January 05, 2021
By Mike Fletcher

When last year’s IBTM World Trends Watch Report, written over the summer of 2019, predicted that the Virtual Experience Economy would be the big trend for 2020 (accelerating the merger of in-person and digital event elements), no-one could have imagined just how little time this evolution to online would take. 

The report’s author, Alistair Turner, argued that technology’s importance in enhancing and ultimately changing the traditional live event experience would create new trends focused on issues such as purpose, sustainability plus wellness and lead to the emergence of the next generation of event planners, agencies and delegates. 

However, not even he could have forecast that a global coronavirus crises would result in a period of hyper-acceleration, resulting in the worldwide adoption of virtual event technology and a sharper focus on issues around ethical business practices, employee welfare and sustainability.

In the newly launched 2021 version of the report, written in the autumn of 2020 as the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 passed one million globally and the second wave dominated news agendas, a key exponent of the Virtual Experience Economy, Kim Myhre says: 

“The digitalisation of experience will continue to challenge traditional event design. We are dealing with a new audience of digital natives that are technology-enabled and with the desire and ability to communicate digitally as well as physically. It would be foolish for the events industry not to realise that change is here and that it will transform the future of how we design and deliver live experiences.” 

As a result, this latest IBTM World Trends Report predicts that the role of the event planner has now changed forever too. After all, they have had to re-skill and adopt technology closer in style to a traditional media company, capable of creating broadcast-quality content to be delivered live or produced ahead of the event. 

The role of the event planner has changed for good

Hannah Luffman, Strategy Director at UK-based agency Cheerful Twentyfirst is quoted in the report as saying: 

“As more brands embrace the virtual experience landscape, the new challenge is understanding that audiences behave differently online. Part of this means delivering content in new ways; highly accessible, on-demand and personalised at scale, a model most brands have never truly explored before now. There is a sweet spot between strategy, creative, content and production where brands (and agencies) have all the tools to target and galvanise online audiences.” 

This is also reflected in Cvent’s own 2020 Planner Sentiment & Sourcing Report, Europe edition

More than 700 European event planners were surveyed and 62% said that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased their use of technology, whilst 41% listed investing in virtual planning and meeting technology as a primary priority when planning events in 2021. 

The Virtual Experience Economy's evolutionary march will also likely impact venue choice and negotiations.

When asked what key clause they would renegotiate, half (50%) of planner respondents chose AV technology provided by the venue as one of their three options. 

Suppliers need to look at how increased investment in the Virtual Experience Economy can not only streamline events but also increase collaboration between themselves and planners in the sourcing and planning stages. 

James Rees, Executive Director, Conference & Events, ExCeL London, explains his venue’s decision to open a hybrid events studio by telling the IBTM World Trends Report: 

“Even before the pandemic, it was impossible to get every target delegate on a plane, away from the office, the operating theatre or the sales-floor and through the venue door, which in turn was heralding a move to hybrid formats. The progression of this has been (for us) to install a state-of-the-art hybrid events studio, to offer event organisers the opportunity to diversify and broaden their reach and deliver high-impact, engaging virtual and hybrid formats. This means the virtual experience can now match the high quality of the content and activations on offer in the auditorium and on the show floor, rather than be an after-thought.”

ExCeL London is meeting planner demand with a hybrid events studio

Speaking at Cvent CONNECT® Europe Virtual, Rees told delegates: “Our virtual event studio has been attracting a lot of interest from large corporates who are asking if it will remain in place. The answer is yes, as hybrid and virtual event technologies are vital for the future benefit of planners and delegates alike.” 

According to Cvent’s 2020 Planner Sentiment & Sourcing Report, this decision makes perfect business sense. 

Over three quarters (77%) of respondents said reliable and fast connectivity and AV equipment will influence choice of venue for hybrid event experiences. That’s ahead of the 52% who cited guidance in staging a virtual event, which suggests also that planners will rely on suppliers to provide guidance, knowledge and expertise. 

For Myhre’s company, the opportunity is for event professionals to continue the transition from event organiser to experience designer. 

He says: “The one thing we don’t need to continue to debate is whether technology is going to be an integral part of the live experience. We will continue to see breakthroughs in new experience technologies, apps, virtual, social media, AI, VR, drones, interactive video, projection mapping, holograms and more. What we now need to think about is how we apply this dizzying array of technology in the best and most meaningful ways to enhance and extend the attendee experience.

How VR fits into future events is yet to be determined

“In this emerging world we will be expected to design more ‘on-live’ experiences - where digital and live medium work seamlessly and effortlessly together to amplify the brand experience both for those physically in attendance, as well as the increasing numbers of remote digital attendees. This will require the traditional event planner to focus on a more human-centric design approach.”  

This will ultimately accelerate the 'purpose' trend as one to watch for the future. 

Myhre explains: “As many of the world’s most respected brands are becoming more active at promoting how they are helping to make the world a better place, experience designers are now exploring how to incorporate ‘purpose’ into the design of their event experiences. For example, online experiences that are able to reach audiences not able to travel or attend live events, will be more environmentally friendly and can build and sustain online support communities around important social issues.

"Even today’s brand experience content is beginning to serve a purpose to inspire audiences to make a positive impact on their own lives as well as the world around them, focusing on attendee health and wellbeing, sustainability and social responsibility.” 

Events with purpose is a trend that goes hand-in-hand with the Virtual Experience Economy and is predicted to have increasing influence on the events industry over the next ten years. Its impact will be a positive one and add to the growing list of opportunities to emerge in our rapidly changing meetings and events world.

Mike Fletcher

Mike Fletcher

Mike has been writing about the meetings and events industry for almost 20 years as a former editor at Haymarket Media Group, and then as a freelance writer and editor. He currently runs his own content agency, Slippy Media, catering for a wide-range of client requirements, including social strategy, long-form, event photography, event videography, reports, blogs and ghost-written material.

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