Tuesday 26 January 2021 5:00 am

Going digital? Hold up - hybrid events will be the future

James Browne is a Director at 4 Roads, a firm specialising in building virtual communities and events

In recent years, much of the technologically-minded business community has decamped to the windowless, air-conditioned rooms of Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show. Despite being the showcase for all things digital – from autonomous vehicles to intelligent fridges – it has always been a distinctly physical event.

And while many complained of being dragged from stand to stand, show to show, many enjoyed the camaraderie of a once-a-year jamboree – and the casino bars that came with it.

Yet this year, there wasn’t a slot machine in sight...

CES made history last week when it became the largest digital event ever hosted. 

Such a rapid, transformational shift was always going to be a challenge, and by all accounts, the organisers – and exhibitors – did a fantastic job of ensuring guests weren’t disappointed. 

But the increased emphasis on keynotes this year did not go unnoticed.  

It’s not surprising given the highly interactive nature of CES. One of the biggest hurdles for the virtual events sector is in ensuring that those attending from home get as much value from the experience as they would be if visiting in person. 

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Necessity is the mother of invention, however, and the virtual events sector is borrowing inspiration from the gaming universe to rapidly innovate in this direction. 

AR and VR technology is at the forefront of this, by helping to bring products and experiences to life for people at home. 

But we’re also increasingly able to leverage personal devices to enhance interaction in other ways, through things like polls and questionnaires, while access to live event data means we can enhance experience through personalised services, like tailored schedules and networking events. 

Before we know it, we could be able to send people prototype products via their 3D printers and re-create those serendipitous and career-defining networking moments, that usually take place over the buffet counter – all through the power of virtual social engineering. 

The prolonged shelf-life of virtual events also means it’s possible to drive, and measure, engagement long after they’ve finished. 

CES took a step in the right direction when it decided to host its content online for 30 days. But why stop here when you have the power to create thriving virtual communities that live before, during and long past events have taken place? It’s toward this kind of thinking – where consumers are put in the driving seat – that events organisations need to pivot towards. As hybrid events grow in popularity, I am expecting to see organisers extend virtual event experiences to include niche online communities, which become a space for networking and learning opportunities. 

CES had a small window in which to stage one of the biggest interactive events in the calendar, and while it did a great job, no doubt it will be even better prepared to deliver a top-class experience for all delegates next year. Because the reality is, virtual events are not going anywhere soon. 

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Old habits die hard, and even when social distancing restrictions are lifted, the chances are that many of us won’t want to spend three days mingling with strangers in a confined space. At the same time, businesses are waking up to the damaging effects that international travel has on the environment, as well as their purses.  

I’m not suggesting that in-person events will be scrapped in 2021. We’re all sick of sitting indoors after all. 

But what we will see over the course of this year and beyond is an increase in “hybrid” events, with businesses encouraging smaller groups to meet face-to-face, at the same time as sharing content with larger audiences using digital platforms. 

This might sound like double the work. But making events more accessible means making it possible for a vast global network of people to engage with your business. 

Likewise, for guests, it’ll mean more access to thought leaders and businesses around the globe, enriching their experiences and making events seem more attractive. 

Of course, this two-fold approach means it’s even more important for businesses to ensure those visiting from the safety of their sofas are not treated as second class citizens. 

Because while it’s easier for people to attend events online, it’s now just as easy for them to close their browsers and walk away.

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