughts in a blog with the community. This blog is much overdue, as I’ve been busy ramping up in my new role as Head of Events, Training & Certification at AWS, but below are my musings and predictions, just in time to ring in the new year.

Live Events: While we will start seeing large-scale global events, especially in Asia in Q2 2021, as we are already seeing with the World Economic Forum 2021 being held in Singapore for 2021, I personally question the success global events will have before Q4 2021. Given the multitude of nique protocols each nation upholds when it comes to vaccination, travel, quarantine, and other safety measures and regulations, as well as the varied health and safety protocols each airline deploys, I find it hard to manage safety precautions and placate concerns especially with high profile individuals traveling from far and wide to convene in person. Not only must the venue practice safety, but every step of the attendee journey just be considered and that becomes quite difficult to control. For live events that do take place, it will be imperative to manage pre-event communication to make sure attendees feel safe and in control of their environment while onsite. Some planners may opt to survey attendees in advance to get a gauge on what measures would make them feel safe. For example: beyond PPE and social distancing, should all attendees be required to have their temperatures taken, provide a “digital vaccine passport” or take a rapid COVID test when arriving onsite? Planners must enstate similar protocols for all event staff, caterers, vendors, security, janitorial, etc. which is why I find it hard to imagine events ever feeling 100% safe in the absence of a vaccinated population. 

Live is Sub-Par for now: While live events before a vaccine is widely distributed have and will take place during COVID, I liken them to the current experience of “dining out” in the United States…makeshift at best, a miserable experience for both the servers and diners at worst. While I am an avid supporter of restaurants and love dining out, I haven’t had the appetite (excuse the pun) to dine out since COVID with the exception of a few instances in Napa, outdoors for special occasions with only my husband joining me. Some of the aspects I love about the dining out experience simply aren’t possible to do safely right now, including dining with friends, enjoying a pre-dinner drink and chatting at the bar before dinner, the atmosphere of a bustling crowded dining room, being able to dine without a facial covering and share my expressions of delight with my fellow diners and waitstaff. And I can’t help feeling bad for the servers and staff who are wearing masks, gloves, and working tirelessly to keep everyone safe while arguably putting themselves at risk – it just takes away from the experience for me in the same way I can imagine a live event would feel in the current climate without being able to mingle with other attendees in the ways we’re accustomed to as human beings. Until we are safely vaccinated (and this means roughly 70% of the world’s population), I believe that live events should only take place if they truly serve a need that cannot be met virtually, cater to a mostly local attendee group, and have the budget and resources to create a premium, high-touch and safe experience. The majority of these events I believe will be limited to events for VIP’s and Executives that truly benefit from  in-person meetings to make business or mission-critical transactions, and press who may need to interact with executives or products in person.  These events should be small-scale (50 – 200 people max), and be able to prove the value for meeting in-person vs. virtually, which is a hard feat when you think about how many start-ups have received venture funding without ever meeting in person and how many companies have hired new employees virtually (myself included!).

Virtual Events:

2020 was a year of “beta-testing” for virtual events, as planners and businesses all hastened to “pivot” their events online and piloted various virtual event platforms and formats. While the first virtual events were not always successful whether it was due to technology oversights and snafu’s, production quality, or poor engagement strategies, the industry soon rallied and most of the planners I’ve spoken with have seen an even better ROI from their shift to virtual than their previously hosted live events, which bodes well for planners including virtual events as part of their event strategy moving forward even beyond COVID constraints. Smart planners are thinking ahead and budgeting early for big name keynote speakers who have more availability now that they don’t have to travel to events, adding in sound stages to create “simu-live” keynote experiences that create more broadcast-worthy production value for the virtual audience, and experimenting with platforms that allow for better two-way engagement with attendees via networking opportunities such as Hopin’s chat-roulette-esque function, or Welcome’s virtual photo-booth feature. 

