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How hybrid events are merging the in-person and virtual experience

A combination of virtual and in-person experience is enabling events and conferences to go ahead

In the last 16 months, live concerts, conferences and events have undoubtedly transformed. This previously thriving sector worth over £39bn in 2020 was cut short as lockdown restrictions came into place – and has unfortunately taken the hardest hit.

During this time, virtual events have proven invaluable, and for many businesses allowed them to seize the opportunity of the stay-at-home ruling. But as we return to some level of normality, many are trialing hybrid events, combining the in-person and virtual experience and making sure that all audiences are catered for.

46% of people in the UK are comfortable to attend a live event and would prefer large-scale events to return, but with many still conscious around safety, what does the future hold for this sector?

What’s happened to the industry?

2019 was a landmark year for the events industry, reporting direct consumer spend of £70bn, accounting for over 50% of spend in the UK.

Over £31bn of this figure is comprised of business events such as conferences and exhibitions. Leisure events such as arts and cultural events, music events and festivals, and sporting and recreational events contributed to around £39bn.

Events play a major role in highlighting emerging strategies, innovation and creativity – ultimately, bringing people together to share the contagious euphoria of collective effervescence.

This sector has taken one of the hardest hits during the pandemic. Since March 2020, 845 major exhibitions have been canceled, amounting to £8.6bn of lost economic impact.

It’s estimated that 400,000 jobs in the events sector have been lost during the Covid-19 crisis. The industry has been repeatedly calling for urgent financial support. An online petition was launched for the government to offer economic assistance to the events industry during Covid-19, which received over 150,000 signatures.

The peak of the pandemic meant that all events were canceled or postponed, with no end date in sight. Progressive, quick-to-act businesses and retailers began to gravitate toward virtual platforms for hosting their events.

We can assess the performance of retailers, particularly over the last year, using the BOSCO Index, which is a measure of how well they are exploiting their paid and organic media opportunities compared to their closest competitors.

Overcoming the challenges of the pandemic

Sudden disruption to plans and a shift to digitization meant that running events wasn’t the only key challenge during this time.

Despite the e-commerce boom, retailers and businesses faced the difficulty of a saturated market. With small and large companies alike in one digital place, it’s leveled the playing field for all.

With clicks and costs soaring, the online advertising space can be difficult to navigate. We’ve developed BOSCO to help retailers plan and adjust marketing budgets using their data combined with machine learning.

Many businesses moved towards a new online strategy; virtual events allowed retailers to push the boundaries and meet with their customers in a different and more engaging format. A recent report found that the use of virtual events has gone up by 1000% since the pandemic.

As a multi-level marketing and beauty brand, Rodan + Fields (BOSCO Index: 746) had to adapt to keep its global team in business and retain customer satisfaction.

Its annual convention, known as the ’Superbowl of skincare’, was held virtually in October. The convention, entitled ‘One and All’, was broadcast on its virtual channel, with accompanying Facebook groups for consultants and customers to discuss the event during viewing parties.

Launch parties are a common occurrence in the beauty industry – extravagant events with a VIP guestlist. In 2020, Fenty Beauty (Bosco Index: 631) experimented with VR to launch the Fenty Skin range. It created a virtual ‘house party’, pitched as a way to party with singer Rihanna.

Despite not being able to feel or smell the new products on offer, the party gave consumers an experience that they would have not previously been a part of, including feeling like they were with Rihanna herself.

Sports fans haven’t been able to enjoy the experience of a live game for almost two years. As one of the main sponsors of the UEFA Champions League, Heineken (BOSCO Index: 717) held a virtual celebration to mark the start of the championship in August last year.

Heineken hosted the ‘Kick Off’ event with Defected Records, an eight-hour virtual music event featuring eight different DJs livestreaming from various locations around the world. As well as creating engagement on Heineken’s own social channels, the event was also streamed on UEFA and Defected’s social channels to increase brand awareness.

The virtual opportunity was highlighted after actor Idris Elba took to the decks for the event, and his DJ set reached over 3.4m views on YouTube.

What does the future hold for the events industry?

Virtual events have become commonplace, but the end of restrictions means that businesses now have more flexibility when it comes to organizing and hosting events.

Freedom doesn’t necessarily mean rushing back to live events with full capacity crowds. A recent survey found that 43% of people are uncomfortable about visiting live events.

A way in which businesses are combating this is by combining the in-person and virtual experience. This caters for all audiences, particularly those with safety concerns following the pandemic.

Junction is one of Europe’s leading hackathon events. In 2020, it held its ‘Connected’ event virtually and brought together a global audience. Today, it plans to hold a hybrid event, hosted online but with the addition of physical hacking hubs around the world where people can meet.

Similarly, the leading automotive trade fair Automechanika is offering a digital format this year, with a compact physical exhibition for people to network if they feel comfortable. With supply chains struggling as a result of the pandemic and repercussions of Brexit, hybrid events are enabling automotive brands such as Bosch (BOSCO Index: 637) to meet with clients again.

Many fully live events and festivals have been canceled or moved to 2022 due to uncertainty. However, as one of the largest festivals in the UK, boasting over 60,000 attendees at each venue, Reading and Leeds Festival went ahead for 2021. After speculation on whether the event would proceed, the event organizers made sure that certain provisions were put in place to make people feel safer. Both festivals hosted testing and vaccination centers, encouraging their younger audience to get the jab while at the event.

Although restrictions have eased, experimenting with new technology is making hybrid events an option way beyond the pandemic. Swedish band ABBA have adapted to digitization for their comeback tour. The tour will take place at a physical location, but the band won’t be performing live, utilizing artificial intelligence to create younger, hologram representations of themselves.

For now, combining the virtual and in-person experience is enabling events and conferences to go ahead and allowing some members of the public the freedom to do what they enjoy.

Ultimately, virtual and hybrid events won’t become the new normal, as face-to-face interaction and the overall human experience of events can’t be replaced. However, they are a way to reconnect with audiences and aid the recovery of the industry – an important milestone in the future of events.

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