Is June Too Soon For In-Person Events?

Weren’t able to join Ethan for our virtual keynote? Fear not, we’ve got you covered! Below is the full video and transcript with the answers to the questions we all have — What new virtual and hybrid solutions are available to increase engagement? And how will the pandemic impact events in 2021?

TRANSCRIPT

Hi everyone and welcome to the new normal.

Remember last March when we were all reluctant to download Zoom thinking the pandemic would pass by April? Well here we are over a year later and it looks like virtual events are not going anywhere. 

My name is Ethan Bach and I have over two decades of experience in the event space.  I am now the co-founder and CEO of Alt Ethos experiential design studio based in Colorado and we specialize in creating permanent and temporary installations and virtual and hybrid events that bring engagement and delight.

Today’s webinar will be talking about the state of the events industry and how you can have one of the most impactful events in 2021.  We will touch on many points but here’s a couple of highlights:

  • we will answer is June too soon for in-person events
    • We see a lot of places opening back up – what does that mean? What challenges do event producers face?
  • we will discuss indoor vs. outdoor what’s the timeline for Live Events and safety requirements
  • We will look at options and possibilities for virtual events 
    • and give a teaser into our next webinar which will focus on new designs in hybrid events

So stay with us we have a lot of information and research that we’ve done that we would like to share with you and believe it’s relevant to any business owner or event producer.

Alright let’s get started.

I’m not going to spend too much time rehashing what happened to the events industry last year which lost over 30 billion dollars in revenue and reported an overall downward trend in terms of the amount of client engagement. Suffice to say that our industry is forever changed and that fact is more and more clear every day. I’ll summarize by showing you this website which someone created to compile and ongoing list of events that were being canceled as a result of the pandemic

 https://www.isitcancelledyet.com/

Unfortunately, so many events were canceled, that the website was forced to stop updating, and is now itself…canceled. 

And yet there were event producers who tried despite some of the early warnings to push forward and still hold their events including the people behind South by Southwest. Hey I don’t blame you I was waiting myself with bated breath to see if I could jump on that plane for Austin. The Coronavirus and growing public health concerns cancelled SXSW just one week before it was slated to start. This was a huge wake-up call for the events industry and the City of Austin who lost $356 million in revenue due to the cancellation.

I’m not bringing this up to remind the 27,000 of us who are event producers in North America that our entire industry is in flux, still and will be for a while. 

This webinar is not a desperate scramble for alternative solutions to the live events we’re used to. Instead, today we’re going to have an optimistic conversation about what’s possible in the events arena for all of us.  

I’m just grateful everyday but this is happening right now and that it’s not like 1986 or or even 2006 for that matter. and I am truly grateful for systems like Zoom.  However there’s some real reasons as to why we hate Zoom calls and it’s not because virtual events are inherently inferior to in-person events. It’s because the standard virtual solutions that we are all currently using—such as Zoom—are not designed with real human connection in mind. We can’t help it…

Video calls affect your mirror neurons and brain chemistry differently than in-person conversations. For one, you’re missing non-verbal body language, because you’re only seeing people from the shoulders-up. We are in a box. And your screen is effectively serving as a barrier between you and the other person—or between you and the experience you’re attending virtually. That’s why virtual events tend to have low retention rates relative to live in-person events. 

Finally, those serendipitous moments of bumping into someone at an event or organically networking at the post-event mixer obviously can’t happen during something as limiting and one-dimensional as a Zoom video.

So, our job as experiential architects has been to figure out how to account for all those human needs, that we can create virtual experiences as engaging as the in-person experiences we’re used to. And in the case of hybrid to seamlessly connect the virtual and in-person experience. In other words, if we know that Zoom only stimulates the left side of the brain, how can we create virtual events that stimulate the right side—facilitating an experience of discovery, excitement and fun?

Well we have been putting in a ton of R&D into engagement and virtual events in hybrid events not to mention our new metaverse, and we have figured out how to engage Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins, the chemicals in the brain that create happiness and embed memory. Memories depend on neurons firing in the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking. And long term memory depends on retelling the story. When was the last time you retold a story from a zoom event?

In a time when over 30% of Event Planners reported engagement as their biggest challenge in pivoting to virtual events. The national average retention rate for virtual events is 50%.  But get this: our previous event had a 94% participant retention rate.

