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2021 in review - the year in the future of events

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed December 20, 2021
In 2021, event planners hit the wall. Virtual events had run their course, but on-the-ground events didn't work out either. "Hybrid" events were a last minute scramble, not a bold innovation. Now we have another chance to design exceptional - and adaptable - events.


Event planners began 2021 event with high hopes: we'd get virtual events right in the spring, and on-the-ground events would make their triumphant return in the fall. Neither happened.

Virtual events remained (mostly) mediocre, and fall events didn't come to fruition - though a few valiant attempts at a "hybrid' event structure stood out.

2022 will go in one of two directions: event planners could bet again on the full return of on-the-ground events (not recommended), or they could apply the lessons of virtual events into a hybrid event structure.

Call it a necessary adaption to the unpredictability of COVID variants, but it could also be more. It could be a chance to get the best of both formats: the reach and inclusion of virtual, and the serendipities of on the ground.

The catch? Embedding a hybrid component into an on-the-ground event isn't easy. We'll need all the best ideas for virtual events, combined with great facilitators, and, probably, a VIP "virtual" event structure. I hope these best-of selections get event teams heading in fruitful directions - whatever 2022 may bring.

The future of events is hybrid, but how do we get there? Tips and visuals with Paul Richards of HuddleCamHD

Before we received the latest event setback, otherwise known as the Omicron COVID variant, I was already making the case for hybrid events:

  • Hybrid events are more inclusive than on-the-ground events.
  • Hybrid events bring in international audiences - travel across oceans is not likely to be easy anytime soon.
  • Hybrid events are the best hedge we have against disruptions in our event planning (see: Omicron).
  • Properly executed, hybrid events can boost valuable opt-in data - even if monetizing hybrid attendees is a work in progress.

Why? Paul Richards of HuddleCam HD is a virtual/hybrid event pioneer, with a slew of creative ideas on pulling off hybrid events, and virtual events with a VIP track.

So your company is customer-centric? Then your upcoming event better be hybrid

Providing attendees a true choice between online and on-the-ground is not going to cannibalize your event. Plenty of folks are ready to get on planes and see each other. Those who aren't coming - well, they aren't coming. No matter what kind of online options you provide. A true hybrid event gives you a much better shot at the active participation of remote participants. And it gives you the ability to take a true customer-first stance, and not pressure people into attending.

Why? In August, I made an impassioned case for fall hybrid events. I'm not sure that message hit home - but now we have a clean slate.

What would a hybrid event look like? Answer: you'll need much more than a streaming keynote

Hybrid events will post challenges. Streaming the keynote and pushing the social hashtag isn't nearly enough. But including virtual attendees in VIP meetings and social cocktail hours obviously isn't realistic either. Nor is live streaming every single conference session - not yet anyway.

We could ask ourselves, in a visionary way: what would a truly next-gen hybrid event look like? But a more useful question right now is: what would it look like to push beyond streaming keynotes?

Why? Hybrid events are much more than streaming keynotes. I loaded this piece up with ideas, leaning on the practical side.

Virtual event highs and lows - with hybrid events on deck, enterprise events remain a baffling failure of imagination

Why has the virtual event opportunity been squandered?

  • VCs have poured cash into virtual event platforms, but most of these platforms focus on being the shiniest mobile broadcasting toy, not a vibrant community.
  • Even the best virtual event platforms are underutilized. Event producers aren't being creative enough with the platforms, and they are undermining the possible by turning off interactive features, in an unwise attempt to control attendee behavior.
  • Event producers confuse priorities, opting for flashy displays of brandcasting rather than getting their customers/partners/prospects/influencers interacting.

Why? I blew out a gasket or two on this one, but I also shared a winning virtual example of a VIP-type format: the Zoho Day analyst event.

The problem isn't event technology - events were already broken. We need creative event design

The reason virtual events have been such a collective yawn is not because event technology is immature. It's because we tried to take a broken event model online. The weaknesses of enterprise events got exposed.

I can already hear the objection: "Jon, if you're right, then why were in-person enterprise events so much better?" Because we made them better. We survived the three-hour keynotes; we put up with boring sessions in order to extract details our team needed. We chased down account reps in hallways; we made fortuitous new contacts at lunch - if we sat at the right table. We hustled.

Why? Wherein I make my best case for the virtues of creative event design.

Salesforce's New York state of mind - Dreamforce shows real world events can be done in the US and here's how

You can perhaps start by reading a health & safety playbook aimed at helping other organizations to plan and execute safe in-person events. Authored by Brent Hyder, President and Chief People Officer and Sarah Franklin, President and Chief Marketing Officer, the playbook is built around five  key principles/recommendations.

Why? Event planners forging ahead with on-the-ground events will need to be on their game with health and safety. My colleague Stuart Lauchlan detailed Salesforce's approach to supporting event health and safety for Salesforce customers; the published resources can be used by all.

End note: if you're looking for more virtual event tips and use cases, there's more in my 2020 best-of event roundup. From that collection, flag up Virtual event honesty - an interactive virtual event won't work unless we solve the participation paradox. That piece acknowledges the challenge of passive participants - and the facilitation skills needed to achieve the potential of interactive events.

One way to tackle these challenges is through the VIP track format, where a smaller group of engaged participants experience the perks of online interaction with peers and execs. But, by signing up (and/or paying more), they also commit to the dialogue. When you expand hybrid events beyond keynotes, consider this format. Also see ASUG CEO Geoff Scott's recent piece, How we returned to in-person SAP events - with a hybrid event pivot.

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