With the tumultuous year of 2020 behind us, it is time to reflect on the developments we’ve seen and to shape our expectations for 2021. What does the rapid emergence of virtual and hybrid events mean for 2021? How does this change the way potential participants select their events? What possibilities lie in the hybrid character of the next generation conferences? We spoke with Harry Smorenberg, Ambassador of the Singapore FinTech Festival and CEO and Organiser of o.a. AsiaPaymentsConnect.com, TransactionInnovationForum.com (Japan) and founder of the European & Global Payments Summits and WorldPensionSummit, about his thoughts on the latest developments in the event business.
Virtual Events are rising in quantity
As Covid changed the world, many initially physical events were transformed into virtual alternatives. This hasn’t always been effective. ‘The variety of offers in virtual events is massive. Everyone who is somewhat active, is able to organise their own conference and/or become a ‘publisher’. But I do see a big loss in terms of quality” says Smorenberg. “This loss of quality in terms of content is a shame, since the virtual conferences are to replace the real-life ones. Eventually, virtual events should be an inspiration for the next generation of ‘physical’ conferences. At present, many of these virtual conferences are for free and actually running advertorials… and I have my doubts whether participants are willing to pay a comparable amount for online webinars as for the physical counterpart.
How to organize a succesfull virtual conference
So the challenge lies in offering the same quality content-wise, while keeping costs low or even at zero. Overcoming this challenge opens the potential of organising a successful event. “The distinction between ‘good’ and less useful webinars lies in the preparation of the content. In spending a lot of time defining the real topics, doing research on what is happening and speaking with relevant experts about what this might mean.” This is something that has always been important to Smorenberg. He thinks that a big potential for virtual events lies in small-scale round-table discussions, during which experts are really able to go in-depth on a topic and dedicated expert briefings. “I think that there will be a market for the concept of virtual webinars too. However, we mostly see opportunities in organising a webinar to first obtain some focus and afterwards coupling a round table on the topic for those who really want to explore this topic in depth, to share their expertise and learn from global lessons learned.” It stands to reason that a smaller setting is more personal and will ensure a higher engagement than one would expect from a massive virtual event.
“The distinction between ‘good’ and less useful webinars lies in the preparation of the content. In spending a lot of time defining the real topics, doing research on what is happening and speaking with relevant experts about what this might mean.”Harry Smorenberg, ambassador of the Singapore FinTech Festival and CEO and Organizer of o.a. AsiaPaymentsConnect.com
Participants become more selective
Over the coming year, participants will become more selective. Consequently, event organisers will have to adapt to the reshaped preferences of their attendees. One of the reasons for this is the massive numbers of webinars that are being offered. “I think people will become more conscious when choosing which virtual event to attend. They will look more at what a conference really could offer…also in terms of networking; is it essential to participate? Will there be experts/stakeholders or market players who they find genuinely interesting? What new topics and angles will it touch?” Moreover, the online attention span of participants tends to become shorter. “That’s the point with Zoom: people become Zoom-fatigue. I attended virtual conferences already in 2020 and I’m pretty sure that physical participation would have secured a lot of networking opportunities and side-meetings. These conference formats were ‘copy-pasted’ to a virtual Zoom environment: every other hour there was a speaker or a panel… However, no one will spend an entire day behind their PC watching a conference. It will become a challenge to offer participants a virtual experience worth their attention”.
Hybrid conferences will stick around
But then, if Zoom-fatigue is a problem and the offer in online conferences is too overwhelming, wouldn’t that pave the way to simply go back to the good old world of physical events in a post-COVID era? Smorenberg doesn’t think this is an option. “Travel will change to some extent. This is because of existing global COVID restrictions but also because of budget constraints. You will see that businesses will treat international travel more selectively. But people are still eager to learn and like to exchange expertise. So in this scenario, you will have to offer both.” It is very likely that companies will take it easy on their travel expenses after having gone through the severe crisis that is likely to leave economic scars for years.
“You will see that businesses will treat international travel more selectively. But people áre still eager to learn and like to exchange expertise. So in this scenario, you will have to offer both.”Harry Smorenberg, ambassador of the Singapore FinTech Festival and CEO and Organizer of o.a. AsiaPaymentsConnect.com
The other side of the picture is that hybrid conferences offer the possibility to host a broader range of speakers, for example speakers who would have been too busy or exclusive to attend otherwise. Since it is possible to attend virtually as a participant, it’s also no longer necessary to attend physically as a speaker. Costs that are saved on traveling expenses of speakers can now be invested in good quality content. Covid really contributed to the virtualisation of events and secured a certain acceptance of working and learning ‘at distance’. This development will just continue. Nowadays, communications technology has become a critical necessity for organising a successful conference at scale. This critical infrastructure can be used when tuning an absolute leading expert on a certain topic, who is too busy to travel to a conference but can make a great 10-minute online contribution. In other words: limitless possibilities.
So, what should we take away from all these insights? One thing is clear: participants will become more selective about which events are really worth their attention. As an event manager, it is important to distinguish yourself by offering an objective, content-rich and engaging program. Hybrid events will become the ‘new normal’, making conference trips no longer necessary for many conferences. This also creates possibilities for a richer and more diverse conference program. Hybrid conferences have shifted from a necessity into a keeper.
About Harry Smorenberg
Harry is Founder & CEO of SCC and is an international (positioning) strategist in the Financial Services Industry. He previously worked at Banque Paribas and ABN AMRO Bank and was a director at two leading international strategic consultants. He is a leading contributor to innovation in both the retail and corporate payments and transaction space. He has a solid background in Cash- & Treasury Management. With that he is actively involved with repositioning the finance functions and the role of (new) technology. He is also expert in retirement management (pension scheme development and ageing issues).
Harry is Founder and Chairman of AsiaPaymentsConnect.com, TransactionInnovationForum.com (Japan) and AgingFinance.com (Singapore) He is also the founder of the European & Global Payment Summits and the World Pension Summit (EMEA, ASIA, Oceania).
Next to that he is working actively on improving financial literacy and financial inclusion (a.o. solutions in areas like communication & education /budgeting/ personal financial planning solutions / pension planning). He also is very much involved with the ‘next generation developments of the way we will work and contribute to society’ (rebalancing work & income / working longer) and thus ‘social innovation’.
He is also a columnist and guest speaker, sits on several advisory boards (such as GFLEC- Washington / NIBUD – Netherlands / CAFF50.net – Beijing / P&I – New York) and regularly publishes in leading international media.