What makes people want to stay and participate through a virtual event? 

Since the start of the pandemic, our team has conducted over eight hundred cumulative virtual events with our partners. We’ve done everything from video conferences, immersive headset events, to 360 browser-based events, to immersive avatar based environments. We have worked with numerous event production agencies to now have a deep understanding of what increased engagement and community connection looks like. 

Here’s how we solved the issue of Zoom detachment and fatigue. 

As a first case study, let’s look at the virtual awards event we did for L’Oreal’s Skinceuticals, which featured Shark Tank’s Barabara Corcoran. 

Here’s how we made this experience engaging for their audience: 

  • We added 360 viewing capability and custom 3D staging, so that viewers could look around the room and feel grounded in a lifelike space. 
  • We created human avatars to populate the virtual banquet hall, so that it felt like you weren’t alone. 
  • We built a hologram for the keynote speaker, pre-recorded for the live event. 
  • We sent out Skinceuticals-branded Google Cardboards for ease of viewing, and for something fun to add to a bookshelf post event (which, by the way, continues to advertise for Skinceuticals long after the event ended). 
  • And we surprised viewers with digital fireworks at the end, for a special little moment of spontaneity.

What all of these elements boiled down to was an event that had that extra human touch that we’ve all been craving—that opportunity for connection—especially after being stuck at home for so long. The reality of quarantining for an extended period of time is that people are experiencing anxiety and depression at skyrocketing rates, and static virtual events are just too sterile to solve that problem. 

But our success stories have proven that it is possible to create virtual experiences that offer a feeling of connection. Here’s another example of something we produced for Tudor, Pickering, Holt called D4: Rebellion. 

Here’s how we made viewers have a sense of being present at the event: 

  • We had a camera-person shoot 360 video on location, which included locations in the US and Norway, showcasing 10 companies. These 360 videos were then combined with video conferencing in flat video and virtual booths to represent each company.  
  • In this example, We used Boston Dynamics’ robot, Spot to record POV. We also have footage from drones to give a dynamic fly over view.
  • Viewers could then watch the video in a simple HMD or on the web, using their mouse to explore. 

And by the way, we acknowledge that what we do is complex, but the turnaround time surprises a lot of our clients. It only took us a little over a month to produce that entire 360 experience. 

People have so many misconceptions about virtual events and what’s possible. They get daunted by the idea of putting together a virtual event, because the tech behind the event may be something an event producer isn’t used to. We provide you with reassurance and white glove experience that exceeds your expectations. We take this same innovation into hybrid event design.

I promise you, if you can imagine something, some version of what you’re envisioning is possible to create.

  • For example, we partner with BluePlanetVR, who does super-high-quality real-world location capturing.

These amazing virtual captures can be used as the backdrop for your next virtual event. Or placed in your piece of the metaverse. 

  • We also have AR solutions, including incorporating AR functionality for three-dimensional demonstrations in your living room or on your desk. 

Our focus is on accessibility and design at the forefront of our virtual activations. 

  • For audiences with limited bandwidth or slow connectivity, we offer versions of the events that can be accessed through phones or tablets. 
  • And if you’re someone who gets motion sickness from AR or VR experiences, which is about 50% of you, we include still camera options, so people always have a choice.

Basically, sky’s the limit, and I personally love hearing new ideas and coming up with out-of-box solutions. I think of Alt Ethos as a true collaborator, and our deepest source of inspiration is our clients.

One of our core values is this idea of possibility and breaking through limitations

To that end, we are currently developing a metaverse, which is a collective virtual shared space that will merge our physical reality with the digital universe. This virtual world is currently being used for engaging immersive experiences where people can simply walk up to each other and engage in conversation – right from your browser.

We’re calling it Pathos Reality.
The Metaverse is a virtual space that will be accessible 24/7 later this year and will be buzzing with activity. It’s a place where you can have your own avatar based virtual events venue. It’s a place where people can become avatars, go whenever they want in the space, and explore, work, and play. They can remotely hang out with friends, create art, attend events, play games and shop. 

 

The Metaverse is the future of the internet.

