Over the past couple of years, we have all become accustomed to using workplace technology in ways we never imagined. For many of us, board rooms were replaced by video calls. Cubicles and open-plan offices teeming with activity were traded in for kitchen tables and pajama pants. For meeting and event planners, it may seem like the entire in-person meeting world has gone the way of the morning commute.
With technology changing so quickly, how can you stay abreast of the latest innovations and, just as crucially, develop in-person relationships born of constant mingling? While conventions, trade shows, conferences, meetings, and other events took a major hit as the world ground to a halt in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, industry insiders say it’s too early to count in-person large gatherings out for the long term. But how those meetings will look has changed. What we will see moving forward will better blend online and in-person events, incorporating technology into every step of the process, from registration to measuring ROI.
And, yes, you can mingle virtually. The only thing to fear is being left behind as your competitors embrace the new hi-tech reality
of events. So, charge up your smartphone, laptop, and tablet and log in to the hybrid meetings of the future.
You’re an expert already
If you are still sitting down to plan your next big event with the same mindset you used in 2019, you need to rethink your approach, according to Joe Schwinger, chief of innovation for the event-technology company MeetingPlay + Aventri.
“You literally have a Ph.D. in event technology now that you did not have, potentially, two years ago,” Schwinger says. “The pandemic hit, and if you were a traditional meeting planner, you either got a Ph.D. in event technology, or you looked for a new job. Ultimately, that’s what it boils down to.”
Making the leap from conventional meeting planning to the newest virtual and hybrid meeting formats isn’t as scary as it would have been in the past. Nearly every planner knows how to set up a video conference call, and with technology advancing beyond that, embracing new technology can actually make planning smoother. Schwinger says it’s now easier than ever to register attendees online and to get everyone using the same app for the duration of the event. A big part of the technology hurdle already has been cleared because people are now more familiar with technology.
Schwinger advises the most important thing to remember when planning a meeting now is to include all the technology and communication techniques used millions of times a day. And while implementing a raft of new technology may seem daunting at first, adapting at breakneck speed has always been a big part of the planner’s job.
“Honestly, meeting planners are the most resilient, resourceful individuals in the world,” Schwinger says. “Lanyards don’t make it to the meeting center, and you’ve got 5,000 people showing up? A meeting planner will figure out what to do next.”
Schwinger says he speaks to worried convention planners on a daily basis, and he always starts out by reminding them adapting to new challenges has always been part of the game. The key is leveraging your current technological skills in the most effective way.
The industry started over together
When the pandemic shut down in-person meetings, it did so universally. To Schwinger, that was actually a blessing in disguise.
“What’s happened in the past two years is everybody has really been at the starting line together,” he says.
Before the pandemic, event-technology vendors may not have been brought in until most of the strategy had already been decided, Schwinger says. Event tech was seen more as a tool to facilitate the transmission of information, not as a vital piece of the puzzle from day one. But the rise of the event tech means that role has become an integral part of the initial planning process.
“The beauty of what’s happened over the past two years with everyone being at the starting line together is there’s been
this unbelievable gain of efficiency and lift,” he says. “So, when the pandemic hit and virtual environments became the only way to have a meeting, the best thing that ever happened was the volume.”
The first Tier 1 event MeetingPlay + Aventri got involved with at the end of the lockdown was designed for 5,000 in-person attendees, Schwinger says. In the past, organizers would have been primarily concerned with making sure each presenter had a working microphone so every one of those 5,000 attendees could hear every word.
But that’s not the world we live in today. For that particular conference, planners made sure to incorporate virtual technology from the very start. Instead of focusing only on getting their messaging out to the 5,000 people sitting six feet apart from each other, they also catered to the virtual audience. That allowed the convention attendance to balloon to 70,000 people in a global virtual audience.
“That just hit everybody within that organization,” Schwinger says. “It waslike, ‘Oh my God, look at the reach that we now have.’”
That kind of impact is impossible to overstate or ignore, and in the process, the success made it impossible to go back to the old way of doing things.
The right technology
Technology plays a central part in all meeting formats, whether in person, virtual, or hybrid. Instead of focusing time and energy on outmoded methods of hosting meetings and events, the key to success now is deploying the right technology at the right time.
Ed Stevens says his company’s software has found unique solutions to create meaningful connections in virtual and hybrid settings.
“Right now, we see maybe 25 percent of the large meetings we work on as being completely online,” says Stevens, founder and CEO of Dallas-based event-technology company Preciate. “People want to get in person, but almost all of them are hybrid in some respect. The thing that’s really emerging is since we have lower attendance in person and larger attendance virtually, how do we make the virtual experience better while still making the in-person experience awesome?”
Stevens estimates it will take three to five years for in-person events to fully repopulate. In the meantime, capturing the attention of virtual attendees becomes the top priority, he says.
“If you give someone a really bad virtual experience, what’s the likelihood that they’re going to come in person next year?” he asks. “The challenge for keeping online attendees is technological. How do you bring them some of the benefits of what they would get in person?”
