Key insights from a leading event producer – taking events virtual during Covid-19

“Key insights from a leading event producer – taking events virtual during Covid-19” is the second of a series of articles where we interview industry leaders on their experiences in this “new normal” world that the event industry currently finds itself in.

Hugh Edwards is a well-known figure in the UK events industry as co-founder of Gravy for the Brain – the UK’s leading network for voice artists – and founder of ReAttendance a leading event platform specialising in “Giving events a breath of life and taking them into the virtual space”. So, we were delighted that he took the time to speak to us for this month’s HHC blog about taking events virtual during Covid-19 – insights from a leading event producer.

In the four years since ReAttendance was founded, Hugh and his team have been working hard to develop and deliver a platform that really works for their clients. In February 2020, they released what was to be the latest version of their event platform. Within weeks, they were swamped due to Covid-19 by demand and the need to respond rapidly to the needs of their clients. “No one could have anticipated the speed, breadth and depth of client demand that this crisis would create. From a traditional events client base, we have now extended into music companies, festivals and education and it continues to evolve as we rapidly pivot.” states Hugh.

Currently, ReAttendance has 500+ events under management. We were keen to understand Hugh’s views on what makes for a successful virtual event: “Three things make up a successful virtual event. The first is the event “look and feel”. You need to be creative and really plan the event “look and feel” – even more so than if it was in-person. It needs to be crystal clear and consistent throughout. The second is make the event feel “live” through careful planning of audience participation and avoiding, at all costs, placing the audience in a passive position. The third, and most critical, is networking. There is an overriding need to curate well planned opportunities for networking in the virtual space! This is typically where participants view that they derive most value from an event.”

Hugh elaborates on how they addressed each of these three key elements at the One Voice Conference which he was not only responsible for organising but also hosting (as co-founder of Gravy for the Brain). And one of the most successful virtual events we have participated in during lockdown.

Leading Event Producer
The great event that keeps on giving!

“To get the event “look and feel” consistent, we needed to be highly creative right down to the smallest details. From ensuring the virtual “staging“ was consistently themed with our corporate branding through to the consistent use of hashtags across the event. We also used a professional host for many of the sessions. This really helped to add to the professional impact of the event. One of the things the host did was to dress differently for key sessions throughout the event. As trivial as this may seem, it gave subtle but important cues to the participants. On the first evening for the launch networking event, the host was dressed in black tie. On the second evening, he was sporting a more informal, fun Hawaii 5-0 look with Hawaiian shirt, glasses etc.”

“To ensure the event felt “live” at all times, we did things like pre-record many of the presentations but then asked the presenters to join us live for Q&A on the day with the participants. When it came to networking, we probably had our biggest success! Usually, when participants attend an in-person event, they may do so with friends. Whilst they may meet a few new people at the event, it can be pretty limited. In the virtual space, you can exponentially increase the opportunities for creating new connections. We divided the participants up at 9pm into breakout rooms of 4-5 people with 8 minutes to connect before they were brought back to the plenary, where they were then divided back up again and so on. At 5am we had to wrap up this mammoth networking session (we had to go to bed!). The range of people we got to meet in the networking session was amazing. It was truly addictive with great, lasting connections generated!”

There is definitely an interesting opportunity when it comes to revenue and profit for virtual events based on Hugh’s experience. “It is possible for virtual events to be financially very viable and therefore attractive. Indeed, more so than in-person events. This is largely due to there being no associated venue and catering costs as well as being able to attract different audiences who historically may have been unable to attend for cost or other reasons. Thereby, impacting revenues and margins in a positive way. Interestingly, the industries which will subsequently suffer most due the shift to virtual events (as a result of Covid-19) are hotels and venues as well as air and rail travel which will have far reaching implications.”

We have spoken to many of our clients about their challenges taking events virtual as a result of Covid-19. One of the major issues they struggle with is how to identify and select the most relevant platform/tech provider for their virtual events especially if they are relatively new to it – things are changing and evolving so quickly. Hugh recommends that event owners develop a written outline of their event and use this to work out which tech might be best placed to deliver on their event vision; whether this includes pre-recorded video, livestream auto-generated feeds, live hosting etc. Working backwards like this will ensure that they achieve better outcomes. He also advises that it is crucial to apply the same rule to all platforms – as follows, they should be super easy to use by event participants. If they aren’t, you lose goodwill immediately and get off on the wrong foot.

ReAttendance, as a platform, stands out in the market Hugh believes due to their approach providing their tech in the form of building blocks. This means clients can build their event vision using only the blocks they require (avoiding the standard industry package approach). ReAttendance also has a team of 20 experienced professionals providing event production services. This means they can work seamlessly with clients to deliver on their event vision. When it comes to pricing, ReAttendance are taking a different approach from most of their competitors. By reducing their pricing by 50% for the latest release of their platform (due later this month – mid July 2020), they want to ensure that all types of organisations (including SMEs, start up, scale ups, NGOs, NFPs etc) are able to access and benefit from their services to deliver high quality events – this is really exciting and inspiring.

When discussing and exploring how events will change as a result of Covid-19, Hugh’s view is clear: “Certainly for the next 12 months things will continue to be very difficult for in-person events. We are looking at a likely continued focus on exclusively virtual events with the potential for some hybrid events up until Q2 2021. An example of a hybrid event could be a one day in-person event focused around an award ceremony with a further 2-3 days of virtual content and activities wrapped around it delivered virtually. This crucially allows for flexibility in taking the in-person element of the event online should the need arise at short notice. If we think about the sheer volume of change we’ve seen in the last three months, clients need to have flexible planning options as predicting the future is impossible so it really makes sense to plan a hybrid approach!”

Interestingly, there is also a growing demand from many organisations and individuals to reduce carbon footprint as well as cost involved in attending in-person events. “This is where virtual and hybrid events come into their own. Also, it’s not necessarily specific sectors that are being impacted by the shift to virtual events” views Hugh. “It’s more to do with organisational leadership and event managers having vision and willingness to try and experiment with the possibilities of virtual events. It will require behavioural change from both event owners and participants to truly get the most out of virtual events going forward – without this it will be very tricky to truly reap the benefits!”

Hugh concludes: “We have observed that the current market of virtual events falls roughly into three groups – those who have really got it and are doing great things. Those who are doing it poorly – and there are too many of these currently – but it is where there is definite room for improvement and potential. And those who are simply waiting until it’s possible to do events again in-person.” The questions is – where do you want to be?

As always, we would love to know your thoughts and experiences on taking events into the virtual space, so please do feel free to reach out to us and discuss further by emailing or calling us.

About the author. Rebecca Hill is a principle consultant at HaslerHill Consultants. She is currently collaborating with a number of organisations providing consulting services focused on virtual and in person meeting facilitation and event design and content curation. She also runs her own consultancy Wise Sherpa specialising in executive coaching, business mentoring and consulting on strategy and change. For more information and how you can hire her, contact rebecca@haslerhillconsulting.co.uk or call 0044 (0)7860 805528 

For further insights please find a link to an article written by The Re-Attendance Team back in March this year on the subject of  “How to set up a virtual conference when your event gets cancelled.”  Please note the article was written before the One Voice Conference mentioned in the text above as one of Hugh’s examples. 



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