 

Here are just a few ways that a metaverse is an incredible opportunity for the events arena, in a post-pandemic world: 

  • You can visit from virtually anywhere, regardless of physical distance, or stay-at-home orders.
  • After being stuck in a video box, walking up to someone and naturally having a conversation is liberating and awesome! 
  • And a metaverse can be great for all-ages, and multiple hardware types. 

When Alt Ethos first envisioned this virtual world, it made us incredibly excited about the possibilities, because we suddenly saw the ability for people to attend more events than ever before, and to attend events in parts of the world they could never access before, and have this amazing experience—all from the comfort of their homes or offices. Because the reality is that there is a huge access barrier to physical events. Travel, money, time… It’s obviously more difficult and more expensive to hop on a flight across the world to attend an event than put on a VR headset or open a laptop and enter a Metaverse. 

The same benefits apply to Hybrid events. By the way, we have to define what a “hybrid event” is, because it’s a term that a lot of people in the event space have started to throw around to mean all sorts of different things. When I talk about hybrid events, I’m not talking about live-streaming your physical event. That’s just a livestream. A hybrid event is an event that seamlessly integrates the physical and digital worlds into one experience that is made better by the existence of both of these elements. Here’s what I mean: 

A hybrid event will take a standard physical event, like say, a networking event, and create a unique world real-time networking opportunity simply by walking up to a group of people and joining a conversation. You are in the in-person event and they happen to be avatars. But you share the same space without barriers. The experience for the people at the physical event is improved by the presence of the avatars; and the experience for the people at home is improved by the presence of the physical bodies in the space. 

What’s great about hybrid events is the opportunity for unexpected connection. Remember that element of organic connection that I mentioned, that people are missing from not being able to attend physical events? Its real engagement between two worlds. When you digitize the events experience and come up with interesting ways to integrate both physical and virtual elements seamlessly, so many impossibilities suddenly become possible. We will provide much detail about our hybrid designs and others in our next webinar. Stay tuned.

During our time staying and working at home, people have fostered a new wave of global connection. Holding a hybrid event allows for people to continue to engage with events as they come back to the physical space, beyond just a standard livestream. Whether you are a corporation who also wants to have events, or an event producer, or own an events agency, as event creators, we all have to continue to talk about what’s possible in our industry, especially in our changing world. We have to explore new ways of facilitating connection. And, of course, one of the most important questions that event producers will have to face in the future is how to make connecting feel safe and effective in a post-Covid world.

Outdoor events opened April 1 in some states. 

In-person events are starting to be approved in the United States. California just announce in-person indoor events to begin the middle of April. As long as vaccines continue to roll out, more than 20% of Californians are fully vaccinated,  and cased and related hospitalizations continue on a downward trend we can see this trend continuing. These events come with a stipulations to ensure people are kept safe.

Here are some of the things we’re going to have to consider:

  • Guests are tested with a clear test within 72 hours prior or show proof of full vaccination.
  • Limit to in-state visitor.
  • Regularly test workers
  • Designated eating areas with added ventilation and distancing.
  • Good air circulation and cleaning practices in place. There are new UVA cleaners on the market that are already being deployed in hospitals and hotels that will fit in perfectly in the conference arena when live events return. 
  • The concept of “social distancing” isn’t going away, so we’ll have to design event spaces where people aren’t crowded on top of one another. 
  • Likewise, if there are break-out rooms, we’ll probably want to shorten those sessions to keep people moving and not stuck in one high-density place.  
  • And of course, there will need to be a ton of hand sanitizer on hand, as well as access to masks. 

The degree to which your event addresses these safety concerns can very much determine turnout for your event, especially in the near future. 

Let’s look at vaccine timelines really quickly. Current optimistic estimates, like California, have in-person events beginning in April, but there are a ton of caveats there as mentioned above, and that projection doesn’t take into account if people will actually feel safe to attend the event. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine has just been approved for use in the US, and production continues to ramp up for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. But projections are not taking into account how difficult it is to vaccinate everyone quickly, including, for example, the rural populations in the US. Or hang ups in the distribution cycle – including the recent 15 million botched doses.

So the multi-billion dollar question: “Is June too soon for in-person events?” 

My answer is yes, if you don’t follow strict guidelines and you don’t offer virtual alternatives. 

