Lars  Haue-Pedersen

At the beginning of 2020 we all talked about "experiences" and "you are what you experience" and we were excited about the many sports events as sports industry conferences and Congresses that we planned to attend during this busy year.

But then came COVID-19. The events – from Olympic Games to smaller national championships and later all the planned conferences were first postponed, then in many cases cancelled.

It’s been a long road, with everyone eagerly awaiting the time when we can safely return to the daily activities of normal life. And even if we are not there yet, we are already beginning to understand that the event business will change forever.

This is why a team of digital specialists in Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW) undertook a study to look what all this will mean for the future on the organisation of conferences and Congresses. And as the wider sports industry, including the various sports governing bodies, has based a big part of their structure on conferences and Congresses, the key learnings from the study can provide useful insights for all.

While many aspects of the future of virtual events must still be further tested, the BCW study produced some interesting key learnings -

The boundaries between offline and online are disappearing

The future will be hybrid. Events will be hybrid. This also means that sports organisations must remain extremely flexible and equipped to adapt to new ways of engaging with audiences. COVID-19 has made work life even less predictable, even harder to plan than it already was. 

But COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for digital transformation. Event and conference organisers must be flexible, continue to remove obstacles to digital formats and respond to people's needs with new forms of experience.

From sponsor events to press conferences to conferences, long before COVID-19 started, many more different types of events began to surface as hybrids – taking place partly online and partly offline. Now that trend is growing even stronger. Pioneers are digitising sessions in combination with digital platforms and content formats or are even moving events completely into the virtual space.           

Planning of a virtual event is very different from planning on-site events

Digital event formats differ significantly from face-to-face meetings therefore they must be conceived and structured completely differently. Up until now, the planning of physical events used to take place largely "vertically." First the date of the event was determined, then the programme was filled with as many agenda items as possible.

We all know the discussions about whether to squeeze in another interactive format in the afternoon (we have a question and answer session with our sports department), or to use the time for another presentation (the Refereeing Commission would also like to say something) or to extend the coffee break (networking is key). The time before and after the physical event, on the other hand, was often merely used to register participants and send presentations.

Sports bodies are increasingly holding meetings virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic ©Getty Images
Sports bodies are increasingly holding meetings virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic ©Getty Images

The needs of participants often took second place, if at all, in this process. Unfortunately, as a result, these events all too often ended up as overly lengthy and tiring gatherings. In the digital space, you can't allow for this to happen, simply because a significantly shorter attention span lets your audience switch off very quickly if their needs aren’t sufficiently satisfied. 

Once this occurs, it won't be long before the number of participants drops noticeably. It’s just so much easier and requires less justification to leave a virtual room silently.                                    

Develop the virtual event around a strong creative idea

It is highly recommended to plan virtual events consistently around a creative idea. Answering these six questions during the event planning phase, helps to structure the thoughts and to make sure that a valuable event concept is developed.

Is the transformation into a virtual event really the best solution or are there more purposeful approaches?

What is the core idea that justifies the implementation of a virtual event?

What are the wishes and needs of potential participants?

What are the most pressing problems of potential participants to solve?

How can their needs and problems be addressed and tackled by the event?

What value does the event add for its participants? This is about content (gain knowledge) as well as formats (tutorials, recordings, downloads, take-aways).

Only after these questions have been answered can you dive into a more detailed planning of the event. Here, a "horizontal" approach to planning is recommended, in which the actual event is shortened as much as possible.

Less is more! Question each individual module - what is its real value? Does it have to be offered live or is it sufficient to prepare the content and provide it on-demand?

World Sailing is among the sporting organisations to vote in favour of a virtual General Assembly rather than an in-person event ©World Sailing
World Sailing is among the sporting organisations to vote in favour of a virtual General Assembly rather than an in-person event ©World Sailing

Now is the time to try and test new formats

Even if some people still hesitate to deal with virtualisation strategies and mourn the sudden death of a beloved, long-planned physical conference, it’s important to stay positive and open-minded. Think about the ways you could test new technologies and introduce them as pilot projects.

You should use this momentum. Now is the time! Especially since people across industries are now willing to try out new things, without (yet) expecting the perfect solution. The lack of established recipes for success in the virtual event space facilitates an open, explorative approach. 

Check each module to see if and how it can be rethought and improved through technology. While it was previously hardly possible at large events to hold a round of introductions that would facilitate subsequent networking, this can now be started very easily via an event platform with text, images and video.

Also, when designing the individual modules of the event, you should consciously make sure to combine different elements in such a way that a varied, and in the best case, surprising event is created. Even small features can have a big impact.

And this is only the beginning

At present, it’s hard to predict when it’ll be possible again to hold larger conferences and Congresses in physical attendance. But, sitting out the second half of the year without planning is probably not an option - especially since it’s already clear that the number of postponed events will exceed the number of days available at that time.

Anyone planning an event must therefore consider the possibilities of digital and virtual formats. There is much to suggest that these will become even more important. 

In the future, participants will increasingly question whether it’s really necessary to fly across the country for a day event, polluting the environment and losing precious time with the family - and possibly even exposing themselves to the risk of infection along the way.

Think of virtual events as ideal "training grounds" for testing new content formats, and technologies. It has never been more important to learn in small steps and iterations. There is still time for experiments, but it’s time to get started!