Without question, the event industry has been turned upside down. Nearly all in-person events in the world have been canceled for the last 3–4 months and no one is certain when/if they are coming back in full capacity. In reaction, the event industry (including me) has scrambled to find alternative solutions. We are scrambling to keep our jobs and to keep events happening.
What’s interesting is that my inbox is flooded with "virtual event" invitations. I’m sure I’m not alone. I’ve even spoken at several of them. So the good news here is that "events" are still happening which validates the foundation of our business that human beings need/crave coming together at events to interact, engage, network, learn, and do business. The not so good news is that I’m concerned we may have scrambled a bit too quickly. Our definition of an "event" or "experience" has broadened so dramatically and so quickly that I’m worried we’ve lost focus on what a true event experience entails and why we work so hard to create them.
Let me just say it…..A webinar is not an event.
A webinar is an audio/video stream of content. For me, an event (and I like to interchange the word "experience") is dramatically more than that. An event experience in real life (IRL) gives me human connection and interaction. I meet people and they meet me. I feel part of a community. I’m inspired, I explore new things, I feel energy, and there are lots of sensory dynamics: audio, visual, physical, etc. When done well, it’s actually an overwhelming holistic experience that leaves me excited and influenced. I don’t feel that way on a Zoom Webinar or anything like Zoom. I’m sorry, I just don’t. I certainly appreciate high quality topics of conversation from a compelling speaker via video conference but I’m left missing so much from an event experience perspective.
I’ve spent some time reflecting on why that is exactly and I’ve identified 3 fundamental elements of an event experience that I believe are critically important and may be so subtle that we’re forgetting about them right now as we scramble quickly.
Presence is that feeling of being physically, emotionally and mentally engaged as an attendee rather than simply being a viewer or consumer of what’s going on. I’m actively present. 🙋🏻 Think about it this way, is watching a TV show an event? That’s comical to even consider but it gets at the root of my point. Presence is something that most event producers are really struggling to offer attendees with virtual events. A few suggestions and things to think about here would be to look for solutions that allow attendees to interact and network with each other on their own (and I don’t mean a slack channel). And if your event has any decent sized crowd (50+ people), you need to think about how all those people could actively participate in the conversation. How can you help facilitate many conversations at once? Note: this is incredibly difficult and expensive in most video conferencing based solutions.
Feeling and observing that you are a part of a connected community is a critical part of an event experience.
Two important thoughts here: First, event community is built by a common reason for attending the event (i.e subject matter, speaker, host, expected outcomes/meeting new people). The good news is that this is achievable with most any virtual event solution if you have compelling content to offer. For example if all the people that register and attend a webinar want to attend because of the topic and the speakers involved than there is a built in sense of community there for you.
But my second thought is more complex and harder to achieve virtually. At real life events, I can look around the room/venue and see all the other attendees. I can immediately feel and see the community around me. I can walk up to other attendees I don’t know. I can introduce myself and they can do the same. I can "run into" colleagues and old friends. The community comes alive for me. I can see it and feel it. It’s that emotional buzz of being in "the crowd".
Think about that, if I couldn’t actually see other attendees around me wouldn’t it feel like I’m just sitting alone at an event? With most virtual event solutions you’re only presented with a "number of people online" in the top left corner of the App while you watch a presentation or at best you can see however many faces fit on your Zoom grid layout. I can’t see dozens, hundreds or thousands of people with me in my event community. We are social beings, especially when it comes to attending events. This is important to us and without it the experience falls very flat.
Event autonomy is having the ability to pick and choose what you want your event experience to be as an attendee: which sessions you attend, who you meet, how long you stay in specific areas, what you interact with, which exhibitor booths you visit, which performance to catch, the ability to explore new areas of the venue (i.e walk around), etc. For comparison, the opposite of event autonomy would be forcing attendees to sit and watch a single video stream speaker after speaker in a linear fashion. Said another way, think about how much your feet hurt after a long day at a conference. That’s because you are selectively moving around a ton. That’s autonomy at work.
Autonomy is a significant challenge for most virtual event solutions because there is no concept of a venue and no way to move. I’ve found that you can really only accomplish this with avatar-based solutions that allow attendees to move around virtual venues and talk/interact as they go. In these environments attendees are back in the control seat and every single person comes out of the event with a unique, personalized, and memorable experience. That’s exactly what we are looking for as event producers.
There are certainly more than 3 foundational elements of great event experiences but those 3 are top of mind for me right now as I’m feeling Zoom fatigued, under engaged, and quite honestly bored as hell, at most virtual events I attend.
I share these thoughts and perspectives from almost 20 years in the event industry. I’ve produced hundreds of events myself and worked with many others who have produced thousands. I’m an experience technologist and am inspired by the new challenge and opportunity our industry has in front of it. Most recently I’ve been deeply entrenched in the emerging technologies for virtual event experiences. I’ve learned an incredible amount in a short amount of time. . For me, I’ve landed on an avatar-based solution as best in class virtual event experiences for many of the reasons discussed above. If you’d like to learn more, you can request a private tour by clicking here. My ask of you is please don’t get lazy on event experience. Going virtual shouldn’t lower the bar, it should raise it. Your attendees are expecting more.