In January last year I set out the important role AI will play over the next decade in transforming the Events Industry. Despite Covid, my view a year later remains unchanged. In fact the last twelve months has highlighted why as an industry we need more AI-powered event tech, not less. 

We all know that our sector is filled with many inefficient, repetitive tasks and processes currently executed by humans when the reality is, a computer would be better, faster and more accurate. Just before Covid hit I explained at a client event how imperative it was for senior M&E stakeholders to understand where AI-driven tech can do a better job than humans or where it can help humans to do a better job. In doing so, they could free up more time and resources for their teams to focus on what humans do best, bringing creativity to event planning and execution, managing client relationships with outstanding customer service and overall event knowledge. 

This combination of technology working alongside human expertise powers what we call “human-kind event tech” and its importance will continue to grow in helping our industry navigate a future that will consist of in-person, virtual and hybrid events.

More ‘human-kind event tech’ not less

Looking back at 2020 and now looking ahead at 2021 and beyond it is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has and will continue to accelerate the need for more “human-kind event tech”. The virus’ impact on meetings and events means there are now going to be smaller teams with less resources having to do as much if not more than before while at the same time facing increased scrutiny on ROI and having to learn new skills to deliver virtual and hybrid events alongside in-person ones. 

The pivot to virtual has forced companies to rely on AI-powered tech to help them deliver their meetings and events and this trend will continue to gather pace even when in person events come back. Their experience of virtual events will also increase expectations of what technology should be doing to enhance in-person experiences.  This is evidenced by Bizzabo’s 2020 Evolution of Events Report that highlights how 60% of event planners are looking for a hybrid solution that can manage both their virtual and in-person events in one place.

Why virtual is here to stay

And when in person events do come back the events industry will look very different to the one that existed before the virus. Before Covid, 97% of events were in-person and 3% were virtual. Once we return to physical events, research from Skift MB shows how this will have changed dramatically where 62% of event planners intend to employ a digital strategy to maintain their virtual audience. Grandview research predicts that the virtual events industry will grow tenfold in the next decade from $78bn to $780bn. This growth has been reflected in the fundraising of virtual startups such as Hopin who have raised $125M on a $2.1bn valuation.

And this is understandable as there are five good reasons why virtual is here to stay. The first is scale and reach. A good example is the data behind Cvent’s Customer Care Conference. Last year, its in-person only customer conference attracted 4,500 attendees; its virtual only conference this year attracted 45,000 people and there are many more examples of this. Virtual is delivering an additional event audience that was not captured before. 

Secondly, virtual events are reaching people and offices all over the world who previously could not have accessed the same content by attending in person. Thirdly, there is the issue of sustainability where one day meetings attended by people flying in and flying out in the same day will become less common. Next is measurability as virtual lends itself to capturing vital data that in-person doesn’t and this is key to demonstrating ROI. And lastly, virtual events are cheaper to deliver than in-person. 

At HeadBox, we have seen virtual being used across the entire spectrum of events having delivered over 500 hybrid and virtual events in Q4 last year from a meeting to a 1000 person conference as well as Christmas parties. And we have learnt from this where virtual and in-person work best. Virtual has delivered well for events where there is a higher level of content, particularly curated content and the need for information sharing. It could also replace many smaller in person meetings. However, in-person triumphs for relationship building, deal making, collaboration and social gatherings. 

man and woman near table
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Understanding the benefits of each modality and suggestions on how best to integrate virtual with in-person to deliver a truly integrated hybrid experience can be followed up in more detail by reading HeadBox’s white paper “Working in a virtual world: Comparing the impact of in-person and virtual interactions” by Dr. Diana R. Sanchez, Assistant Professor at San Francisco State University and Tamara Skootsky, Research Assistant at WorkTech and Masters degree student at San Francisco State University.

Virtual does come with its challenges

Having said this we also have to recognise that we are only at the beginning of the virtual events journey, at Virtual 0.1. As Rafat Ali from Skift cited recently,

“The Events Industry is having its own Napster moment…the current crop of virtual event software companies – most of them new companies, all of them clunky and prone to malfunctioning in live events – are the Musicnet and Pressplay of the event sector (it took Spotify 15 years to perfect the software) – those early companies promising the moon on digital music but they were really just 0.1 version of the revolution to come”.

This is evident by the major challenges that come with running virtual events. 

The most important of these is the lack of engagement. We have all attended a virtual event where people have their videos turned off and don’t contribute. This is supported by Bizzabo’s 2020 Evolution of Events Report that highlights how almost 70% of event organisers say the biggest challenge faced by event planners organising a virtual event compared to in person is engagement and networking. The next challenge with virtual is that it has presented the industry with a completely new landscape to navigate, one the sector is ill-equipped to meet as there is a huge skills gap. 

Many event planners lack the skills and confidence to deliver events on the array of virtual platforms out there. Having these skills is critical because we know that as much thought, planning and preparation needs to go into delivering a high quality virtual event as goes into a high quality in-person one. It is not as simple as lifting a physical event and shifting it to digital. A virtual event needs to be approached in a completely different way to a physical one. This places an even greater emphasis on creativity and activity design to ensure attendees stayed engaged throughout. 

With hybrid events this desire increases further as corporates want to ensure that virtual and in-person attendees have the same (or as close as possible to) experience and are treated equally. And finally, because of all of these challenges we recognise the vital importance of the human touch and event expertise. We have learnt it takes as many ‘human-kind touches’ to deliver a large virtual event as it does to deliver an in-person one.

Why the future is hybrid

Despite these challenges we believe that virtual is here to stay. And if it is then the future will be a hybrid one – where every major physical event in the future will have a significant virtual component to it. As Johnny Boufarhat, the CEO of Hopin says,

“Having moved from mostly in-person to entirely virtual events during the crisis, we will soon move to hybrid events — events where people will have the choice to either travel and participate in-person or to join online. And things will remain that way, I hope, forever. Event tech will enable everyone to feel part of the same experience”. 

Johnny Boufarhat, CEO, Hopin

It is clear that in this hybrid future the need for “human-kind event tech” will be even greater. The requirement for human expertise to be working in tandem with AI-powered event technology is as vital when it comes to delivering virtual events as it is for delivering in-person ones.

It is why at HeadBox we are excited about the year ahead as we see our event software platform, HeadBox Business, being able to help our customers to meet this future by allowing them to book, plan and execute all their in person, hybrid and virtual events in one place.