If you think there’s no way to replicate the immediacy and bonding that comes from face-to-face conversation, Stevens and the Preciate team have some pretty interesting solutions.
Hobnobbing in a virtual world
One of the more immediate and friendly approaches to drawing in virtual attendees stems from a reimagining of video conferences. Most people are all too familiar with square or rectangular boxes aligned in a grid on video conference calls. That design effectively locks each attendee in an enclosed but identical space, with the whole display screen becoming smaller and more cluttered the more attendees log on.
In-person events tend to come alive and spark the most meaningful connections when attendees are free to roam and strike up conversations organically. Stevens says his firm’s software aims to replicate in-person serendipity in an online setting.
“For the online attendees, we create a two-dimensional space where they can move their video around,” Stevens says. “That means they can network. If they join a conversation that isn’t very interesting, they can kind of beg out of it and move on. They can work the room.”
This mobility creates mingling on a virtual scale while also allowing attendees to do things like approach a keynote speaker after a presentation is over. In that case, Stevens says, it becomes irrelevant where that keynote speaker actually is.
For a hybrid event, for example, the keynote could be presented as it always has been, from a stage in a large room in front of any number of in-person attendees. That presentation is generally always recorded and simulcast on screens around the main room, and that feed is exactly what virtual attendees would see on their mobile device or laptop.
Using the Preciate app, a presenter could walk off the real stage after wrapping up, take out a cell phone, log in to the event virtually, and start an informal conversation with virtual attendees. This also could be the case for pre-recorded presentations, allowing the presenter to join in from anywhere in the world immediately after the presentation. Such informal chats generally are not recorded, Stevens says, allowing the same sort of natural freedom a small-group in-person chat would allow.
Online events can raise privacy concerns, not only because some might be inhibited about speaking to such a wide audience, but also because of what might be recorded and broadcast. That new climate has led to a change in thinking about ways to encourage attendee participation while protecting the privacy of the individual and the trade secrets of corporations, Schwinger says.
The solution, he says, is to build technology offering “peace of mind.” He points to the pharmaceutical industry. “They did not want medical secrets to make it out, but they also didn’t want to be spending $100,000 every time they had a meeting,” Schwinger says. “I think the bottom line is people understand that value but allow technology to give them peace of mind at night.”
Working the room
Schwinger says he has faced some resistance from meeting planners who don’t want mobile apps to allow chats and comments during presentations. Schwinger calls this a 2019 way of thinking. The ability to interact digitally is something people have become accustomed to during the past two years; despite some pushback, Schwinger says continuing to offer that functionality gives onsite attendees a voice.
“What we did was bridge the gap together,” Schwinger says of his firm’s technology. Giving in-person attendees the same ability to interact during presentations as the online attendees creates interest on both fronts.
“[We] created this connection between two worlds,” he says.
Not only does the ability to start or join a conversation with a few taps on a screen lead to nimble and productive sessions, those chats and interactions also are available for presenters and planners to see. Stevens says it soon will become commonplace for presenters or staffers to watch an app to see how many virtual attendees are paying attention. Those virtual attendees are free to hop out of one meeting and join another at will, so a basic nose count will show interest levels in real time.
Technological advances eliminate scheduling conflicts and offer flexibility. By recording live panels, lectures, and workshop sessions and immediately making them accessible through technology, attendees don’t have to choose between presentations happening at the same time. Attendees have everything at their fingertips at once and can watch the recording of whatever they missed. In that sense, the in-person attendee is transported to a virtual setting.
“You can take that content from in person, put it in a virtual room, and let the people network,” Stevens says. “That’s already a big accomplishment, and we think there’s going to be a long runway for that in the future world.”
Bridging the gap
While momentum is swinging back towards in-person gatherings, hybrid meetings likely will continue. And the valuable technical advances and know-how gained during the pandemic shouldn’t be abandoned. Schwinger feels now is the time to bridge the two worlds together.
“There has been such an advancement in technology over the past two years, and we’re now coming back on-property,” Schwinger says. “As an event-technology provider, we’re trying to get ahead of the traditional, ‘Oh, we’ve always done it this way on-property.’”
Schwinger’s firm recently launched ExpoPRO, a task-management platform for planners and exhibitors in the large-scale exhibition market. He describes the new product as “the answer to how do you take the world we’ve been living in digitally and bring that to the onsite masses in a traditional trade show environment.”
ExpoPRO automates communication, content collection, and approvals in one software platform. The technology tracks when tasks are due and details exhibitor progress for better organization and on-time completion. The company calls it “a must-have tool for event organizers, exhibitors, and sponsors.”
From virtual to hybrid to in person, Schwinger and Stevens agree now is the time to formulate a new approach to event planning. And the name of the game for planners and technology has long been adaptability.
Stevens says Preciate can get a technology newbie up and running on their platform after two hours of training. Getting started may not even take that long, Schwinger says, since planners have proven themselves capable of rising to the challenge of changing times.
So, grab your mobile device or laptop, and get back out there. The brave new world of event planning will probably look a lot more familiar than you think.