CASE STUDY: Wellness Tourism Summit tests the power of virtual connections

Organisers of the inaugural summit balanced strategic communication with creative content to inject a sense of calm in the increasingly crowded world of virtual events.

Close your eyes and you could be anywhere... the summit kicked off with a virtual meditation session that helped delegates focus and get ready for the day.
Close your eyes and you could be anywhere... the summit kicked off with a virtual meditation session that helped delegates focus and get ready for the day.

At the Wellness Tourism Summit’s debut last week, attendees in Australia meditated on silver linings amid challenging times. For the event organiser on the other hand, a break in the clouds came in the form of virtual event technology — and the potential for next-level interactivity.

The inaugural Wellness Tourism Summit was originally scheduled for March this year, before the pandemic escalated and prompted summit founder, Katherine Droga, to hit the drawing board.

“This month's virtual event was not to replace our face-to-face event. It was an additional strategy for us, post-Covid, to engage with our current Wellness Tourism Summit registered delegates, as well as a broader new audience and ensure we add value and insights to the industry and their businesses right now.”

Titled Wellness Travel Opportunities in a Changing World, the virtual event kicked off with up-to-date data on consumer attitudes, coupled with insights on the related tourism opportunities.

Audience engagement was palpable as the event presented fresh perspectives on itineraries such as consultant Matt Sykes’ blueprint for a Victoria hot springs trail, as well as nuanced approaches to alleviating traveller anxiety as shared by cross-disciplinary speakers, including psychologist Chris Mackey.

High tech can be high touch too

The downside often tied to virtual events is the lack of human touch and personalisation.

But lively chat-box discussions powered by Wellness Tourism Summit’s platform provider, HopIn, proved otherwise. HopIn’s chat box sits on the same screen as the live event stream, placing interactions right at attendees’ fingertips throughout the event.

With attendees reacting to ongoing discussions in real-time (rather than being limited to breakout sessions and networking slots), the virtual platform arguably created more opportunities for like-minded attendees and potential collaborators to find common ground.

For example, Sykes’ blueprint for a hot springs trail drew attention from multiple attendees, among whom is a lodge operator in Victoria. Requests for a list of indigenous tour operators also flooded the chat box following a session with Julie Bishop, director of the Visitor Experience Branch, NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service.

Also giving the virtual event a sense of live participation was the meditation session conducted by event partner, The Yoga Shell.

On how the organisers brought the feeling of wellness to a virtual format, Droga said: “A key factor was to not create too much noise for delegates attending the event on the event platform. Wellness should bring calm and balance and we wanted to create this through our event flow. The virtual meditation session we added to start the event also helped delegates focus and get ready for the day. This was very well received.”

By adapting to the current state of affairs and organising its first virtual event, other unexpected upsides also materialised. Droga told M&C Asia: “We were impressed with the reach of our virtual event and attracted new people to our wellness tourism tribe from across the globe. This represented 35 per cent of all attendees, which was great!”

How to better wield technology

Despite the event’s success with interactivity and engagement, there were some missed opportunities when it came to networking. HopIn offers nifty networking tools including user profiles and direct messaging features — but these were absent from the Wellness Tourism Summit.

It is a shame as private direct messaging could mean the difference between an expression of interest over chat, and the next step of entering more concrete business discussions.

Meanwhile, there are aspects of technology that will continue to be out of event planners’ hands. Finite hosting bandwidth, participant internet speeds and other technology-related contingencies unfortunately mean that an uninterrupted experience is hardly guaranteed when events go online.

But the way organisers deal with such hiccups can make a big difference to the event experience. In spite of streaming interruptions at the Wellness Tourism Summit, organisers managed to keep up engagement and a sense of continuity through advanced planning and live facilitation.

Explaining how the team pulled it off, Droga said: “[We had] a plan in place to share videos post-event and assured delegates that they weren’t missing out. Having communications drafted beforehand to share with delegates if technology issues arise is a great way to reduce the stress, so that your focus can be to resolve the issue at hand.”

Is virtual the way to go?

Instead of sitting around weighing out the pros and cons of virtual events, some planners have already gotten the ball rolling on hybrid events, combining the best elements of staged events (the venue and sense of live participation) and digital enablers (post-event streaming, event apps with scheduling and social networking tools).

Although, a hybrid event has sometimes proven to be less than the sum of its parts. The interactivity benefits that a chat-enabled stream affords tend to be lost on face-to-face events, with participants having to divide their attention between the physical stage/networking floor and their devices.

Perhaps, more than whether an event is virtual or physical, the success of an event boils down to content. As the Wellness Travel Opportunities in a Changing World demonstrated, quality content that speaks to the industry’s concerns and presents new ideas and perspectives is what ultimately drives engagement.

The Wellness Tourism Summit plans to continue bringing quality content and programming to participants. If things go to plan, its inaugural face-to-face event will take place in Queensland, Australia next year with a mix of global and local speakers. The programme will include speaker sessions as well as one-on-one business networking meetings.