By: Josh Rush / SURREAL
The global devastation from COVID-19 has significantly altered human life for individuals, communities and companies alike, forcing us all to rethink the ways we live, work and play. Along with unspeakable tragedy, the economic toll on a global scale has been staggering—especially in the live events industry.
With $30 billion in live event losses as of December 2020, one thing is clear: it’s critical that we exercise agility, embrace change and capitalize on the power of the pivot. As we prepare to move forward, there’s no better time to re-envision and re-design a live events strategy that is impactful, sustainable and built on a foundation sturdy enough to withstand any disruption—foreseen or unexpected.
When adversity challenges us to adapt, necessity inspires us to reinvent. And now, more than any other time in history, it’s time to reinvent the event.
As businesses start to embrace the convenience, cost-saving and lower carbon footprint of working from home, there’s no going back to a world that demands our physical, in-person presence. The notion that everything has to happen face-to-face has been shattered and upended; you don’t need to travel to Tacoma then Topeka then Tallahassee for all those trade shows.
In the pandemic’s early days, organizations of all sorts—from brands to bands—harnessed the power of virtual platforms as a way to stay connected, with a dose of digital dopamine. Meanwhile, interpersonal applications followed suit in our social lives—as birthday parties, happy hours and even weddings mass-migrated to Zoom. Between December 2019 and March 2020, usership on Zoom’s platform increased from 10 to 200 million, in just the span of three months.
Predictably, the resulting lack of physical presence has come at the cost of our mental presence. In a survey of over 2,000 work-from-home (WTF) employees, more than half of workers admitted to doing non-work-related things in meetings. Similarly, students have claimed online schooling is much worse than in-person instruction, and many professionals have said they prefer (and are more willing to pay for) the opportunity to rub elbows at in-person conferences. And it’s not surprising: when analyzing human communication, non-verbal cues do more than half of the work when we’re trying to get a message across; real meaning is largely lost in 2D translation.
Users want—and deserve—an experience that is more than merely a stopgap until on-premise events return, but something meaningful, purposeful and noteworthy.
This is where a new wave of virtual event platforms is beginning to crest.
Advancements for meetings and collaborations have come leaps and bounds using technology, and live events are quickly carving their place in the digital space. But what’s the best way to step up a virtual event? With a gaming engine naturally.
Epic Games’ Unreal Engine is “the world’s most open and advanced real-time 3D creation tool,” and is used to create immersive experiences across industries—from architecture to automotive, film to broadcast, and, of course, live events as well. Unreal Engine even launched its own successful online festival in summer 2020, which was open to everyone from fans to developers alike.
Launched in 2020 by game payments firm Xsolla, in partnership with Pantera Entertainment (which built Unreal-powered Your World), Unconventional is a “fully immersive online platform that celebrates and supports people coming together, for any occasion,” from conventions and trade shows to business and entertainment events.
But while the pandemic has accelerated our need for an improved solution, some forward-thinking companies already had virtual worlds in the works.
In 2018, two years before we were confined to our homes, saying “you’re on mute” dozens of times each day, Pixel Canvas emerged on the scene. Leveraging Unreal, this device-agnostic digital events platform empowers users to “make connections, feel the experience and go beyond reality.” Working with clients ranging from Verizon to UCLA, it has produced summits, award shows, and even a festive winter wonderland (complete with virtual snowball fights).
Another innovator is the streaming platform PureWeb, which partners with Unreal, Pixelweb and other companies, and “delivers a fully-managed interactive 3D streaming solution for innovators across industries.” It even provides clients with a platform for customizable trade shows, exhibitions and events.
Then there’s the newest platform to the virtual party, which isn’t attempting to replace IRL entirely, but instead bridge the physical and digital worlds to create a hybrid event model.
SURREAL isn’t another tool for painful, latency-ridden video conferencing, or a pinch-hitter for when in-person isn’t possible. It’s not a half-baked substitute and it’s more than a temporary solution: it’s an experience.
SURREAL’s platform is a blank canvas that offers the ability to build a world and get truly creative with 3D, enabling brands to create customizable and interactive virtual venues. Users are brought into immersive and intuitive spaces in which attendees—whether 50 or 50,000—don’t simply watch and listen, but explore and interact just like they would at a live event.
By removing cost complications and lowering an event’s carbon footprint, this platform provides a transformative experience that allows attendees to truly connect and engage using voice, text, platform-specific “emotes,” and video chat. The platform also provides virtual rooms (from food courts to lounges to meeting rooms) for avatars to socialize, “choose their own adventure,” and even order food in-platform that arrives at their homes. In doing so, it offers something that many of us have been missing most in lockdown life: novelty, which is proven to both make us happy and help us learn.
