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Silver linings

Could the Covid-19 lockdown lead to a surge of digital events? Stuart Wood investigates.

The events industry is facing an unprecedented challenge.

Never before have we seen a crisis on this scale – and the extent of it is just coming into focus. Countries all around the world are in lockdown, enforcing social distancing and quarantines in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19. The worldwide event calendar has been put almost entirely on hold, and there’s no way of knowing when normality will resume.

Our industry is still in the ‘shock’ phase of this pandemic. But once the dust settles and we have all begun to adapt to life under the coronavirus, there are many ways we can make ourselves useful. UFI’s Kai Hattendorf rightly points out (p10) that events will be one of the key drivers in rebuilding the economy in the aftermath – but what about right now?

Streaming and virtual events offer one answer to that question. During an extended period where many of us are working from home, and communicating with friends and colleagues through video chat, could our industry see a permanent shift towards digital?

Jason Anderson, Digital Director at agency Avantgarde, thinks so. “There is an appetite for people to be involved in virtual spaces, but connecting to real people,” he says. “Covid-19 has the potential to shift the whole market in this direction: it might make exhibitors more comfortable with a purely online offering.”

It’s a tantalising prospect. Up to now, virtual events and streaming have served as more of an add-on than a replacement. But in this age of necessity, where businesses are trying to retain and provide as much value as possible, it would only take one big player to turn the tide. If IMEX Frankfurt went purely digital, how many imitators would spring up in its wake?

“Moving an exhibition online is a real alternative to cancelling,” Anderson adds. “There’s more opportunity for the pre- and post-event communications. Some virtual event technology now has the capacity for users to show off virtual stands. This means exhibitors, as well as visitors, can try and replicate the value of a faceto-face event.”

The decision to move online shouldn’t be made lightly, however. Anderson is keen to stress that streaming your event, or staging it in a virtual space, requires a different set of skills: “You need to be more skilled at telling your story in a virtual event, because its so much easier to jump between Virtual Exhibition Booth 1 and Virtual Exhibition Booth 12. You’d better be sure you’re saying something interesting.”

Looking to the future

It might be difficult for some event businesses to look to the future at the moment, given the dire straits caused by high-profile cancellations and the shutting down of supply chains. But it is important to try and find silver linings in dark times and Michael Piddock, CEO of Glisser, believes the limitations imposed by the coronavirus could actually be a boon for creativity in the long run.

On the subject of streaming event content remotely, Piddock says: “By forcing yourself to think about making something really engaging through the content alone, it can allow for a clarity of focus and ruthlessness about what your audience wants, and which speakers can deliver that. When the world returns to ‘normal’ those lessons could put many events in a stronger position going forwards.”

So what resources are out there for virtual events and streaming? You can find a few examples in Options for going digital (below), but there are many more companies providing these services. In fact, a number of virtual event and streaming companies seemed to pop up almost overnight as the coronavirus crisis deepened – and some of their marketing strategies struck me as somewhat cynical.

I asked Anderson whether he thought there was a line to be drawn between advertising to fill someone’s need, and taking advantage of their misfortune. He replied: “Sadly, there will always be someone who takes that approach when there is money to be had. At Avantgarde, we never push technology for its own sake – only when it can genuinely augment an experience.”

Anderson’s sentiment mirrors the tone I have increasingly seen across social media in the events world. It has been heartening to see venue management companies like Easyfairs making their spaces available to government services, and suppliers offering the use of their fleets of trucks during a lull in business.

Now is not the time for opportunistic land-grabbing. To ensure the health and prosperity of the events industry in the aftermath of Covid-19, we all need to work together. And we might need to get creative with how we use tech to keep our events running.

Options for going digital

Below you’ll find a few companies which offer streaming and/or virtual event services. The list is far from exhaustive, so if it is an option you are considering we would urge you to do your own research.

  • Virtway. Provides a virtual conference/exhibition environment that can be accessed across Windows, Mac, tablet and mobile, implementing real-time voice communication
  • Glisser LIVE. Brings together video streaming with interactive elements such as quizzes, polls, Q&As, and gamification
  • NetworkTables. Links the attendee list of an event to a video conferencing/webinar platform. Users can schedule one to one appointments, watch presentations, and set up virtual roundtables

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