Despite COVID concerns, the Consumer Technology Association’s annual gathering for innovators, CES, was held in person. Tech giants like T-Mobile, Amazon, and Meta pulled out at the last minute, but that didn’t stop thousands from heading to Las Vegas to learn about breakthrough technologies. Around the same time, the in-person World Economic Forum annual meeting was replaced with a series of virtual presentations. These days, leaders from every industry are making mighty decisions about gathering, with costly and long-lasting impact.
A year and a half ago, amid the fear and pain caused by the COVID health crisis, my team was asked to create a global experience that would offer hope and healing to millions of people—virtually. The result was the 24-hour Call to Unite, a livestream event that helped us reimagine and reorganize around what gathering would look like in the future. Below are five things we learned.
PLAN FOR A PIVOT
When you’re in the business of producing events—large or small—you always expect changes, but COVID has magnified their gravity. When an eleventh-hour health scare pushes an event online, success relies on decisions you made months before. Seasoned organizers have satellite planning teams in place that are working on scenarios B and C, even while plan A is moving ahead full steam.
Before COVID, event attendees, regardless of industry or geography, reveled in informal networking opportunities. At in-person events, conference spaces are often filled with small tables to encourage people to make new connections. To replicate this practice for a group of high-net-worth individuals, we created a secure, interactive virtual event microsite where they collaborate to help solve social issues. Unique user IDs make VIP participation easy, while a team of skilled facilitators ensures that engagement is high and valuable.
STORYTELLING IS STILL KEY
Finding new and exciting ways to tell stories is sometimes simpler than you might think. One client of ours offered a young slam poet a platform to deliver her inspiring message of resilience and tenacity as part of an annual event for recruiters. In 2,000 words, the energetic artist captured the spirit of the week-long program for worldwide audiences. The most powerful way to engage audiences is, and always will be, storytelling. There is no need to overthink it.
Investing in new ways to present top-tier talent can be a game-changer for attracting today’s viewers who are expecting more. Oprah Winfrey (also a client) used live green screen technology to facilitate her remote fireside chat with President Barack Obama. Technology is changing constantly. Stay updated and find opportunities to bring in new tools when you can.
BE MINDFUL OF TOO MANY MUST-DO’S
Keeping the audience safe is critical, but if the experience is over-encumbered with must-do’s, attendees may stay home. For in-person events, vaccine requirements and temperature checks are now common. At CES, home COVID tests were distributed daily so attendees could certify negative results. If additional steps were required for entry, it’s likely attendance would have been much lower. Regardless of the recommended protocols, keep the attendee experience front of mind.
Gathering is the vehicle we use to consciously shape the way we think and feel about the world. COVID may have changed the way we plan and the tools we use to meet, but it has also powerfully fueled our need to connect in profound ways. Whether you decide to invest in new ways to engage audiences virtually or to enhance health and safety protocols and push ahead with in-person meetings, keep these five learnings in mind.
Lorne Greene is co-founder and CEO of VIVA Creative, a global experiential communications agency.