Back in the spring of 2020, as the world was shutting down in response to the outbreak of COVID, few knew what the future would hold. For the experience and events industry, questions were being asked if they would ever see a return to normalcy. Were in-person gatherings destined to become a thing of the past? One thing was clear, the industry would have to adapt quickly, if they were to survive at all.
Two years later, and the outlook for the industry feels markedly different. Almost as if it’s managed to pull off a great comeback.
“Physical events are back and booming," says Laura Roberts, managing director APAC at INVNT Group. "Post COVID, people are generally zoom-fatigued and they’re looking to make up for lost time when it comes to interacting with each other and attending events in real life."
Brands are spending more on events
"Brands are spending more on physical experiences post-Covid," says Roberts. "However, they are also often adding a proportionate amount of budget into digital elements such as live-streaming or on-demand."
Indeed, one of the biggest changes post-Covid has been a shift towards the physical and the virtual working together to amplify brand stories and deliver events to the masses. Social amplification is also becoming a crucial element of the strategy.
"Our Netflix Stranger Things 4 Premiere Experience at Sydney’s Lunar Park is a great example of this," says Roberts. "Where the physical event was also streamed live on TikTok, seeing results of 1.1 million TikTok views, and a combined social media reach of over 3.5 million."
But while markets such as Australia have recently seen live event projects return to 2019 levels, other APAC markets are still exercising caution.
"In markets such as China, where lockdowns and a more cautious approach to Covid have hampered live events, we are seeing a continuation of virtual events or smaller live events," says Ben Taylor, APAC CEO of Project Worldwide. "In Singapore most events have remained virtual, however it appears this year's Grand Prix will mark the return to live events there. That said, we are definitely seeing a trend back to physical events over pure virtual events. This speaks volumes about what audiences are looking for."
A market survey last month by global brand activation agency Pico found that across the board, everyone missed live events, with over 64% of respondents describing them as ‘extremely important’ or ‘very important’.
An integrated approach
While it seems human-to-human interaction and live events are a priority for audiences and brands, a shift towards offering both physical and digital experiences looks set to stay.
"In 2021 we found that 90% of our clients said they were focused on hybrid events. Today, as live events start to return, 47% still find hybrid ‘extremely’ or ‘highly important’," says Gregory Crandall, senior vice president, global activation team, Pico Group. "It appears we are evolving toward an integrated approach to events which gives audiences and brand technology choices in how to engage."
More choices in how to engage can only be a good thing. But are both audiences and brands benefitting from having both physical and digital event offerings?
"Events are no longer a one-and-done process," says Roberts of INVNT. "For those who cannot attend the physical event, there are now more opportunities to stream the event live online and even post-event so that anybody in the world can attend. This opens up a whole new realm of audience data, where we can truly track the ROI of our event executions."
With more choices for audiences on how to engage, and more opportunities for brands to track ROI, the hybrid approach seems to be a win-win for everyone. But how are physical experiences being seamlessly connected to digital experiences? And are there any challenges in doing this?
"Too often we see events that are incredible in-person, but they just don’t translate as well to a digital experience and that’s where we see the laptops shutting down," says Roberts.
This has been a challenge that experiential agencies like INVNT have been keen to tackle in order to create the most engaging hybrid experience possible.
"There are many ways to increase engagement and interaction digitally—breakout sessions, watch parties, interactive networking opportunities, and so much more," says Roberts.
One example Roberts quotes is its Xerovision events held in 2021 and 2022. Xerocon is the main physical event of the year for the accounting industry, however Xerovision is a virtual version where the agency was challenged to create a global kick-off for employees across four regions. To create an interactive digital experience for the 2021 event, INVNT used a vibrant, fashion-eque set design, various guest speakers such as Bear Grylls, and even a DJ taking live requests.
"Just like with physical events, you have to think through each tiny detail of the digital elements to achieve success," says Roberts.
Taylor of Project Worldwide says one of the biggest challenges of delivering hybrid events is ensuring that neither the live nor online audiences feel like they are having an inferior experience.
"This means designing two separate experiences rather than taking a live-or digital first approach and then simply adapting it for the other audience," says Taylor. "Often, this means double the time, effort and investment required to pull it off effectively."
What are audiences looking for?
The pandemic has forced a lot of changes. Not least, people's priorities are different. Research shows that consumer behaviour is skewing more towards helpful and relevant experiences and guests are increasingly locally minded and collectively conscious. They are also extremely value-driven and leaning towards empathetic and creative led campaigns. With an exponential rise in support for local businesses around the world, with 325% increase coming from Singapore alone, there is also a need for brands to embrace local and homegrown embellishments to their events.
"Most importantly, we are in a climate emergency, where sustainability is high on business agenda when planning events," says Ilma Afzal, strategy director in Jack Morton’s Asia office. "Green transitions and Asia accountability to help move the needle on net zero initiatives remains a high priority. Therefore, live leadership themes are increasingly threading sustainable and digital additions into their experiences, focused on the reduction of carbon footprint.”
The past two years have accelerated understanding and adoption of many technologies in the experience and events industry that would have otherwise taken many more years to find adoption (if at all).
"Many of our clients are leveraging this rapid advancement to seamlessly connect their physical and digital experiences," says Taylor.
In Australia, for example, Taylor’s team recently delivered an event for Optus, an all-inclusive, company-wide, hybrid event featuring a two-hour non-stop live national broadcast with six live-cross locations, plus an expo activation in each state.
And of course, Web3 and elements of it like the metaverse, NFTs, and other technologies are slowly but surely becoming part of the mix.
"We have created events that have lived in metaverse-like environments and while they are novel and exciting, don't embrace all the features that would fully qualify them as metaversal," says Taylor. "I am however at odds with the principle of the metaverse in place of live events. I can't really see how they will overcome the need for human-to-human connections and physical interactions.”
The future is not physical, nor is the future virtual
And so to the future, with two distinct segments of guests in existence, the in-person and virtual, brand partners are increasingly transforming their experiences and look set to continue to do so.
"Brands do not wish to just be a part of culture, but to play an active and lasting role in it, all paired with an innovative approach," says Afzal of Jack Morton. "Results show that all genres of events, spanning gaming, finance, esports, tech, and media are in need of digital-driven solutions that help increase event success and ROI."
Roberts of INVNT believes the future is not physical, nor is the future virtual. She sees the two working together to reach new and untapped audiences, as well as drive innovation.
"We will always have the beauty of the physical event where you can meet new people, taste new things, and be captivated by all the sights and sounds around you, but now we have the virtual to integrate into the strategy, where we can now add NFTs, the metaverse, live-streaming, and so much more into the mix," says Roberts. "The most important thing is to keep the brand story and storytelling at the forefront and heart of the experience—this is the most important part of building brand loyalty from your attendees."
Taylor believes the ongoing overlap between the physical and virtual is where some of the most interesting work within the industry will come from in the coming years.
"Hybrid elements will be embraced where audiences are geographically disparate or significant in number. Physical events will be more integrated into marketing campaigns, sharing content created for both on-line and off-line audiences, and will become increasingly important as cornerstones for brand's community management strategies,” he says.
"And 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."