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Rethinking Live Events: To Virtual or Not to Virtual?

Veteran event pro Niki McKay urges the industry to seize the current COVID crisis to develop new approaches to events.

Let’s face it: We have been talking for a while now about how to reimagine live events, meetings and conferences. Yet, despite all these conversations, we can’t quite make the shift. General sessions, breakouts, presenters, PowerPoints and keynotes--oh my! Part of the reason we haven’t been able to break the norm is due to client paradigms and, partly, it’s our fault.

But, guess what? This pandemic has given us the chance to mix it up and completely rethink the way we have been doing events. We have the opportunity to reevaluate our approach.

We’ve seen that many events are going virtual--and that is a start. It speaks to a new generation of attendees, platforms and possibilities. But that’s not enough either--because nothing beats face-to-face engagement for learning and connection.

As more events are cancelled or postponed, clients are rushing to find a virtual or live-stream option. But, just because you can do virtual, doesn’t mean you should. Not every event will translate over to a digital one.

Whether it’s a virtual, live or virtual-live hybrid event, our goal is to build in opportunities for engagement. We cannot simply replace the live event with a virtual event and expect attendees to be engaged from their laptop the same way they would when networking in person.

We have the opportunity, now more than ever, to put ourselves in our attendee’s shoes. What would be engaging to you from home right now? How can you bring this content to life, or does it need to be changed? Being thoughtful about content, how and what to display, whether or not content is interactive--thinking through the process of creating an engaging virtual event will only help us to improve future live events.

So, where do we go from here?

How do we use virtual experiences and in-person experiences as part of the same “conference?” How do we shift in-person experiences to speak to today’s new audience?

To start the brainstorming …

  • What if attendance was smaller? More intimate?
  • What if it allowed for conversation and less traditional instruction?
  • What if events weren’t held in ballrooms and convention centers?
  • What if the rooms weren’t square/rectangular?
  • What if people didn’t sit in chairs?
  • What if attendees were involved and able to interact?
  • What if presenters didn’t present in the traditional sense?

If we are going to help our clients change the status quo, it should start with building a better shared experience. With cities and states on stay-at-home orders for the next 30 days (at least), the interaction post-corona will be unlike any other time that we have experienced. I don’t know about you, but the next high-fives, handshakes, fist bumps and hugs I give out may be the most meaningful.

By the time we hold our next event, the entire world will have been sitting at home for more than a month. We should be reimagining the experience we want our clients and their attendees to have. It should be unlike any other--because it really will be.

There isn’t just one answer. There isn’t just one new format. This is truly the transformation of an industry. In a few weeks (let’s hope), the world will be released from confinement, and we need to be ready.

1. Reach

  • Who is your target market?
  • What are the factors impacting them right now?

2. Relevance

  • Who is their audience?
  • How has this impacted their audience?

3. Revenue

  • How can we build opportunities for engagement?

4. Reputation

  • How are the goals of your engagement translated to this new "global" audience?

5. ROI

  • How can we create a new experience to speak to all of that?
  • Technology will be a huge part of the answer and there are so many things that can intentionally facilitate that conversation … but what else?

Now that we have nothing to do for a bit, let’s break the box. Start brainstorming with your teams. Let your minds wander. Don’t think outside of the box--break the box.

This is our chance to truly transform the event world. Everyone is watching our industry because we were the first to be significantly impacted. We will be back, stronger than ever. Shared experiences will have an even greater meaning when we’re able to meet face-to-face again. Until then, what are you going to do with it?

Niki McKay is owner of Blue Danube Productions, based in Seattle.

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