Things change fast in the planning world. Case in point: The explosion of event technology at the height of the pandemic helped keep the industry afloat while planners sifted through an overwhelming selection of virtual platforms. Fast forward to the celebrated return of live events, and the demand for virtual gatherings is beginning to shrink—as are the tech options. Firms began consolidating, including heavy hitters MeetingPlay, Aventri, and eventcore, which joined forces to become Stova. Many downsized staff, such as Bizzabo, Hopin, and Hublio.
So, where does that leave planners? It’s clear the pandemic changed event planning and expectations, and meeting professionals have to find yet another path forward. But fear not: The time spent developing relationships in the tech world and learning a new skill—not to mention the money spent on software—was not wasted. Event tech is here to stay.
Tightening travel budgets, lingering health and safety concerns, and the scattered remote workforce mean hybrid and virtual events remain popular. In fact, a recent ConventionSouth survey showed more than 40 percent of respondents are considering virtual-only events to combat rising meeting costs. Event tech also has become a larger part of in-person gatherings, with convention and conference centers upping their investment in hi-tech.
In short, event tech may be more relevant than ever. Advances in technology can help streamline the planning process, customize event experiences, engage attendees, collect ROI data, and extend the lifespan of an event.
“Technology is becoming more important as the industry continues to find ways to engage their audience in both the live and virtual spaces,” says Dara Begley of Kafka Media Group, a public relations agency that represents media-production company edgefactory. “Demand to manage presentations across multiple platforms has increased with various speakers using a variety of presentation tools. Post-pandemic demand has skyrocketed as people are anxious to get back to the ballroom, but with higher expectations for audience engagement and a distaste for the same old way of doing things.”
“We’re seeing a shift when it comes to the purpose of events,” Begley says. “There’s more focus on creating a can’t-miss experience as opposed to a traditional and straightforward meeting. It’s exciting to find ways to wow audiences and give them something they’ve never seen before, and one of our favorite ways to do this is by blending technology with live entertainment.”
Orlando, Fla.-based edgefactory produces virtual events, as well as live and hybrid content for meetings, trade shows, and special events. The firm recently produced an immersive event for Travel Market 2022 in Las Vegas. A key to engaging audiences, Begley says, is using visually dynamic content that immerses attendees in a cohesive experience. “No imagery is ever static,” she notes.
“Evolution after the pandemic was inevitable,” says Rob Wilcox, director of sales engineering for Encore, a global live, hybrid, and virtual event-management company. “There’s no better time to change than when things are evolving. We are coming back differently, and our customers are coming back differently, as well.”
But Encore was at it well before 2020, with a decade of hybrid and virtual event production experience. The firm serves as the in-house technology provider at thousands of hotels. “Engagement and belonging are top of mind for everyone, and that has informed both how we have rebuilt our teams and how we are innovating and delivering events for our customers,” Wilcox says.
Encore also recently designed an immersive event experience called Break Free, which was showcased at IMEX America 2022 in Las Vegas.
“Break Free was a challenge to the industry to face limiting beliefs in order to innovate and deliver events that transform their organization, communities, and the world,” Wilcox says. “It’s a rally cry for the industry to come together to talk about issues like DEI, sustainability, participant engagement, and all the things we think about when designing effective events.”
The future is now
When it comes to event tech, the future is now. For lovers of Avatar and Star Trek, the latest technological advances are a sci-fi fantasy come true. The conceptual landscape of the metaverse (in which some brick-and-mortar hotel companies have purchased virtual space), artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) require some readjusted thinking. And while this level is not yet a universally routine part of the planners’ agenda, there are a lot of ultra-hi-tech tools in the current mix.
“We see meetings of the future losing the distinction between in-person and hybrid or virtual,” Wilcox says. “The event location or format won’t be a focus; they will just be events, and it will be the norm to have full access to a community, content, and the event logistics in your hand in [an] app. Many programs are adopting the use of an event app for pre-event and post-event engagement that memorializes content, supplies additional resources, provides chatting opportunities, and keeps the conversation going digitally between in-person gatherings.
“We see technology as a tool to enhance the delivery and purpose of a meeting, not as a wholesale alternative to meeting in person,” Wilcox continues. “I wouldn’t recommend using technology at your meeting just for the sake of being cutting-edge unless being cutting-edge is one of your ultimate goals. We believe in purposeful technology to improve the event experience.”
Bizly began in 2016 as the brainchild of Ron Shah. “I think what we found is that our original vision has come true, and the world has changed permanently,” says Shah, founder and CEO. “The idea of hybrid workplaces is here to stay. There was so much remote hiring during the pandemic, it was inevitable. Every manager has to be an event planner now. If you’re a manager and trying to get your team together, it’s better to say, ‘Let’s have an event’ than ‘Let’s have a meeting.’”
Bizly uses what Shah calls “playbooks” to help design events, select venues, communicate with and manage attendees, and understand their preferences, thereby automating much of the planning process. Shah sees AI as a transformational next chapter.
“What Bizly has started with our bundling system can actually take on a life of its own,” he says. “Over time, our AI will automatically start knowing and customizing your needs so you can build meetings reflecting and defining your culture and company. … AI is rising fast; the job now is to help human beings focus on what is truly human: being creative, problem solving, and innovating.”
Shah also thinks AR creates remarkable opportunities for virtual meetings. “If you do a business event with AR, you can walk up to somebody, chat with them, and trade information,” he says. “It makes sense and actually has potential [for] replacing some of these larger events. People go to events to do two things: one, to meet people and trade contact info, and secondly, to consume content. And both of those things work really well with AR.”
Live and in person
In-person gatherings still require event tech. Many venues across the South anticipated the return of in-person meetings would be accompanied by new technology demands and upgraded accordingly. Emory Conference Center Hotel in Atlanta recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation, modernizing the facility to make it more technology-driven and better able to support hybrid meetings with advanced projector systems and video conferencing with built-in camera systems.
“We now have the ability to stream within the meeting space,” says Guido Brun, the property’s director of sales and marketing. “If you have multiple rooms, you can share a presentation in these different locations in the center.”
Brun says while there has been a resurgence of in-person meetings, hybrid meetings aren’t going anywhere. “We learned a lot during COVID on the benefits of virtual meetings,” he says. “Planners can really expand their attendance. A lot of people are still not comfortable traveling, but if planners organize a hybrid meeting, they can get international contingencies that may not be able to travel due to restrictions, as well as expanding their base. It also allows them to enhance their meetings and add more content because they can invite presenters from all over the world, saving travel time and money.”
During the past three years, people have become more comfortable with technology even if some planners need direction on which platform to use to accomplish the goals of the meeting, Brun notes. “Once our tech people talk to them, it’s a relatively simple process to set it up,” he says.
Cox Business Convention Center in Tulsa, Okla., also took on the new challenges of the technology age. Recent upgrades include boosting the facility’s Internet network, adding a video production studio, and expanding the onsite audiovisual and IT staff.
“We have seen an increase in the demand for our in-house team,” says Angie Teel, the center’s assistant general manager. “As a venue, we obviously love when people attend events in person; however, there is a level of virtual attendance that was untapped prior to the pandemic. Tech is a vital part of any event or meeting, and it’s one of those things that never goes backwards. We are always looking for the latest gadget or new way to present material. It truly is a way to transform an event inside four walls into something that is unique, engaging, and memorable.”