So far we have only talked about the United States. But what about the rest of the world? According to the BBC, the entire world will not be vaccinated until early 2023. But inoculating a global population of 7.8 billion people is a scale that has never been attempted before. Plus, there are new Covid variants emerging, as we know, and international timelines for vaccine distribution are all over the place. This means hosting a big event like CES is risky, even if attendees have all been vaccinated.

We just don’t have enough information. And the information we do have has to be properly interpreted if we’re going successfully anticipate when we can safely plan our in-person events. For instance, most events rely on 74% of their attendance to be people under the age of 55.  And based on music festival demographics from the past five years, the average age of the people going to those events was 32. At this point, a little over 20% of people in the US have been vaccinated. People hear that number and use the vaccine as reasoning to have their event between now and August, but you have to consider the demographics. 

Even if vaccines are opened for ALL people at the beginning of May, the risk is still too high for June. Lines are long and it’s hard to get an appointment in certain areas. For example here in Colorado, everyone is eligible; however, I had to schedule a vaccine appointment in Wyoming to get a shot in the foreseeable future. 

If you really want to do the math to plan when it will be safe to have a live event again, it’s all about factoring in the demographics and the variable of the two-dose vaccine.
The current pace of 2.1M shots per day sounds promising, but because many of those vaccines require two shots, we have to divide that number by half. So the projection I’m going to make based on all that math is that we’re looking at no earlier than Fall for a return to large live events that will most likely still require the list above – vaccine record, tests, safety measures, etc. And what’s more, people will come to expect digital alternatives from here on out due the cost benefit, your attendees from around the world will need it, and it’s flexible.

That’s why regardless of when we can return to live events, for the people in your target audience who are not ready to travel, you’ll want to have virtual offerings. In fact, those virtual offerings will likely become the base event, with the physical offerings being optional, as opposed to the reverse, which has been true in the past. This shifting perception of events is how a hybrid event can save the day, allowing you to have people who are physically present at a conference connect with people beaming in from their homes. 

Preparing for this kind of digital future is going to get you ahead of the curve. If there’s one thing we learned from a year in quarantine, it’s that quote unquote coming back to normal will take longer than we expect.By preparing virtual offerings, you’re setting yourself up for success. If the world takes longer to open back up, or if it takes people longer than expected to feel good about traveling and attending physical events, you’re prepared with a fun virtual experience. 

Just think about how different things could have been for SXSW if they had prepared a virtual event in 2020 like they did in 2021. Where they had almost 80,000 attendees compared to 2019 where the conference drew nearly 74,000 attendees. One way to do this is have exclusive content for an in-person event, say, a mixer, and exclusive content for virtual attendees, like a link to an unreleased film trailer or web game.

If 2020 was a scramble for functionality through the digital space, 2021 and beyond will be more focused on actual user experience. That’s why I don’t think of virtual events as a stop-gap, but as an essential part of our offerings at Alt Ethos, even as time goes on. This past year has forever shifted our perceptions of interaction, and now that we all know that it is possible to work from home; it is possible to attend an event virtually, and people are only going to be more and more selective with the events that they physically attend. 

62.2% of event professionals agree that virtual events are here to stay. We don’t know what the future holds. Hate to say it, but what if this isn’t our last pandemic? Or what happens when the climate takes an unexpected turn, like what we saw recently in Texas? Our world is going to continue to throw us curve balls. My vision for virtual events is that they become so undeniably awesome, that we look forward to virtual events not as second-best offerings in times of desperation, but as viable opportunities for human connection.  

I’m going to close on that, because at the end of the day, I want to leave you with that vision of connection, because yes, we are an events agency that loves technology and the digital space, but we think about people first. 

If you’re looking to hold an event as soon or anytime this year, this is a great opportunity to chat to us about a full white-glove virtual or hybrid solution. Whatever you’re dealing with, wherever you’re located, there is a bespoke solution for your company, and we can find it together.  

I look forward to connecting with you, and I look forward to a future where virtual events are all about facilitating human connection. 

I hope to see you at our next webinar that clearly outlines hybrid event solutions.

Who Needs a Holodeck? Alt Ethos Hybrid Solutions
June 3, 2021 | 10:30 MDT | FREE

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