SURREAL is the convergence of simulation and stimulation—as powerful as IRL encounters.
A virtual environment isn’t necessarily a replacement for in-person events. When done right, it can be used to complement and improve what you’re doing in the physical world.
That’s the concept of the digital twin.
A more advanced take on the pairing technology used by NASA in the early days of space exploration, made more accessible and affordable by the Internet of Things, the digital twin—as explained in Forbes—is “a virtual model of a process, product or service” that serves as “a bridge between the physical and digital world.” (And was gaining pre-pandemic prominence as one of Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends in 2017.)
Deloitte describes how digital twin technology is used to optimize supply chains, perform predictive maintenance of machinery, and even address traffic congestion in cities. Translation: this is high-tech stuff. So how is it applicable to the live events space?
Basically, it helps you get better, and simply put (Forbes again): “lessons are learned, and opportunities are uncovered, within the virtual environment that can be applied to the physical world—ultimately to transform your business.” But more importantly, digital twinning can enable organizations to expand event strategies to produce virtual complements to physical events that are free from temporal or location-based limitations.
Now that we’ve talked about what’s new and what’s necessary, let’s talk about what’s next.
We’ve established that there are some impressive virtual platforms offering real results. According to Bizzabo’s Evolution of Events report, which surveyed nearly 400 marketing professionals, “more than 80% of marketers agree that greater audience reach is the most positive effect they’ve experienced from their shift to virtual.” But as well, there’s no replacing the exact magic of the in-person experience, which is likely why “the majority of marketers (63%) plan to resume in-person meetings in 2021.”
When it comes to events, there’s no doubt that the future is fusion: a combination of the physical and virtual, that when used together, create memorable, extended experiences that expand the possibilities of what an event can be and increase the impact it can have.
In other words: the future of events is a hybrid strategy that offers you, and your attendees, the best of both worlds. It offers the confluence of the virtual and physical worlds simultaneously, allowing experiences to transcend location and cut across time zones, using technology to give your event even more reach.
Event and content marketing agency, Cramer, makes a good case for why the future is hybrid events, including greater audience reach (people can join from across the globe), more intimate gatherings (smaller groups in real life), more diverse speakers (from locations across the globe), and more impressive ROI (tiered pricing to increase attendance).
However, if you’re worried about the virtual audience cannibalizing the group who might otherwise have gone in person, don’t. In an interview, Matthew Ley—president and co-founder of The Streaming Network, Canada’s largest webinar and virtual-event provider—references a study where hybrid event organizers allowed an organization to poll their virtual audiences and ask if they would’ve attended the event live if there was no virtual component. The result: 96% of attendees said no. In other words, without the virtual component, those people would have skipped the event altogether.
Further, when those same people were asked if they’d be more likely to attend in person next time, 27% said yes. That finding is echoed by the results of a 14-month study by the Meeting Professionals International Foundation and Sonic Foundry. The study, which surveyed almost 1,800 participants (meeting professionals, event delegates, technology vendors, consultants, etc.), reported that 23% of event organizers who hosted a hybrid event said more attendees participated in future events.
So, it’s not just your virtual audience you’re expanding.
Imagine, for example, an online happy hour that allows people to get acquainted via avatar and break the ice before a conference; a private performance in a virtual VIP room after—or during—a festival; a stadium tour or a backstage sneak-peek before a sporting event, concert or play; an opportunity to connect, network and continue the conversation in meaningful, engaging ways long after a trade show has wrapped. When harnessing this technology, the key is remembering its unparalleled potential to do what would be difficult (or even impossible) ordinarily.
By adding a virtual element to your event, you’re able to build more buzz beforehand, continue the conversation afterward, and up the impact for everyone involved. Not only are you lengthening the lifespan and depth of your conference, trade show or festival (which can be infinite), but you’re able to interact more meaningfully with attendees and customers.
Afterall, we’re human. We have an innate need for interpersonal communication and virtual connection. Virtual events shouldn’t serve as a total replacement for in-person events, but rather as a complement and exciting addition. Hybrid events reflect our increasingly hybrid reality: one in which we interact with our next-door neighbor and a coworker across the globe within the same five minutes; a beautiful confluence of convenience, connection and, at its best, a truly human experience.
By mapping out a multi-prong events strategy—that includes a virtual component—you’ll provide more value to employees, users, and customers while setting your brand up for success no matter what the world throws at you—and, you’ll have a great time doing it.