We’re now over two years on from my April 2020 article ‘Will the experience and events business never be the same?’ And, the covid pandemic continues to shape the way we all live and work.
In that article, I talked about some of the short-term solutions that our industry had leveraged to address the challenges we grappled with in the face of stay-at-home orders and lockdowns as well as my hopes for the future, one in which we learn from and embrace digital experience rules.
As I write this, it’s important to remember that these observations and learnings have been made across our APAC oﬃces and we’re acutely aware of ongoing disparities around various countries' case numbers, restrictions and strategies for tackling the impact of this pandemic. Consider these key learnings for the beginning of a hopeful end to Covid-19 restrictions based on trends we are seeing in some markets.
What have we learned?
As an industry, we all moved quickly to deliver what we could as virtual events that were both appropriate to the situation, audience, and client objectives, but like most hastily organised responses, there have been some notable friction points as aspiration meets functionality.
The good news is the past two years have accelerated understanding and adoption of many technologies that would have taken many, many more years to ﬁnd adoption (if at all). We transformed from producers of physical assets into creators of content and online experiences, bolstered by access to different tools and data that help us better evaluate the effectiveness of our work.
One of many such examples saw GPJ shifting from producing an annual ﬂagship in-person event for 22,000-plus attendees to planning, designing, and producing content-driven campaigns that deliver against the client’s objectives of community building, brand alignment and ultimately driving sales, without a physical event in sight.
Top of their, and many of our other clients’, agendas was the question of whether virtual events were truly able to deliver against their business objectives.
The honest truth is that the last two years have shown us that whilst web-based experiences have potential to create some really memorable and useful moments, they’re still not able to deliver on some of the core experience principles of physical events. Years of social conditioning of face-to-face physical interactions, sensory triggers (above and beyond sight and hearing) and the serendipity of connections all were limited across the raft of virtual events that we’ve seen.
Three key trends
So, how are we best addressing the needs of our clients considering all that we’ve learnt and all that we knew?
Humans are fundamentally social
In markets such as the US, parts of Europe and Australia where the media narrative has projected an end of the pandemic, we have seen physical experiences resume with gusto. Our Q1 and Q2 live event projects have returned to 2019 levels. This speaks volumes about what audiences are looking for.
As the world locked down in 2020, we all grappled with our new reality of communicating via a screen. This was certainly a shock to the system. And the solutions provided by virtual platforms, while they enabled us to connect remotely, did not foster the human interactions we all craved.
Over the past two years, experiences have typically been deﬁned by platforms to the detriment of an audience-ﬁrst approach.
Some of our clients even chose to sit on the bench during the virtual experience era for exactly this reason. We’re now seeing those same clients return to live experiences. This “return to live” mirrors my prediction back in April 2020 - I’m feeling quite smug about this reality.
However, my premonition of the beneﬁts of virtual events forging a more hybrid world of events in the future appears to have been short-lived – most experiences we have delivered in the ﬁrst half of this year have been purely live experiences (where we can). That said, this period of live-only events may be a knee-jerk rebellion to being stuck in our bedrooms in front of a screen for two years.
I still believe that the much talked about “hybrid experience” will prevail in the long-term, just perhaps not in such a linear fashion as we had imagined. My sense is that hybrid events will most likely take the form of experiential campaigns with augmented content living online prior, during and after the live experience rather than just creating experiences for two concurrent sets of attendees – live and virtual.
Experiences are format agnostic
Clients are seeking educated business solutions, regardless of marketing function, regardless of platform. More so than ever, the human-centred experiences we create span far beyond a single moment in time.
Staying format agnostic and focusing on audience-ﬁrst design allowed us to consider alternative, more effective campaigns. We also now have some clients who engage us to deliver only digital, content and/or insight functions beyond our historical remit as their event partner. Whilst we've not considered ourselves an “event agency” for the past decade, the work that we’re now executing is testament to that aspiration.
We believe the ongoing overlap between the physical and virtual is where some of the most interesting work within our industry will come from in the coming years. With Meta’s (nee Facebook) ‘all in’ gamble on their metaverse and Google/Apple’s seeming hedge on Augmented Reality, the future of experience is going to be an interesting one. We’ll see far more blending of physical with virtual than we have experienced before.
Personally, I’m not as enamoured as others on the virtues of a fully virtual metaverse. Putting aside the issues with current technologies, it also brings up larger social queries about how we might adapt to this.
For those moments of pure escapism and entertainment (as we’ve seen historically with movies and now with gaming) the idea of a metaverse could well be a gamechanger (excuse the pun) but I’m not convinced face-to-face experiences will switch to purely digital metaverse interactions in the short, medium or long term.
Measurement is critical
The rapid move to virtual events provided us and our clients with a raft of engagement information, that for the most part, has been cost prohibitive or infeasible for physical events. Whilst tracking and metrics are certainly not a new practice to the industry or us, we’ve found with a deeper roster of information that we’ve been able to prove our hypotheses, both positively and negatively, with more rigour than previously.
The insights we have garnered across the many channels now leveraged to deliver rich experiences are valuable and help us to evaluate how effective the experiences we deliver have been in helping our clients to achieve their marketing goals, and to identify areas for improvement and optimisation.
As the industry continues to evolve, it is crucial that we bring the key learnings gathered during this period of signiﬁcant change with us into the future. Speciﬁcally, we should look to track a more sophisticated mix of metrics to paint a more educated picture of the end-to-end experiences we deliver.
Where are we headed next?
So, there we have it, the three key trends that I believe are shaping the future of our industry. I am conﬁdent that we will see a strong return of physical experiences, but with some crucial amends. To set ourselves up for success as we navigate the future of experiences, we will need to arm ourselves with hard won learnings and new skills gleaned during the pandemic, all the while ensuring the audience remains at the heart of everything we do. We will continue to evolve, augmented by the skills that were forged in the ﬁre of the pandemic.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention , as I raised previously, the adjustment to more sustainable methods and experiences: Whilst we have seen the return to live events where we can, we aren’t yet seeing that wholesale return to attendees ﬂying in — most live events have been for local or domestic attendees.
I’m sure that will change, but there are some glimmers of hope on the green-front: Some clients are pushing harder than before and many agencies are pro-actively creating task forces to (re) address how we can drive better sustainability. I hope we can.
Ben Taylor is APAC CEO of Project Worldwide.