If you've ever attended a horrible in-person event (which I'm sure most of us have), the thought of joining a virtual one may either make you cringe or jump for joy, depending on which side you're on.
Our recent conversation with Julius Solaris, Head of Engagement at Swapcard, the leading virtual events platform for large events, brought to light many of the truths and misconceptions around the virtual events space. We spoke about how the events industry is changing, how Covid has helped shape it, some new innovations, and a few lessons the virtual events space teaches us about building relationships virtually.
Although SwapCard's focus and mission are on creating a hybrid, data-driven experience that bridges the gap between the online and the face-to-face world, Julius believes that just because the digitalization of events has advanced what is possible, that doesn't mean virtual events are better.
"We don't need to go back to boring in-person events, but we don't need them to be virtual either."
Listen to the full audio recording at Close-ups by Complish!
It's obvious that the impact of Covid has been quite dramatic on the state of adoption of event technology in the industry. Julius has been immersed in the events for 14 years and has done plenty of analysis into the use of tech in events, and what they've seen in the past year, they haven't seen in the previous 10.
"It's been like drinking from the firehose for a lot of people that have been resistant to technology and the adoption of tech tools in the event landscape."
Although many had experience with tech in events previously, which definitely gave them a competitive advantage, there's still been quite the learning curve. As Julius shared, whatever happened after March 2020 is nowhere comparable to the demands and expectations that the industry had before then. Planners had to reshape and re-learn a lot of the tools, and the tools themselves also needed to adapt to the new demands.
The massive intake of technology companies building an incredible amount of features for planners to host their events online was unprecedented.
"It has had a massive impact on the ecosystem of technology as well. For the event industry, at SwapCard, we've seen 400% growth over a year. We were a 40 person company, now we're 140."
SwapCard is definitely not alone in its expansion during Covid. Other companies have raised incredible amounts of funding, which were never seen before in the industry. A new events landscape is evolving and with it, there has been a large uptake of people investing more in virtual. As much as the whole events industry wants to go back to in-person, there's a lot of people that are betting big on virtual. Those same people are doing whatever they can to push virtual events, and as Julius says, it's almost as if two forces are working against each other. As a result, many people are asking, is hybrid the future of events?
There are many valid reasons why more people may tend to lean towards 'team virtual', these days. If you've attended in-person events in the past, you likely remember those typical events where a few people are up on stage speaking for what seems like ages; this is exactly the reason many people hated in-person events back in the day. Apparently, people didn't get the memo about the pandemic and the opportunities it presented to change events in a way that would make them more relevant and meaningful. As a result, it wasn't uncommon to see event organizers translating boring in-person events into boring virtual ones.
As Julius shared, there's no need to go back to boring events, and it's about time to start thinking about what we're doing instead of just throwing people in a room and expecting a successful gathering.
"A lot of events will still be awful going forward because people need to reconnect and get drunk together, let's be honest about it. I mean, you know, that's what people like, they want to do the pre-event run, they want to do whatever, but they're not there for the content."
Julius believes that a lot of those awful events just become awful virtual, and the reason being is that the same lack of planning goes into both. For virtual events to succeed, event strategists need to re-think about what they're doing, and how to connect people, whether it's virtual or in person. Apart from this, the other crucial consideration is on how people will interact and engage with the content that is being presented, what exactly is that content and how and in what format is it presented. Whatever way we move forward, it's important that we don't go back to 'those' events that everybody was making fun of previously.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, I was seeing all these tweets and updates of people saying, oh, I miss the bad coffee of conferences and the sessions nobody wants to attend where everybody's self-promoting themselves. If we're planning to go back to that, I'm sorry, I'm not part of that, I don't want to go back to that at all. I want to go back to where the event industry was evolving too in January 2020."
Before the pandemic, Julies believes there was a movement towards creating more meaningful and purposeful events, while at the same time, making them more diverse and sustainable.
"There's also this feeling that in-person events were perfect before. Absolutely not, I've been battling that for years. So, I mean, we missed them [in-person events]. Yes, for sure. We want to go back, but hopefully, we're going to go back to a different event industry."
This is exactly what a lot of people have realized over the course of the pandemic; you simply can't just take an in-person event, make it virtual, and all of a sudden expect it to be better without changing the dynamics.
What's the difference really and how do they function?
"You know, you have an in-person event, and you have a virtual event; if you want to have both for the same event, that's a hybrid event."
Many people are still confused about what a hybrid event actually looks like, how the strategy with hybrid events needs to change, and what considerations should be made to ensure a successful event. It's all quite simple on paper, but it becomes very difficult when you start implementing it.
Prior to the pandemic, Julius said that most 'hybrid events' were implemented by simply putting up a live stream and calling it hybrid. That may have worked in the past, but nowadays, the expectations of virtual events have changed.
"There's no way that somebody would just watch a flat live stream and then be happy with a virtual event..., the expectations have risen so much".
With the growing expectation for better virtual and hybrid engagements, offering more engaging experiences and opportunities for connection, the next question lies in whether these experiences need to come together at some stage? For example, should online attendees be able to talk to offline attendees or connect somehow?
It's clear that for both types of events, there needs to be a separate experience or at least two very different designs of how you think about the experience for these two audiences.
"What we know is that different types of events right now can call for different formats. So it may well be that some type of events can call for just a virtual version of it and then some types can be just in person and then probably collect everything under one platform. Now, that's the challenge that we're trying to solve with SwapCard".
SwapCard has been around since 2014 and has come from the live events industry. Following March 2020, the company started pivoting and offering more virtual events to meet the growing demand.
"We are about the business of events, we're not about the long tail type of events that a lot of companies are focusing on right now."
SwapCard deals with people that are serious about their events, and who have events as their product. Companies like Informa, South by Southwest, and IBM are a few of the larger companies that use SwapCard.
The AI-powered event & matchmaking platform for hybrid and global virtual events offers a great user interface for the end experience as well as the integration with the rest of it, plus online and on-site support, and a top user experience. One of Julius' keys to success when it comes to providing an online event tool is to keep it simple. He believes that over-complication of features is one of the main issues with virtual event tools these days.
"Whenever you start thinking features first you end up with this monster piece of technology that looks incredibly horrible because of the complexity of the implementation and they are incredibly tough to use on the back end. So I feel that whenever there's been a successful tool in event tech, it's been because it's easy to use on the back end and the front end."
Apart from simplifying the virtual events tools themselves, Julius stressed the importance of not overstimulating the actual virtual experience as well. Events need to evolve, but they definitely don't need to be overcomplicated to be successful. It's this over complication that Julius believes is something that will separate a good event from a horrible one.
In closing, I'm sure we all would all agree, that no matter virtual or in-person, our expectation on events is much more than it once was and, the industry definitely needs to continue evolving to keep up with the new demands and expectations of both, attendees and participants. Although the future of events isn't 100% clear, Julius' insights and perspectives hopefully answered some of your burning questions. Still have more on the mind? Head over to LinkedIn 👇 and leave a comment.