Back to Live, Back to Reality 2.0

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Yes, you did hear the PM correctly… BUSINESS EVENTS ARE BACK! … in England at least. Boris Johnson announced on Monday 23rd November that business meetings would be allowed after national lockdown 2.0 ends and Tier system 2.1 takes over on December 2nd. In Tiers 1 & 2, up to 1,000 delegates can attend indoor events provided full COVID protection and social distancing measures are in place. YIPPEE! Conferences and exhibitions can start up again although with the vast majority of England in T2 and T3 the return to live will be slowed. The time is nearing where we put an end to the past 8 months of speculation as to what a post-lockdown ‘live v virtual’ event world would look like – and for the reality to kick in. A quick review of past blogs since lockdown 1.0 (ours and those of our peers) reveals a mixed bag of opinion as to whether the new “virtual online events” world would sound the death knell of live events. We are about to begin to find out.


On March 23rd 2020 a new verb entered our common event language – “to zoom”. Zoom has become synonymous with virtual events in the same way that Hoover has to vacuuming. Fairly or unfairly, to the vast majority of viewing audiences the virtual platform has been otherwise largely anonymous (perhaps with the exception of MS Teams) as people simply follow a link to a screen view; some good experiences, some bad experiences, some farcical ones. We’ve worked with many different platforms since the original lockdown began (and some prior to that), selected by our clients based on varying criteria; 8 months on and the holy grail of online platforms still seems to remain – one that can deliver all facets of a live event to a high standard within a single platform. And as the months have progressed, Zoom’s rapid elevation in our vocabulary has perhaps become a bit of a poisoned chalice, with “Zoom fatigue” and “Zoomed out” becoming synonymous with the online overload many have experienced. 


Back to the ‘live v virtual’ debate. I’ve been delivering events for over two decades now during which time ‘virtual’ content has been omnipresent. We’ve used covert ‘secret shopper’ filming to spotlight poor customer service to a major retailer’s annual management conference (the secret shoppers were pre-recorded but shown on the day “as live”…. Oh, you should have seen the look on the faces of the store managers when their Ops Director announced we were going live to one of their stores to take a look); we filmed the then PM Tony Blair in the cabinet office, delivering a public-sector conference speech when he was unable to attend in person; we’ve used countless iterations of internal team ‘road movies’ to get messages across at events. Virtual content… but delivered to an audience present ‘in the room’, not online. And it’s that “online” broadcast rather than the virtual element that has changed in recent months. 

In February 2020, 6 weeks prior to lockdown 1.0, we delivered a blended event for one of our clients, an international organisation with a global reach; blended in that it combined a live event in London for 150 delegates, with a live broadcast of the same direct to their You Tube site. [The term hybrid has subsequently risen to the fore, though i feel this refers to live events that have been forced online due to the pandemic]. The results of “blending’ the event were very encouraging, with in excess of 300 additional participants joining remotely on the day. During lockdown, and for the same client, we delivered a 2-day specialist conference (usual attendance c350 for the live event in London) fully online – the results? In excess of 2,500 registrations from 55 countries, and a peak viewing audience of close to 1900. Powerful stuff. On the flip side, with some other events we’ve delivered online in lockdown, breakout stream audience numbers have dwindled to single figures by mid-afternoon. And taking some events online simply doesn’t work – awards shows spring immediately to mind – whilst exhibitions are a whole different ball game, akin I imagine to the fashion retailers’ dilemma of web based versus high street stores, transactional versus experiential. 


The jury is out on the likely overall effectiveness of online events for organisers, internal and external communicators, sponsors and exhibitors going forward in a world returning to something like normal where the viewing audiences have perhaps more pressing constraints on their day than “Zoom surfing” a plethora of online content. The prospect of once again being able to see the “whites of the audiences’ eyes”, of being able to network freely and stroll leisurely around an exhibition hall to meet a potential new client / new supplier / new employer / new employee, or to celebrate success with colleagues, peers and even competitors, may prove compelling for many, perhaps even the majority.


But the relevance and importance of an online presence with a blended event seems assured, in order both to include delegates unable or unwilling to attend in person due to COVID restrictions and those from further afield for whom the journey would not be practical. Increasingly, climate considerations will also impact on just how far, and for what purpose, people will travel. This new omni-blended events’ world raises yet more questions for debate and discovery:

  • Do we seek to offer the same interaction and experience to those joining online compared to those attending in-person (or enhanced or lower)?
  • Which is the “premium” ticket when it comes to pricing?  
  • Which platform offers the best online presence for a live event? 
  • Is there a case for some events remaining exclusively live? Or exclusively online?

The short answer no doubt is that it will very much depend on the nature and objectives of the event, though I feel there may be one or two unexpected answers once we start putting the theory into practice. I’ll discuss those and other topics in future blogs, in the meantime rest assured that we are getting

“Back to Live, Back to Reality”

Andi Swain
Written By 
Andi Swain
Dec 4, 2020
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