It's hard to overestimate how the world has changed as a result of COVID-19. Pre-pandemic, people were reluctant to contact one another virtually, whether it be on Zoom or Skype or on another audio-visual medium. This has changed.
People now contact one another virtually as a matter of course. This means workshops and presentations, of which there are an increased number globally. Most conferences too are held virtually – often for the first time- and, if it's possible, the conferences are in-person and live. It means that those of us who have been able to travel to the myriad of conferences that are held around the world can now switch to them on online.
Nonetheless, even with the upsurge of online events, offline events will always have something to them that can never be replaced by a medium such as Zoom, presence and charisma among them. What is the future of events in the Middle East?
Shaimaa El Nazer • 21 July, 2020
Last week, after four long months of coronavirus lockdowns, Dubai hosted its first "in-person" event. AI Everything, held at the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) on 16 July, marked the resumption of the emirate's events calendar, away from the virtual world and back to physical interactions.
The event was by invite-only but saw considerable turnout as well as safety measures like temperature checks, social distanced seats, contactless badge collection and pre-packed food.
"The event industry is one of the key main propositions to Dubai. It has always been a fundamental part of what Dubai is about. Now we need to think about what are the new opportunities within these challenges", says Issam Kazim, chief executive officer of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing.
For many, these new opportunities will still be in the virtual world. Until a vaccine is made available, many around the world are still hesitant to travel or interact with large numbers of people in enclosed spaces.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the $1.5 trillion global business events industry has seen events either cancelled, rescheduled or gone virtual since the outbreak. The pandemic led to the cancellation of high-profile conferences and exhibitions including Mobile World Congress, SXSW, Facebook's F8 developer conference to name a few.
DWTC may have shown bravery or perhaps desperation in resuming its physical events, but a growing number of businesses are experimenting with virtual events for the first time, while others are scaling up their digital offerings to new heights. Google transferred its Cloud Next conference into an entirely virtual experience called Google Cloud Next '20: Digital Connect.
As more communities go online amid Covid-19, the majority of events are following that trend, and seem to be reaping the benefits. Event management platform Eventbrite has recorded a 1,100+% year-over-year increase of business and professional online events taking place in April 2020 compared to April 2019, and consumers are spending money to attend those events.
"Our data is showing a significant rise in demand for online events and it's been inspiring to see the innovative ways event creators are leveraging our platform," says Crystal Valentine, chief data strategy officer at Eventbrite. "We expect online events will continue to play a big role in events post-pandemic."
Step Conference co-founder Ray Dargham believes virtual events lend the industry better opportunities in the long term. Step's annual event is set to take place online this year and rebranded to Step Anywhere, which according to Dargham offers better access to members of the community who could not afford to attend in-person in previous years, improved experience through data and tech and reduction of environmental waste and carbon emissions.
"When you look at industries tech has disrupted – like Uber in transportation and Airbnb in hospitality – you see that tech solves inefficiencies," says Dargham.. "The events industry has not really changed much for the past hundred years, it has a lot of inefficiencies."
Large events' build-up, food and plastic waste constitute few of the main issues of the industry, in addition to the costs involved in travel and accommodation to attend global events.
"If you break it down to fundamentals, the key objectives of exhibitions and conferences is to meet someone, a potential client or vendor, or learn something new, and both of these can be achieved online," says Dargham.
Following its recently announced investment to launch a virtual events platform, Eventtus' Mai Medhat agrees that virtual events can be as efficient as physical ones.
"Nothing will replace meeting people in person, nothing will replace a handshake, we need this," she says. "But in terms of the events' core functionality, like networking and engaging with different industry players, I think all of that can be done in a very efficient way virtually.
"It is cheaper, it is easier to organise, and also easier for anyone to join. An event we organised three weeks ago got 3x their target audience and managed to get speakers from 12 countries, which was not going to happen if the event was physical," she says.
Event organisers at some point started losing revenue from sponsorships, not to other events or online ones, but to digital players, like Google Ads. Online events would help keep these sponsors' interest in events by enabling them to track their return on investment (ROI) and analyse their spend through more data.
Replicate versus Innovate
Despite innovative technologies and approaches, digital alternatives to physical events are not set to merely replicate the in-person experience. They are expected to deliver content and experiences in ways that do not look and feel like a digital-only version of a physical gathering.
"The technology is not yet 100 per cent there to create these experiences. People are experimenting, some are trying to mimic the physical events, but I do not believe in that. You have to investigate what people are looking for and how to achieve that in a new way, not to do a 3D booth like it looks in the real world," says Dargham.
Hosting a conference online is not as simple as broadcasting main-stage speaking events on YouTube. Delivering an online event costs time and money, it needs technology for small groups, communication, virtual lobbies, exhibitor halls and networking spaces.
"We are seeing a lot of virtual event platforms that still need to build different features to deliver a similar experience to what we had in personal events," says Medhat.
Another challenge with virtual events is that you do not have a captive audience.
"How can we attract the audience to be engaged during the event? If they are attending from home they still need to look after kids and run other home errands at the same time of the event," says Medhat.
Top online experiences incorporate gamification, recognition, raffles and rewards to keep their audience's attention and engagement.
According to Data Connectors, 85 per cent of participants in online meetings report equal or higher levels of engagement compared to in-person
"It took years to create the offline events industry, and now a new ecosystem is being created for online events. That does not happen overnight. The technology for online events is not Zoom. It is going to evolve, there are tonnes of startups doing work now to build the right platforms, and this is going to continue improving tremendously," says Dargham.
According to DWTC, 96 per cent of event professionals do not believe virtual will replace in-person events and 54 per cent of event organisers plan to host more events in the future.
Many events will likely go back to normal and resume as they always have, but given the costs involved in travel and attendance and the capacity for online tools to offer a similar experience, it may well be that the event industry has changed forever.
More businesses are currently resorting to virtual meet-ups as a necessity, however, with a serious look at their long-term events plans after the crisis is over. Companies and organisations are focusing on how to benefit from the virtual trend even as lockdowns are lifted, and a hybrid model is prevailing as a solution.
"Very few physical events will remain, and people would want to make the effort and bear the costs to attend, but online events will create more potential for new events to be created and for people to access more information. This is extremely important when you are in countries that you cannot afford to pay in US dollars for a flight and a ticket to attend an event," says Dargham.
Hybrid events can include hosting a main event in one location, and have satellite events in other locations to avoid having thousands of people conglomerate in one space at a time. As people gather for in-person events, companies will also focus on providing a virtual event hub for virtual attendees.
Chances are there will be no physical events in the future that do not have a virtual component, but it will require organisers to rethink their pricing model, simply replicating booth and sponsorship charges for their virtual platforms will not suffice.