I believe in 2021, we will continue to see the majority of events held virtually, especially events that are large-scale, global, and looking for more top-of-the-funnel engagement. While some planners bemoan the continuation of virtual, I am celebrating all of the virtues that virtual has to offer: We can now democratize events and content to a much broader audience by hosting events with either a “follow-the-sun” model, or making content available “on-demand” following a live launch. This enables attendees from across the globe to participate, especially when you remove the cost and travel barriers and/or localize the content in different languages. As global warming continues to threaten the world, virtual events also helps reduce our carbon footprint by removing the air and ground travel, hotel and venue waste and cleaning, catering, shipping and swag, which all have huge negative impact on the environment – with virtual, it’s never been easier to have a carbon neutral event! And with saving the environment comes budget-salvaging as well. Virtual events do require budget for production and virtual platform development, but in general, the cost per head is substantially lower than live events. Not only that, cost recovery is still possible via sponsorships, which can generate even more revenue virtually with no space constraints on a “show floor”, and unlimited registration ticket sales with no limit on keynote seats. There are other benefits to virtual events, such as training events where attendees may want to be able to “pause and rewind” a virtual lesson/demo or revisit a session they missed at a later time that is more convenient for them. It allows people to save time on travel and save energy on logistics required to attend an event, from childcare to hotel / travel booking, to covering their day job, all which can take a toll on people’s mental health and well-being. 

Despite all the benefits of virtual, let’s face it, I wrote my book, The Art of Event Planning the year before COVID, and revisiting the stories and strategies for live, sensory experiences still makes me nostalgic for the days when we can meet again to engage in person. And that brings me to my next prediction:

The event planning, hospitality and tourism industries are about to have a boom

With all the pent-up desire for live events, and in-person experiences, I encourage anyone in the event planning, hospitality, or tourism industry to rest up this year because as soon as live events are safe to host again, there will be no stopping them and I predict an explosion. Despite all the benefits I listed above for virtual events, there will be high demand for live experiences, even if strategically they don’t make as much sense for brands as they once did, with virtual proving equal or greater ROI because people are hard-wired to want to meet in person and have experiences that ignite all of their senses, even if that comes with cost in the form of budget, environmental impact, time, space, and scale. Event planners will be in such high demand once again, and because of COVID, event planners will have up-skilled and become more versatile; there will be better content producers and technologists and we will also know what we can live without (is that super-expensive furniture really necessary)? This brings me to my final prediction:

Hybrid Events: It’s all about providing options and choice for attendees

In 2021, events will be all about “options” for both planners and attendees. Anyone who is planning to host an in-person event in 2021 should also be prepared to have a virtual back-up plan, or plan a hybrid event, as there will be many unknowns throughout the year and no guarantee that events will be safe by 2021. Smart planners will communicate early and often with attendees to get an idea of attendee sentiment around live vs. virtual gatherings, and what will make attendees feel 1) safe and 2) part of a communal experience. In instances where a small group of attendees does meet in person, but a larger-scale audience can join in for all or part of the event virtually, it will be imperative to create an experience that doesn’t make virtual attendees feel like second-class citizens. This can be done creatively through engagement tactics such as having an experienced live moderator at the live event who can skillfully survey or take questions from the virtual attendees, or gamilfy the experience in a way that incentivizes them to tune-in for the live event. Much as many employers will start considering offering options to employees about where and how they work, smart planners will provide options to attendees as well. I thought the organizers of TED Vancouver 2020 did a beautiful job of this when they realized they could not host the event live in Vancouver in April. They first surveyed the attendees to see if we would prefer to have the event virtually over the same event dates, or moved to July, 2020 and held live. We voted to move to July live, but when that ended up not being possible, TED provided the option of allowing guests to attend a multi-week virtual experience OR apply the 2020 ticket towards a 2021 event instead. Brands, businesses, and planners alike always win when they listen to the attendee / customer, and now more than ever, we must be flexible and empathetic, as we adapt together.
Wishing everyone good health and success moving into 2021. I would love to hear your thoughts and predictions for 2021 – please feel free to share in the comments or or message me: www.giannagaudini.com/contact.

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