Online engagement continues to baffle event organisers

WiT Virtual event exposes weak spots amid the digital ‘pivot’ and challenges industry to ask tough questions

WiT Virtual event gathered industry leaders from Asia and beyond to rethink trade exhibitions.
WiT Virtual event gathered industry leaders from Asia and beyond to rethink trade exhibitions.

The digitisation of meetings and events is not new, so why are we still scratching our heads when it comes to online engagement?

A recent WiT Virtual event on ‘Rethinking Trade Exhibitions’ gathered industry leaders from Asia and beyond to answer this very question. WiT founder, Yeoh Siew Hoon, moderated the session, combining insights from the five-speaker panel with input from attendees to outline how event professionals can navigate the virtual and hybrid meetings landscape.

While the session focused on exhibitions, there were several learnings for corporate meeting planners too. Sarah Wan, Southeast Asia marketing director of travel booking start-up Klook, said the business events industry needs to stop defending old territory and start charting a new course.

Wan referenced a number of bricks-and-mortar businesses in Singapore that recently embraced live streaming technology to reinvent their business model. “While traditionally associated with North Asia, the use of live streaming across Southeast Asia has been accelerated by Covid-19," she said. "Due to recent lockdowns, many traditional businesses — like fishmongers and durian sellers — have adopted live streaming to conduct business and generate sales.”

So, if a durian stall can reinvent its business model, why can't event planners? Why is it so hard to replicate or ‘reimagine’ the connections made at a physical event in the virtual world?

For Jean Chia, Southeast Asia president of Pico Group, it comes down to experience design. “To be effective, you must keep the target audience in mind,” she said. “The most successful virtual events are designed around engagement and experience with the end-user.”

“It’s important that brands and organisers look at [virtual and physical events] from a complementary point of view. Budgets are still there, but allocation will be split between physical and virtual,” she said. “Hybrid is new norm, but most the successful events have a very clear value proposition for both physical and virtual audiences — and this needs to be clearly communicated.”

So, assessing big data to analyse consumer patterns and ensuring that customer centricity is at the core of event management will determine future success. To adapt accordingly, Chia says the question that all event planners should be asking themselves is: “What do future decision-makers want and how do I build a sustainable business model out of that?”

Understanding consumer expectations around the baseline of digital integration at your events will also prove critical. On this point, Veemal Gungadin, CEO of event tech company, GlobalSign.In, said the format must be fit for purpose.

“The experience offered to virtual and physical attendees has to be different. At the physical event you get the full focus of an attendee, but online it’s very easy to switch off and we have to expect that virtual attendees will be multitasking,” he said.

Klook’s Wan suggested gamification to keep virtual attendees engaged, as well as incentives such as promo codes and giveaways.

Meanwhile, UFI CEO, Kai Hattendorf argued that the success of hybrid events is — and will remain — dependent on a physical meeting. However, he acknowledged that people will pay for additional digital services that will help them do better deals.