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What the vaccine means for event access in 2021: is hybrid here to stay?

By Vanessa Lovatt, Chief Evangelist at Glisser, the virtual and hybrid event platform that makes every event count. 

Hope is tentatively mounting in countries around the world as the vaccination numbers climb daily. This hope is greatly needed in our hard-hit event sector, but how hopeful can we really be right now?

Vaccination programmes may be aggressive and well communicated, but they still pose a very real fly in the ointment for the return of events as we knew them. The vaccination priority order simply does not support the quick return of in-person events. With high risk groups rightly being prioritised, the typical event attendee (early to late middle age, and in good health) is at the very end of the vaccination queue.

Generalising further, this middle-aged group, the most typical group that attended in-person events in 2019, are most likely to have school age children who are not part of the vaccination programmes, meaning that there are large swathes of populations who don’t stand to benefit from the vaccination programme for the foreseeable.

Add to this the current unknown as to whether the vaccinated may still be silent carriers who could infect others, where does this all leave the event sector?

If in-person only events are to become the reserve of the vaccinated-only, viability seems highly unlikely during 2021. If unvaccinated attendees are permitted to join in-person events and social distancing is required, will people actually want to attend – is this an in-person experience that people would want to repeat again and again? I’m sure many would dash out at the first opportunity for the novelty value, but would you want to keep going back to socially-distanced events? The sustainability of socially-distanced events is also questionable.

There is also a very real question for business events, and that’s whether companies will allow their employees to attend events if they aren’t vaccinated or if others in attendance aren’t vaccinated? With some companies already announcing no requirement to return to the workplace in 2021, are those businesses likely to ask their employees to expose themselves to risk by attending an event?

In addition to these considerations, there has also been a huge change in the personal desire not to have to travel unless required, both for the improved quality of life offered to an individual by avoiding travel, and also for sustainability criteria. At the start of 2020, waste and travel sustainability issues were considered the #1 challenge for event professionals globally – this will no doubt resurface as the chance to meet re-emerges.

With major cruise companies recently declaring that vaccination will be required to board their liners, it seems inevitable that the organisers of the mega events have some very serious decisions to make about how to safely enable the attendance of thousands of people.

Combining all of these reasons, it becomes quite clear that whilst in-person events are likely to restart in 2021, they simply cannot go back to the events that we recall from days long gone.

Many would argue that we shouldn’t be trying to go back to events of old at all as it’s becoming inevitable, and indeed exciting, that a gradual return to much loved (and often needed) in-person events can be augmented with virtual activity, across all types of events.

Increasingly known as hybrid events, the opportunity to deliver a meaningful event that offers great value to both in-room and virtual attendees is not just a pandemic-enforced next step for the event sector, but a huge opportunity to permanently enhance the entire future of the sector.

For it to be a true opportunity, a hybrid event should offer more to each group of attendees than simply a like-for-like experience in-person and online, and this is where our sector needs to challenge our conventional event thinking and transform the future of our event designs and delivery.

Despite hybrid events having existed in sports and television for decades, this phrase has only recently emerged (to the dislike of some who feel it’s too prescriptive) to reflect the sector’s return to in-person meetings with virtual elements. It’s just as likely that in 12-24 months’ time, this phrase will disappear again, as events featuring both in person and virtual activity will become the norm and there will be no need to label them. At this moment in time though, the phrase hybrid event represents much needed progress and development within a highly distressed industry, and it’s usage is likely to explode in 2021.

The sports industry is the bastion of hybrid events; delivering high-impact live events where thousands of in-person attendees as well as hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of virtual viewers is the norm.

The experience of these groups is centred around a core event, but their two experiences are otherwise quite different. Those present in-person enjoy an intensely immersive and greater sensory experience, often paying 20x or more for the privilege. Online viewers receive high impact visuals, sounds, advertising and content, replays of highlights (often the same replay multiple times from numerous different angles), as well as pre-event build up and post-event wrap-ups that could extend for weeks after each event. Extremely often, the in-person attendees will tap into that pre- and post-event content too.

These are the sorts of concepts that are already creeping into the event world, albeit gradually, and are what the future of the event sector can look forward to.

With the vaccination programme unlikely to have significant enough impact in 2021 to enable the return to old-fashioned, wholly in-person, events, there is no doubt that the progressive and determined nature of event professionals will drive the clever development of hybrid events. Come 2022, the concept of virtual elements within events will be so standardised that the vast majority of events will enjoy a hybrid future. This is set to be the decade that the event sector is completely redefined.

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