‘The world of either is behind us’: Marketers predict the future of events will be a hybrid of online, in-person

The header image shows an illustration of people social distancing at a football game.

As the Covid-19 vaccine rollout continues and consumers resume life as normal, marketers say they expect events in the future to be a hybrid of in-person and virtual.

The pandemic rattled in-person events and shifted some of the industry’s biggest occasions, like the Consumer Electronics Show and the South by Southwest festival, to a virtual stage. In-person networking and conversations were replaced with Zoom panels, chatboxes and pre-recorded fireside chats. Meanwhile, other firms have experimented with virtual reality to offer attendees more than a video link.

And after last year’s pandemic postponed award events, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity returns this year as Cannes Lions Live, a fully digital experience. The boondoggles, wining and dining typically done at one of the industry’s biggest events may look different this summer, although details on particulars have yet to be disclosed.

“The last purely in-person event ever to occur has already happened,” said Joe Davy, CEO of the event marketing company Banzai, which has worked with software companies like Red Hat and Egnyte. “Going forward, every virtual conference is going to be an online, offline and on-demand component.” 

By the end of 2021, he predicts the industry will see an uptick in small in-person events with a focus on hybrid virtual events for bigger happenings. But “the world of either is behind us,” Davy said.

Given the pandemic is ongoing, Davy said heavily populated, in-person events come with a lot of logistics and safety concerns, but the need for human connection is still there. Meanwhile, digital events are more accessible, meaning marketers can reach more event-goers, but “it’s very hard to replicate or replace relationship building and connections.”

“Marketers have to think about how do they create really compelling [virtual] experiences that the audiences really want to get behind,” Davy said.

Earlier this year, the Sundance Film Festival took their event to the virtual landscape, working with Active Theory, a company that creatives digital experiences.

Using an in-house technology called Dreamwave, Active Theory was able to mimic the festival’s in-person experience with avatars for event-goers to move about the online world as they would in real life. There was also a chat feature that made for social interactions. Overall, the virtual festival was different, but considered a success, proving that virtual film festivals can be done well, according to IndieWire. 

According to Active Theory co-founder Nick Mountford, the company has seen an increased interest in its Dreamwave product as more marketers look for ways to customize their virtual events. 

“We’ve been turning down business left, right and center for the last 12 months,” he said. “It’s just so many inquiries, it’s been crazy.”

However, he does believe that as the pandemic lets up, in-person events will return but with companies like his own providing the customized digital component that makes up the hybrid experience.

“The person that can go to a digital event is not necessarily the same person that can go to a physical event,” he said. “And both of those people could be a valuable customer for the brand.”

The hybrid model makes sense, according to Jessica Hawthorne-Castro, CEO of Hawthorne Advertising agency. It allows flexibility for businesses to experiment with online and offline marketing and encourages more attendees, given they can stream content whenever they want.

“Events are absolutely changing, from formatting to guest lists, as a result of the pandemic, but our need for human interaction won’t change,” Hawthorne-Castro said in an email. “The forum may shift, and we may need to get creative, but at the end of the day, marketers should still prioritize connection and communication.”


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