Ryan Hall, chief growth officer, global creative design studio, Territory Studio
In a year that is set to be notable for the sheer number of virtual events, it was fitting that it began with CES – the biggest virtual event in history. CES acted as both a stress test for the future of events in 2021 and beyond. And, in many ways, it was a chance for exhibitors, of all shapes and sizes, to get a glimpse of what virtual might mean for them.
As the events industry navigates its way through these unfamiliar waters in 2021, it should look to other sectors which have been creating immersive content for decades – namely film and gaming.
So, what are the key considerations for virtual events in 2021, and how can these creative universes inspire a new vision?
Function is essential – but not enough
As a ‘big virtual meeting’, the giant tech event CES was technically robust. And, perhaps given this was its first year going virtual, it was no surprise that the organisers opted for function over form. That said, the CES brand is known for providing delightfully immersive experiences – but this year certainly didn’t deliver.
Other events looking to mimic this approach should think twice. At a time when a large proportion of attendees will have been working from home, adding another video call to a long list already in the calendar can be rather underwhelming. Just think – you would be replacing the unique buzz of stepping into a conference hall or arena with the flat experience of clicking the ‘Join Now’ button, yet again.
Those looking to elevate their event experience beyond what is now a well-established and mundane action will need to think beyond functionality. Microsoft Teams – one of the Microsoft technologies used to power the event – is the bare minimum required to engage audiences, and a basic format that most of us are already well-versed in.
Moreover, with audiences spending more time than ever in their homes, the bar for immersive content is at an all-time high – and you have the streaming and gaming platforms to thank for that. Creating something that genuinely surprises people will not be easy when they have access to countless immersive worlds through their screens and consoles.
Identify your proposition – and unpick it
Any event, big or small, should have a clear value proposition – what is the experience you will deliver for your attendees? Until recently, most organisers’ vision will have been rooted in a specific physical experience. For CES, this was providing a portal of discovery to the future. This discovery process is exciting for attendees precisely because it isn’t linear, but often driven by the sights and sounds that grab your attention on the day.
For other events, such as a music festival like the UK’s Glastonbury – recently confirmed as cancelled until 2022 by the organisers – the proposition might be community and delivering a shared experience. A challenge for the organisers in taking this experience virtual might then be how to make an attendee feel like they are in heart of the crowd when they are sat at home on their sofa.
Once you’ve identified your proposition, the challenge – of course – is translating that virtually. Sourcing the back-end technology for this won’t be a problem; where the real opportunity to be bold lies is in the user interface.
No matter the direction you take this interface in – and indeed, every event will have particular attendee wants and needs – the key for any event organiser, and indeed virtual event developers, will be to build in flexibility.
Technologies like Unreal Engine allow for the creation of immersive environments that attendees can move around in, consuming content from the event as they wish. Not only does this enable attendees to have more a fluid ‘real-world’ experience, it’s also a lot less prescriptive than simply clicking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to an agenda invite in your calendar.
Set the tone, and the talent will follow suit
This year at CES was a bit of a mixed bag when it came to exhibitors – perhaps because the tone of the event as a virtual one had yet to be properly set. Some companies simply opted for slick videos, while others created virtual exhibition stands, so to speak, in order to better engage attendees. Notable examples included Bridgestone’s virtual world, an interactive city showcasing the company’s sustainable mobility solution, and Philips’ virtual ‘Healthy Neighbourhood’.
Despite the plethora of virtual and augmented reality technology unveiled at CES, few exhibitors took advantage of it themselves. John Deere was one of few companies which proactively sent out virtual headsets so journalists could experience the products ‘first-hand’ on the day. I expect we’ll see much more of this in the future, as mixed reality technology moves from ‘nice to have’ to essential for exhibitors.
The likes of LG turned to other "virtual" technologies to draw in attendees, using a virtual influencer to present its new line of robots. However, brands keen to emulate this approach in the future should ensure they focus on audience experience and not just generating column inches. Phenomena such as the 'uncanny valley' are well established, and it’s easy to provoke negative emotional responses by simply making virtual ambassadors too lifelike for our brains to process without confusion.
There’s a lot that can be learned from the sci-fi design language of film and gaming in this regard, offering customers a glimpse into a familiar future without overwhelming them. As the industry tries to find its feet in the virtual world, lean into what is already out there instead of trying to re-invent the wheel.
The year ahead promises to be a seminal one for the events industry, as a new bar is set and new opportunities explored. Even as the world eases back to ‘business as usual’ it’s likely that virtual events remain in some guise, offering greater access, more flexibility and, arguably, more room to play for organisers and attendees alike.
As a result, any lack of ambition in this regard can and should be remedied - and fast - if the events sector is to regain some of its stature in 2021. Virtual events are not a stop gap – they are a fundamental pillar of the industry’s future.