Virtual & hybrid events growth in 2020

2020, an extraordinary year saw suffering, bravery, restrictions on freedom, product shortages and business transformation.

December 29, 2020

- 5 min read

2020, an extraordinary year saw suffering, bravery, restrictions on freedom, product shortages and business transformation. No area of business was more impacted than events, which became almost entirely virtual everywhere except China. We believe most events will remain virtual in the first half of 2021 as well, and probably for longer than that, however quickly and successfully vaccines are deployed. Let’s try and understand why.

Virtual events have amazed everybody!

Imagine back in 2019 some brave soul announcing their major event was going to be staged completely virtually. People would have reacted with a mixture of shock and laughter, with comments such as, “That can never work!”, “What does virtual even mean?”, “You’ll never find sponsors for that!”, and “It’s time for you to find a different job!”.

But in 2020 event planners suddenly realized they had no choice but to go virtual. It is not surprising that many went ahead with deep skepticism, asking, “Will anyone log on?”, “Will the tech work?”, and “Do we have any chance to inspire rather than bore?”. Imagine the surprise – and relief – felt among people who realized they could still have a career in events when these virtual conferences far exceeded expectations.

Many aspects of virtual events proved better than their real-world counterparts:

  • Audiences can be much bigger: one event on Canapii ended up having 10 times more attendees than its previous in-person version.
  • By recording sessions, customers can watch content at a time to suit them, perhaps on an exercise bike or even in the bath!
  • Signposting content as ‘popular’ or ‘most viewed’ can drive people to watch sessions they would previously not have considered of interest.
  • Events can be held open for weeks, so word can spread, and people can register after the event to catch up on what they have missed.
  • The audience is more diverse. Virtual events are more accessible because they don’t involve travelling away from the family, corporate budget restrictions, or have seniority barriers. The events on Canapii have seen many more registrations from women, and many more countries represented than before.
  • CEOs and other senior speakers are more likely to participate. It is far easier for them to commit to offering a 30-minute video session than to fly around the world to a particular location.
  • The reduction in travel has helped many companies reduce their carbon footprint.
  • Last, but not least, virtual events cost less.

Many events will stay virtual

So even if COVID-19 is totally defeated, the first decision for an event organizer in the future will be whether to stay virtual or go in-person. A large proportion of events will continue virtually, for all the reasons mentioned above. We also expect the fear of travel and large crowds will remain with people for months if not years to come. But there is a bigger reason why in-person events will take longer to recover than many expect and that is the annual budgeting process. Companies in all sectors have conducted an unplanned experiment this year, to find out how much their businesses will suffer if they slash their travel budgets to almost zero. Most have been amazed to discover their businesses did not suffer at all, with some even arguing their executives have become more productive as they are not wasting time travelling.

Many companies have already set their budgets for 2021 or will be doing so soon. Most budgeting processes start by looking at where money was spent last year and deciding whether to increase or decrease those amounts. If the travel budget was close to zero in 2020, then every dollar added to it becomes a number to be taken off the projected profit line. We expect many companies to relax their travel budgets a little, but the overall number will remain at 20% to 40% of where it had been in 2019. The reduction in travel budgets will then have a knock-on effect on sponsorship of in-person events, as few companies will be prepared to sponsor an activity they cannot afford to send people to attend.

What are we missing out on?

Other questions many companies will ponder are, “What did we miss out on in 2020?”, “What value is there in being altogether in the office?”, “Did not having a staff party affect morale?”, and “Did we, or will we, lose customers if we do not visit them?” Smart executives will keep a close eye on their competition too, which will lead to a herd mentality. Perhaps it will be a case of, “We are going to restart XYZ because our competitor is already doing that again”, but it also maybe, “We are not going to do this, because the competition isn’t.”

Most people know that they have missed something in 2020. Perhaps we can describe it loosely as “happiness”, with mental health a major concern. But “happiness” is a difficult metric for organizations to measure, and, therefore, hard to set a budget against. Successful leaders will be defined by the decisions they make on these topics in 2021. How much “happiness” should they reintroduce?

Virtual versus on-site? It’s not a competition – hybrid events is the real winner

The future will include a mixture of in-person and virtual events, but most will be hybrid, where some attend in-person and others remotely. Think of an event that used to fly in an audience of 2,000 to Las Vegas, for example. Now, you might decide to invite the top 50 executives to a luxury dinner, before running the main event virtually.

The secret will be to use an event platform that can join the two concepts. For example, remote attendees should be able to pose questions to a presenter who is appearing in-person on the main stage. And meetings should be able to be scheduled so three people are directed to a hotel room where a screen, camera, and microphone are set up, and a fourth person can join remotely. You can even put on a 5km run along the beachfront for those that attend, while encouraging other runners to take part in the race remotely, with their times being recorded by the event app. You will never miss an important keynote again, as they will be routinely broadcast live and remain available for playback within the app.

The hybrid future will keep events accessible to all, women and men, rich and poor, young and old, from anywhere in the world and in any language.

Content is king? Not anymore, as the event experience goes beyond

Virtual events also produce a treasure trove of data, which means the Canapii team has been learning fast about what works, and what doesn’t. We learned from our first virtual events that the quality of content is vital. Competition for people’s time is high – after all, Netflix and Disney+ are literally just a click away! Presentations need to be shorter, get straight to the point, and say something the audience has not heard before. We have worked hard with our customers to explain how they must not just repeat what they do at a live event within a virtual platform. For example, at a large live event, one of the key elements is the time it takes to fill a ballroom and get everybody seated. That can be 10 minutes or more. For this reason, many live events begin with a short show or music act to create some atmosphere but also to act as a buffer before the headline speaker starts their presentation. Repeating this in a virtual event is simply silly. If the person sitting at home wants to listen to some music, they turn on Spotify. They do not need an event planner to fill their time with entertainment. When virtual, get to the point quickly!

So content is important, but so is creating interaction, and that is where we have innovated fastest this year. We are creating so many touchpoints for attendees to interact: emoticons are fun, comments are informative, polls give feedback and chats create relationships. Organizers have also had remarkable success with the “notify” feature, which allows them to ping every attendee, or a subgroup, with little messages such as, “New session added at 3pm”, “Prize draw happening in Session B today,” and “Currently we have 2,357 people live at this event.”

Most importantly, virtual events need to be able to switch quickly from a live stream to breakout sessions, and back again. Sometimes users can select their sessions, while some organizers prefer to assign groups themselves. A neat feature is to setup random groups of people, perhaps for a 10-minute chat, before randomly mixing them up again into another set. It is important to be able to quickly filter through the attendee list to set up meetings throughout the day, but we have also found that a one-click “let’s meet now,” button is extremely popular too.

It is becoming a cliché to say COVID-19 has driven more innovation than would have happened in 10 years, but in the world of events, this is certainly true. We are inspired by every event we host, and every piece of feedback we receive. We are introducing new features almost daily, and yet our list of future ideas just keeps growing. With many customers selecting their event platform two or three months in advance, we have a large program of events already booked on Canapii for Q1 2021. The exciting thing is how we can satisfy and impress those customers. They choose Canapii for its existing advanced feature set, and then they discover even more tools than they expected. Enjoy!


Elliot Jakobsen

Global Marketing Manager

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