As we all struggle to know what the future of events looks like, one thing is clear—technology will be a major player at any gathering for the foreseeable future. To get a glimpse inside the crystal ball, BizBash chatted with the CEOs of four top event technology companies. The group discussed the future of hybrid events, what attendees want now, the most important things to keep in mind during the planning process and what every event producer needs to know about technology today.
On the benefits of virtual:Photo: Courtesy of MeetingPlay“The level of innovation that has had to happen to adapt around the pandemic has never been this fast in the 10 years that we have been a company,” says Joe Schwinger, founder and CEO of MeetingPlay, who calls it the “Uber moment” of the event tech industry. “We’ve introduced a new norm to attendees that they have adapted to and now expect to have in the future. If the pandemic didn’t push us in this direction, it may have been years until the industry embraced a digital presence at events.”
Think about how much virtual can amplify an event’s message, adds Pierre Metrailler, CEO of SpotMe. “Virtual is 10 times the reach, 10 times the show-ups, 10 times the layers of personalization and experiences, 10 times the time span with weeks and months of engagement—and 10 times the outcomes,” he says.
Meanwhile, Sam Kolbert-Hyle, president and CEO of Brandlive, finds that “brands are making moves to create differentiated virtual experiences that almost make you not miss being in person. The smartest brands are creating produced video content that looks like television and engages audiences in a much deeper way than traditional web conferencing and lower production streaming formats.”
On the future of hybrid: Johnny Boufarhat, founder and CEO of Hopin, thinks that virtual components aren’t just the new normal because of the pandemic—rather, it’s the logical next phase for the event industry as a whole. “As the world begins to open up, events will shift from virtual to hybrid, and hybrid will no longer be a buzzword but the new normal,” he predicts. “In the years ahead, ‘hybrid events’ as a distinct type of event will eventually disappear, subsumed by the general redefinition of what an event actually is. So where does that take us? To a world where events have unlocked a more connected and accessible future, unlimited by location."
Photo: Courtesy of HopinKolbert-Hyle agrees that the future of events is a hybrid of professionally produced in-person and virtual events. “Distributed audiences aren’t going away, and the behavior shift and normalization of virtual attendance has changed the way individuals will interact with events forever,” he explains.
And expect to see a bigger emphasis on content, notes Metrailler. “Over the next three years, we will see webinars, virtual events and in-person events converging, with events becoming content factories driven by an in-person core and amplified by an online audience. Event technology will become fully integrated in marketing stacks," he says.
On the most important thing to remember for hybrid events:The golden rule for hybrid events? “Do not treat your virtual attendees like second-class citizens; think of how you can pull together a comprehensive and equally enjoyable event for all parties,” says Schwinger, comparing a hybrid event to the Super Bowl. “There will be people who get to go to the Super Bowl, and they will love every moment of it, but there are people (like myself) who will get to watch it on TV and be just as excited as those people who are enjoying it in person. Our job in the future is to produce Super Bowls, not playoff games.”
On what attendees want now:Metrailler notes that he’s seen a major shift in attendee preferences in the last year. “Attendees want shorter [programs] and more frequent interactions, and more than 80% of the engagement is now taking place on-demand. Your tech stack has to excel at both live and always-on,” he says.
Boufarhat adds, “After a year of remote everything, people now expect to have options for how they’d like to attend events. … Some formats are a poor substitute for the real thing, like webinars and video conferencing platforms [because they] don’t give conference attendees the opportunity to meet and discover new people one-on-one.” When developing Hopin, it was important to Boufarhat to capture “the dynamism of live events,” he says. “Event producers should empower attendees to explore and self-navigate—just like at an in-person event—and enable them to utilize event tech features that allow attendees to experience a world beyond a typical video conference.”
Photo: Courtesy of SpotMeFor Kolbert-Hyle, this year has been about realizing many of his assumptions were wrong. “We assumed, wrongly, that most people watched a Brandlive event on their Macbook Pro, because that’s how we as technology employees engaged with events we were attending,” he remembers. “Well, that turned out to be totally false when we looked at the data. Across all customers, most attendees consume some of or all of an event on their phone today.”
Another crucial point? Working, easy-to-use technology is essential. “For large-scale events—I’m talking about 10,000 to 200,000 people across six language feeds and international audiences—you have to ensure that everyone can log on without failure, and there is a clean and engaging user experience for whatever device they are on,” says Kolbert-Hyle.
On how technology has changed the planning process:“I think that digital event technology tools have become and will become top of mind when planning an event, instead of an afterthought,” says Schwinger. “Pre-COVID, mobile apps and on-property digital activations would have come weeks or months prior to the event happening. Now, because of the tandem shift we have seen, when the conversation comes up about ‘Should we have an event?’ we’ll immediately see digital play a role. Digital activation has now become a big seat at the table in the event planning process.”
On creating engaging video content:Kolbert-Hyle thinks that quality video production is a key player in the shift to a hybrid event model. “Video makes all the difference at virtual events. It’s a big reason why a user hangs around at your event versus the countless other calls and video conferencing meetings they tune out each week,” he explains, noting that engaging video content should use a mix of formats.
Photo: Courtesy of BrandliveHe adds, “Interactivity and engagement at a virtual event is much more like television than typical event production, so pre- and post-stream media (for example, ‘the event will start shortly’ with a countdown clock and ‘thank you for attending’ with music), multiple camera feeds, dynamic programs with high-production videos to help transition between shots, walkup music and video titles and cheeky transitions will really help make it pop a punch and be worth rewatching,” says Kolbert-Hyle. “We are seeing a dramatic shift in how viewers are consuming live events to include asynchronous views before and after events—so making the content feel special and jaw-dropping is everything.”
On what every event producer needs to know about event tech: Boufarhat predicts that events will never go back to the way they were, citing a survey from Freeman Data Solutions that said 78% of brand marketers are expecting a hybrid model. “It's not just marketers—many are predicting that all major events will have a virtual component in the future,” he says. “Being virtual is more than just throwing a streaming platform into your webinar. The future of how we will network and interact at conferences is underpinned by key technologies that event tech companies are creating.”
As for Schwinger, he encourages event producers to remember the basics. “You were successful in this industry before virtual events for a reason. You have adapted to event technology and virtual environments, and it has shown that you are the most resilient professionals in the world,” he says. “Now, you must reinvent yourself and your thinking all over again in a hybrid environment. But I go back to the saying 'keep it simple.' ... [Technology] is just another medium in your toolbox to be successful. Embrace that toolbox and success will come.”