There was never a compelling reason to blend physical and digital audiences - but the pandemic has changed the conversation around hybrid events
Despite the UK's successful vaccination programme, the Coronavirus pandemic is set to remain for some time, so where does that leave face-to-face tech events? Whilst Computing has found significant success in its virtual events, there is no doubt appetite for some physical interaction. How can we as an industry enable that where appropriate, without losing the undoubted benefits of the virtual world?
One person who may have the answer is Adrian Barrick (pictured), editorial director of Incisive Media, Computing's parent brand.
What do we mean when we say ‘Hybrid'?
AB: Hybrid is the hottest new buzzphrase in event industry circles. Inevitably it will mean different things to different people. My broad definition is that it's an experience that you can participate in from anywhere. The challenge for producers is to create both ‘in-person' and digital experiences that are equally valuable and connected; and we're about to find out that this is much easier to say than do. As with every other period of disruption, there will be many winners and losers.
How much is the acceleration towards hybrid a consequence of the pandemic?
Covid-19 has accelerated many changes across the media world - who'd even heard of Zoom a year ago? - and the transition to hybrid events is certainly one of them. Hybrid events are nothing new. Cisco was doing them in the Noughties and even the US Center for Disease Control produced one in 2010, also as a result of a crisis - at that time financial. But in the intervening years, events were so successful that there was never a compelling reason to chase a digital audience. Now media owners like us have acquired one, because we haven't been able to get people in a room for a year, why would we want to give it up? Looking further ahead, the shift towards hybrid is also founded on an understanding that the world will look a little different to professional people post-lockdown. We don't yet know how things will play out, but it seems a reasonable bet that hybrid ways of working will make hybrid events essential.
What is about a hybrid event that will deliver value to a tech marketing audience?
As participants, hybrid events offer so much more flexibility. You can choose the experience you want, including a mix of participation in-person and digitally. It's also apparent that to attract audiences to either platform, media owners will have to raise their game, for example by providing greater access to speakers. Indeed, the format lifts the potential for the organisers to attract superior-quality speakers, because they don't need to be in the room themselves, or even in the same country. As sponsors, there will be more opportunities to shape creative solutions that meet their brand needs, more opportunities to participate themselves across both platforms, and better data - especially from the digital platform.
In terms of venues and locations, how well-placed do you think the event industry is for hybrid?
Everyone connected with events - from media owners to venues and platforms - is still at the early stages of figuring out what the future looks like. There's a recognition across the board that we will need to question everything we do, and to innovate. It will need new skills and capabilities, and I'm sure - as with the disruption to the old publishing model in the Noughties - new roles will emerge. Who'd ever heard of an audience engagement manager before the digital revolution? That said, I'd expect great event organisers of the pre-Covid era to remain great event organisers of the post-Covid era. They'll just adapt, as all smarts do.
In terms of how the next few years may pan out, are we now in a place with digital and hybrid events that the publishing media was with print media a few years back?
There are some clear parallels and those of us that survived the disruption to print are in a pretty good place to know what we're in for this time too. It's different, of course. Events are not magazines. But one lesson I took from that earlier experience was that there's no going back. Anyone talking about ‘the return of…' is kidding themselves. As John F Kennedy once said: "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are sure to miss the future."
Where do you see the winners and losers in the new hybrid space? For example, is it bad news for tradeshows, and good news for smaller scale conferences?
If only it were that simple. It's too early to say which formats are most likely to flourish in the new environment. As a guide, I'd paraphrase the old shibboleth ‘follow the money'. This time, follow the tech. There's a lot of money pouring into EventTech right now - the platform Hopin raised $40 million last year in the very early stages of the pandemic. Those platforms - and other tools - will be looking at incumbent players and figuring out how to seize their profits. What did Jeff Bezos say? "Your margin is my opportunity." Are trade shows vulnerable to the rise of e-commerce? Yes. But so are most other ‘live' activations. Look at the success of online concerts during lockdown. But those who create in-person experiences don't need to stand still. If they can re-invent them as premium and essential to attend, there's no reason why they can't flourish too. That's our plan, for sure.
Where have you seen true innovation?
At the risk of sounding immodest, I thought our content platform Deskflix was pretty innovative for a rapidly-created format devised even before last year's lockdown had been announced. I'm delighted it's done so well for brands such as Computing. But with hybrid in mind, I'd be looking at the way the US organisers of shows such as Adobe Summit and Visioneering are creating great theatre on stage with formats that can easily work for digital audiences too - dynamic speakers, powerful use of graphics and documentary footage, and short, highly-compressed sessions for the ADHD age.
And gazing into your crystal ball, where do you see the events industry in five years' time?
I never prophesy, especially about the future. But it's a fair bet that the events industry will look as different in 2026 to today as publishing did in mid-2010s compared to before the financial crisis. Some products - executive retreats, for example - will probably remain untouched. The biggest and best festivals will almost certainly be global and hybrid with production values that Netflix would be proud of. And there will be an awful lot in between. Fasten your seatbelts…
We're currently planning a range of hybrid events to launch later this year. Watch this space.