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It’s become a challenging problem in the age of virtual events: How to make them engaging to keep people’s attention and allow attendees to collaborate, network and have fun. That’s what cloud software company New Relic was up against as officials were planning their annual FutureStack user conference in May.

Chief Marketing Officer Seema Kumar worked with startup Skittish and used its virtual events platform to let some 2,000 conference attendees create avatars to mingle with one another. The conference featured rooms where attendees could watch Lego stacks be built, create code music and play arcade games.

Even as the pandemic is winding down, Kumar and others in the event space believe technology has made it possible—and even preferable, in some cases—for events to continue with a virtual component, and that the future will be a blend of both virtual and physical spaces.

“The virtual experience allowed us … to do one large global event,” Kumar said. “When we all come back to feeling more comfortable being at a physical event, I think we’ll see all events have physical and virtual” elements. “It used to be you had to travel to experience the event, and much like this last year has taught everyone you can work from home and be successful and productive, this has taught marketers and event marketers you can create virtual events.”

SEE: 2021 tech events, summits and conferences to add to your calendar (TechRepublic)

There are pros and cons to both approaches, of course. Time, travel and cost are often cited as negatives of physical events. The hybrid model allows event planners to cast a wider net and invite a global audience.

But nothing can ever fully replace the spontaneous experience of bumping into someone and having an ad hoc conversation or building an emotional connection.

Kumar points out that while some might think a virtual event is less costly because of the food, beverage and travel savings, “those costs get placed with [the cost of] the virtual event platform, promoting the event digitally, shipping out swag and creating other virtual experiences that are unique and engage people in the virtual world. We’re definitely not spending more but … it’s not dramatically cheaper like people are inclined to believe.”

Events are definitely returning to the physical realm, said Chris Chan, founder and CEO of event management and consulting firm 3C Strategies. But he added that about 80% of his clients have chosen to host virtual events for the remainder of 2021 and 20% will be hybrid.

“Events are meant for building community and it’s hard to do that when you’re not in person and able to network and meet like-minded individuals,” Chan said. “We will see more innovation around how people will interact and more outdoor activities being part of prescribed agendas because people want space and to be more secure.”

For example, instead of having 12 people at a 6-foot table, there may be six. He thinks greater spacing will likely continue into next year “but eventually that will fade.”

In the virtual realm, Chan is seeing greater efforts being made to create and replicate casual networking experiences. “People are trying very hard and using different apps to get people comfortable talking to strangers,” he said. This includes a greater emphasis on fun activities like karaoke and movie screenings and games nights that facilitate a casual environment and let people relax, instead of a full day of conferences, he said.

Chan has found that avatars are effective and fun to use if the audience is tech-savvy. Right now he is looking at a social networking site called Wonder, which lets users build areas of interest in sub rooms to have conversations.

As events return, expect to see new features to reduce touchpoints and control crowd movement to maintain social distancing, especially in large conference halls and arenas.

“Gone are the days of sharing paper tickets with friends,” said Adam Goodyer, CEO of experience automation platform provider Realife Tech. Digital in-app ticketing and ticket sharing means an end to printing and distributing paper, as well as having to wait outside for friends who are running late, he added.

The drive to digital adoption of ticketing was well underway even before the pandemic, according to Goodyer, but now, venues are looking to adopt digital solutions at an accelerated rate to enable the safe re-opening of their events. “This is also powered by a shift in fan expectations,” he said. “The pandemic has led consumers to demand safe, well organized, crowd-controlled environments for their social experiences.”

Additionally, Goodyer said there will be more mobile ordering and payments being taken in-app, and people ordering from their seats.

Having virtual fun

So many of today’s virtual events are about watching and not interacting, said Skittish founder and CEO Andy Baio. “I don’t feel like I attended the Oscars because I watched them. It’s being in the room and having the experience that makes you feel like you attended.”

Skittish’s 3D platform lets you find your inner animal that becomes your avatar and you can “wander away and have a conversation and explore the world between talks,” Baio said. Spatial proximity allows users to talk and hear clusters of conversations, he said.

At the New Relic conference, there was a “Nerd Island” social space where people could watch talks during the event but also use it as an optional place to hang out. “It’s a way of bringing what some people call the ‘hallway track’ back to conferences in a virtual track” to replicate what happens in between talks, he said. “It allows that kind of social interaction that is so difficult to produce online.”

Baio said he hears a lot of buzz about how no one will want to do virtual events once the pandemic recedes. He is hoping one approach won’t replace the other.

“I’m counting on the fact that both are going to exist in parallel … For physical events, nothing will ever replace the experience of running into someone you haven’t seen for a long time and going out for a drink or a meal or getting introduced to someone and sitting down at a table,” he said. “But virtual events have a unique set of benefits—it’s frictionless. It’s much cheaper … and anyone can do it from anywhere in the world. Physical location is not a consideration. All those things make it more accessible to people.”

“So I don’t think one will replace another,” Baio said. “They have different value propositions.”

Spencer Elliott, a co-founder of ViewStub, a platform for streaming and managing virtual, hybrid and in-person events, said there is a lot of pent-up energy for in-person events, which he expects to come back with a vengeance in the third quarter.

But like Baio, Elliott believes there will “always be a virtual component; it’s here to stay. People are comfortable with accessing videos online” and virtual monetization is creating a lot of new revenue opportunities, he said.

“The future of this industry is you’re going to host two different events—one for everyone coming in person and they’ll have a completely different customer journey with lunch … then online, and they’ll want to have their lunch delivered and go to virtual exhibits.”

Some of the same issues event planners were trying to address in 2019 still remain: The inability to bring people to a physical space, Elliott added.

“You can’t fit 1,000 in a 100-person space. So you need the online option. It’ll never go away and will actually accelerate some trends we were seeing over the last decade,” he said. “Live streaming events are not new. It’s just a matter of the pandemic accelerating what was already happening and creating this new digital format, which is here to stay.”