In-person meetings are still likely to be some time away, especially those that require international participation. But at 9+ months on since Covid-19 arrived, you have to be asking yourself - do I just bite the bullet and pivot (ugh, if there ever was a word in 2020 we want to forget!) my event to virtual?
We'd argue YES and NO. And it comes down to the purpose of your event, and why it was being held in person in the first place.
If it's a talking head event, then YES, go right ahead - the virtual world is now ready and likely waiting for you to serve them up the latest insights online. Participants and presenters are loving not having to travel and being able to tune in (and out) at a whim.
But it's also a NO because some events simply cannot be replicated online, and that's not due to the limitations of technology.
We have one such example with a client of ours.
They’re used to putting on what we’d call an unconference, involving a large number of participants representing their entire industry's value chain. These senior executives are expected to contribute to the conversation with their views and experience, and then collectively decide a way forward. It's highly interactive and very much depends on the willingness of participants to roll up their sleeves and "take to the (white)board" with their contributions”. We like to think of it as brainstorming that actually works.
However, we quickly came to realise it simply won't work the same way online, even with all the technical advances that allow us to replicate the ‘mechanics’ of the in-person event.
The sticking point: human behaviour.
No matter what we may think or do, keeping an audience’s attention online is incredibly difficult, let alone getting them to engage in a lively debate. We believe it's because of rapport building - something psychologists have realised is very hard to achieve online, even when we can 'see' whom we're interacting with.
There's also the issue of spontaneous 'side' conversations that are difficult to replicate virtually in a way that feels natural. And of course there's the need for (stiff) politeness plus forgiveness of time lags etc. which means real debate is usually stifled.
Does that mean you give up and just wait it out?
Of course not. Especially if your community needs you, and needs your help in solving issues that involve Complexity, Urgency & Tension.
So if your community saw value in your in-person gathering, and will be impacted by its absence, we'd argue you should be finding a solution that continues to support them in some way. As well as finding a way to use the tech and the times we are living in to your advantage.
With people now more comfortable than ever joining a virtual event with videos on and mute buttons off, you can definitely do SOMETHING!
Coming back to the example of our client who was used to a complex in-person event, we created a series of experiences that attempted to replicate A PART OF IT. This allows us to tap the great memories of what the high-touch in-person event delivered, but more importantly it allows for continued momentum.
As a bonus we discovered an unintended consequence of the initiative: What might have been just a touch point has led to the beginning of real community engagement, and a commitment to convene on a regular basis outside of the in-person event, until we can meet in-person.
To our mind this is what hybridised events* should really be. We’ll still plan for a regular in-person gathering, but it's augmented with a series of virtual touch points. This allows a community to gather and tackle evolving issues during these strange times, keeping the momentum and engagement in advance of the next in-person gathering, which will always be the better format for complex, change-leading events.
*C2 Montreal is another good example of an event that realised its true purpose was to be a convener of community.