BCD M&E Business Development Director, Helen Carmichael speaks to ExCeL London, a UK venue playing a crucial role during the pandemic, first as an NHS Nightingale Hospital and now as a vaccination centre, on what the evolution of hybrid events looks like.
ExCeL London lights up blue to show support for NHS workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of ExCeL London via Twitter.
ExCeL London Explains Why Hybrid Events Are Here to Stay
Recently, I caught up with Andrew Swanston, Head of Sales for Conference and Events and Account Manager, Sophie Simpson at ExCeL London to get their insights into how they see the future of the meetings and events industry. We kicked off by discussing how they see hybrid events fitting into the future landscape.
For Andrew, hybrid is nothing new in terms of what ExCeL London has been delivering.
“We have always done hybrid events as far back as 5 years ago when we launched an event for one of our big corporate clients and they had over 1 million viewers online as well as thousands who actually attended in person,” he said.
“Hybrid is never going away,” Andrew continued, “and as far as we are concerned, is no threat to live events. Yes, there will be people right now that don’t feel 100% comfortable in traveling and that’s OK. Hybrid will cater for that, but we do know that face to face meetings are really important. Getting people round a table has such value and delivers results. As we emerge from the pandemic, I believe events will still provide the best opportunity to make new connections and forge meaningful relationships. They will remain a catalyst for positive change, where innovation, ideas and moments happen that transform our lives for the better. They will also give us what we are craving the most – face to face interaction and contact with our friends, colleagues.”
Related article: The Business Case for Returning Face to Face
They were clear there was another factor that was also going to play a part moving forward - sustainability. Some of their clients, as well as BCD Meetings & Events', are already placing it high on the agenda, which obviously has an impact on a venue like ExCeL. For them, hybrid will clearly play a part in this, helping to reduce travel, which in turn has an impact on an event’s carbon footprint. However, we were all in agreement that there are some aspects of face to face that are unique.
“Companies still understand the value of having people at a face to face event,” Andrew said. “It can be little things like coffee breaks. That time when you bump into someone and the valuable information that can be transferred in a chance meeting can’t really be replicated online.”
The next stage of evolution
So how has ExCeL London been preparing themselves to meet the challenge of hybrid as a venue. Are they ready for this next stage in the evolution of events?
It certainly seems so, as they have been investing in new technology and facilities to accommodate the demand from clients and partners like ourselves. They are now able to deliver high internet bandwidth and have even created a hybrid studio in the Platinum Suite. ExCeL has always had the luxury of fantastic flexible space, which of course gives them the ability to cater for socially distanced live events. Coupled with the new technology in place, they look well set to meet pent up customer demand.
And what is that demand looking like for them? Are clients and corporates dipping their toes in the water and actually booking yet?
Andrew explained, “There’s no question that there is a huge desire to meet in person and reconnect with customers face to face and the demand to get back to business is overwhelmingly strong. One thing we are very lucky with here at ExCeL is that we have a large amount of space so we can adapt. We are holding clients’ usual space and some extra, so that we can cope with the numbers no matter what happens with social distancing.”
Here at BCD M&E, our conversations with clients have been very much along the same lines as Andrew and Sophie’s. There is certainly a desire to get back to live events but clearer H&S guidance as well as corporate confidence is vital. For the meantime, virtual and planning hybrid is definitely part of the mix.
Sophie agreed, “I think we can look forward to reopening in 2021 but it will be in spite of COVID, not because it’s gone away. Initially, there will be caution and we will need to work together to install confidence and deliver safe, organised events, that still offer a memorable and inspiring experience. By 2022, I believe the landscape will feel more normal, with more opportunities to welcome back international visitors.”
Making hybrid work
One of the challenges I discuss with clients a lot, is how to keep their virtual audience as engaged as those in the room. In the past year BCD M&E has developed sophisticated ways of including opportunities for networking and interaction but there are challenges.
For ExCeL, there have also been some noteworthy learnings on this. They went on to explain that they’d come across something interesting with some of their clients, which was they were not necessarily running the virtual and the live event at the same time. “They are running the live events and then using recordings from these as part of the content for virtual at a later date,” said Andrew. “They want it to be rewarding for guests coming to the venue making it a special occasion to help with the confidence to attend.”
“For example, if you are at the live event maybe they’ll see a special guest that is not then recorded for the virtual event, keeping the live one more exclusive. The most relevant parts of the recorded live session are then crafted into a more interactive but shorter format for the virtual world. With virtual, average dwell times can be quiet low, as it is easy to be distracted. By curating the live content especially for virtual you are able to grow your audience and engage them, while still giving those in the room a special experience,” Andrew explained.
I know we at BCD M&E have worked hard to lift the production values of virtual to make it a far more quality broadcast, think breakfast TV, and differentiate it from the huge volume of Zoom / MS Team meetings everyone has been enduring. ExCeL’s inhouse hybrid studio shows they are also working towards offering clients the opportunity to have a more polished end product. As a business that prides itself on delivering unique experiences for our clients, we are delighted to see the growth of these facilities to help us offer something different. For us creativity is still key to the success of an event but having a broader range of facilities from venues like ExCeL on offer, helps us plan ahead for hybrid events.
Client’s expectations have certainly changed over the last year with a higher level of interactivity and quality of broadcast at the top of their hybrid wish list. But that can come with a price tag and I wondered if Andrew and Sophie thought that the cost implications of hybrid would put clients off? Music to my ears, was that they really didn’t. As they explained, the expectations of hybrid are of course higher now than from before when perhaps hybrid meant just streaming a live event. However, the opportunity to reach that wider audience in an engaging and interactive way, for them, adds so much value to the client’s event.
In conclusion, it seems we are all in agreement that the developments in virtual and hybrid are here to stay and the need to reach larger and larger audiences will drive the push behind hybrid. For me, one thing is clear, having a partner like ExCeL London who is more than ready for this new generation of events is something to smile about.