What’s Next for Live Events and General Session Innovations?

Even as live events have been rescheduled or changed to virtual in the immediate future, audiences are still looking for relevant, dynamic brand experiences to connect and feel part of a community until face-to-face events return. With many in-person events moving to a virtual format, we are working with our clients to reimagine how events will look in the future, weaving virtual and in-person elements to create engaging virtual, hybrid and in-person experiences. 

General sessions have always played a key role in conferences and events, setting the overall tone for the conference, delivering on-brand experiences, and communicating critical business and product messaging to your target audience. Now is the time to rethink and redesign general sessions to innovate virtual/hybrid/in-person event experiences that build excitement, brand advocates and a strong sense of community to keep your business moving forward.

 

Four Key Opportunities to Consider when Planning Future Virtual/Hybrid/In-Person Events:

1. ROI Expectations. Can You Expect the Same Return on a Virtual Event?

The purpose of having an event, general sessions included, doesn’t change just because it is online, but can you expect the same results? That is the million-dollar question. Don’t change your goals for your event because of the delivery method, but instead manage your goals a little differently. Connecting to your audience in today’s environment is more important than ever. Virtual and hybrid events can help you communicate critical business messages to your audience and deliver a high impact event experience during the current COVID-19 environment.

One significant benefit of virtual experiences is the ability to capture a wealth of data on event and audience behavior. With digital platforms and increased data tracking capabilities, it’s possible to collect data – from registration, pre-event activity, user visits, engagement interactions and drop off trends during your event and post-event activities. In addition, post-event survey feedback offers qualitative, in-depth opportunities to measure your attendees’ feedback and mindset. This allows you to measure overall event effectiveness and develop improvement strategies and tactics on very specific elements of your event.

 

2. Determining the Best Mix of Virtual and In-Person Elements.

Today, most events are being held virtually via live broadcast so people can view on their screens remotely. While attendees are becoming more familiar using technology to attend virtually, we know people want to return to attending in-person events. That being said, attendees will expect more digital elements as part of future event experiences. It’s up to us to create truly unforgettable hybrid and in-person event experiences to meet their new expectations. In the meantime, now is the time for those of us in the event industry to refocus and reinvent the holistic event experience – from virtual, hybrid and in-person delivery of content. I believe once we are back to in-person events, we can expect events will include virtual components for the foreseeable future.

Blurring the line between virtual and in-person is critical. Attendees will require equal, but different experiences to maintain their engagement and interest in the event. This includes bringing the online participants into the sessions and sharing the digital experience with the in-person participants. For instance, we will likely see examples such as bringing online participants into a general session via video-chat to present or accept an award or creating learning sessions digitally so they can be accessed in-person and online based on attendees’ schedules.

 

3. Adjusting Content for New Attendee Expectations

Most people are adapting to attending events virtually, working from home with more distractions, and accessing whatever snackable content is available on what seems like every platform from online events, webinars, broadcast television and short-form entertainment. Focusing content and delivering it in shorter, quicker formats with higher production value is a must. 

Taking a page from the broadcast TV “playbook” will help your audience stay engaged in the virtual event experience, allowing them to absorb content and have a deeper understanding of your messages. We are all accustomed to broadcast TV graphics of sports, the interplay of visuals on the news and the warm conversation of morning network shows. We use these conventions to benefit our messages and brands and build connectivity with the attendee viewers.

Pre-COVID-19, general sessions were held in a convention center or hotel ballroom with huge screens and dynamic staging to draw in the audience. Attendees may have had their phones in their hand, but they were mostly engaged and focused on the presentations for 30-45 minutes, sometimes longer. Online events require focused, tighter presentations due to attendees easily becoming distracted.

For virtual events, determining the right mix of live, “Simu-Live” (pre-recorded but streamed on schedule), or Video-On-Demand is a critical choice specific for your audience. Maybe some of the learning sessions normally offered onsite are now made available online and on-demand for all attendees.

For hybrid and in-person events, audience configuration is also bound to change with more room in the general session space for social-distanced seating, closed-circuit feeds to exhibit halls and networking spaces to open the environment at the same time we transmit to people watching remotely from their homes and offices.

 

4. Addressing Safety Concerns for Attendees, Crews and Clients.

While listed last, this consideration is a critical component for any hybrid/in-person event going forward. For now, many clients are holding virtual events for their attendees, and some are broadcasting their conference from one (or more) “studio” locations. Making sure attendees, clients, onsite staff feel safe is key.

Safety considerations and protocols for production of events must be addressed and meticulously planned for in advance of the event. Load-in and setup will take a bit longer to allow for smaller teams to work together, check points for crews to ensure health and safety checks, etc.  Safety protocols include social distancing and disinfecting stations in the public spaces, with hand sanitizers and plenty of PPE available are now an important element for each event.

Ensuring safety protocols are in place and enforced will help keep everyone feeling comfortable so they can focus on your experience. These protocols are critical and must be clearly communicated well in advance of the event to help attendees feel more comfortable attending. Our research shows mitigation measures will be important in the foreseeable future. We asked attendees what their concerns and expectations would be to feel secure to attend live events, and five distinct groups emerged regarding levels of concern and mitigation needed. The results can be found here

 

Final Observations:

Our passion is to create human experiences that are platform-neutral, so no matter if the venue is a convention center, expo hall, or the attendee’s home – an unforgettable experience can be created anywhere. Looking at how general sessions are designed and produced with fresh eyes during this time is pretty exciting, and we are ecstatic to see the innovation transforming our industry.

General sessions are changing. They have been for years, and the current pandemic environment has moved things along a bit quicker. They must be delivered in shorter segments, with brief, engaging presentations, higher production-value and a more personal connection to the audience. 

Virtual and hybrid do not have to be “less than” or used as a placeholder until we can gather again. They can really be an enhancement to the attendees’ previous experiences. COVID-19 has provided a one-of-a-kind opportunity to improve the delivery of general sessions and the entirety of events going forward – let’s embrace transformation and innovative thinking to take it to the next level.

About the Author

Jeff Youngs

Jeff Youngs is Vice President of Production and Operations for GES’ Corporate Events team. Youngs brings more than 30 years’ experience producing live corporate events including general sessions, sales meetings, product launches, and training seminars. A storyteller at heart, Jeff blends his extensive leadership in effective production process with his focus on delivering strong brand messages in an interactive and engaging environment.

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