With the industry witnessing a seismic shift, challenges are plentiful. And one of those challenges relates to creating exhibitor experiences for virtual and hybrid events. Because while these formats have unique demands, it’s not all impossible to deal with! Some parts of an in-person event are actually rather easy to replicate in a hybrid or virtual setting. However, when it comes down to sponsors and exhibitors, the name of the game is hardly the same. And you’ve probably found yourself scratching your head over it a few times.

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Well, not anymore! Because this week, we’re bringing back the Event Tech Podcast. And our awesome host Will Curran is proud to welcome Matthew Funge as a guest. Matthew is the Managing Director and co-founder of Your Stand Builder, an award-winning company that “revolutionizes the way companies all around the world prepare for their exhibitions”. So who better than him to teach us how to create amazing exhibitor experiences for virtual and hybrid events? Press play and join the chat!

2020: The Shift & What It Created

Will is instantly curious to learn how exhibitions and exhibition stands changed this year – and how that will affect things moving forward. Matthew acknowledges the lack of in-person events and talks about how it “forced us into a different way of thinking and a different approach with regards to events and event marketing”. He adds that “suddenly, there was a real urgency to find an alternative way of reaching the customers as they would at these regular annual events”.

“There’ve been new technologies developed, maybe even before COVID, but they’ve been accelerated”, Matthew continues. “Or other technologies have been developed very, very quickly throughout these last six months or so. We’ve got new technologies coming out there, new, innovative ways of approaching this. And it seems as if almost every event that’s happening online at the moment has some form of a new feature, some form of new interactivity that’s getting ever closer to all the big advantages we know about physical events. But I don’t think we’re quite there yet. And I think there’s more that can be done and probably is being done behind the scenes. But it’s interesting to keep track of it and see how we are progressing”.

Started With Webinars, And Now We’re Here!

Thinking back to March, Matthew wasn’t very impressed with the industry’s first attempts at virtual events. “The early events that I was attending back in March this year, they were almost fancy versions of just webinars. It was a video presentation and a load of attendees listening. So there wasn’t too much really to get excited about”, he says.

“But I think as we’re moving forward, we’re seeing 3D trade show platforms where you can have a virtual version of your stand and things like that. Which is getting slightly closer to what we’re used to in terms of a physical trade show. But I’m also seeing elements of VR, virtual reality, and AR as well coming in. Whereby you actually are starting to see almost like 3D avatars of people that are being developed to interact with one another so that you can try and incorporate human interaction”, he adds.

“So I’m excited to see where they go. Because I think the future, looking forward maybe 10 or 20 years from now will be that kind of thing in terms of virtual events. Where maybe we do have VR headsets and we could interact face to face or online. And I think we’re slowly moving towards that, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But that’s something that has me really excited. I think that has huge potential to really transform virtual events and, and bring them more in line with the physical ones”.

Exhibitor Experiences For Virtual and Hybrid Events

Exhibitor Experiences for Virtual and Hybrid Events: Where We Are

Will is keen on listening to Matthew’s opinion on the three-dimensional exhibit halls we’ve been seeing a lot of lately. “I’m unsure at the moment. I like the concept behind it because I think it’s a lot better than just, essentially watching a webinar on Zoom or another platform”, says Matthew. “I like how there’s additional interactivity compared to just sitting and listening. But at the same time, I think there’s a very fine line between it being professional and functional and bordering on being almost like a video game where you lose that complete sense of reality. And it seems more like a gimmick than anything else. So I’m a fan of the potential of it, but I’m maybe not so much a fan of where it’s at right now”.

One of Matthew’s biggest objections to exhibitor experiences for virtual and hybrid events as they now stand is the feeling. Because it’s quite clear that it’s a virtual experience, less human than we’re used to. So how can we make the whole thing feel and appear more natural to attendees?

Making It Feel More Natural

“I don’t think you should bombard your virtual exhibitions with too many features. I think there’s a trap that some companies have fallen into, that because it’s a virtual stand, it perhaps doesn’t cost anywhere near the same amount to have certain features on your stand. The simplicity of adding extra features to a virtual stand is much better than adding them to a physical stand”.

“So companies have seen this and almost try to compensate for the fact that it’s not a physical event by just throwing every possible feature you could think of to a virtual stand”, adds Matthew. “And it just ends up being a little bit overwhelming, a little bit overcrowding. And they’re almost trying to do too much on that exhibition stand because they feel they have to, to make up for the fact that they can’t see their customers or potential customers face to face”.

“Whereas the best virtual stands that I’ve seen are actually quite simple in design”, he continues. “They display the company branding, they display the products or digital versions of the products. And it just gets straight to the point without trying to be too over the top. And for longterm success in virtual and hybrid events, I think it’s going to be more a case of approaching virtual exhibition stands as functional rather than a big show of the brand, like a physical trade show booth or stand is”.

The Future Is Hybrid

When asked about the future of the events industry, Matthew shares the same opinion as many other professionals. “The virtual element, the online element of events that we’ve become so used to in the last six months is here to stay. It’s not going to go away”, he says. “Because of the advantages that have been uncovered from virtual events, I think that always, or almost always, there is going to be this situation where a physical event has an online or a virtual element of it as well, to expand the audience”.

“So hybrid events will take the form of physical plus digital. I think the exact specifics of that are still going to be discovered. And I think there’s going to be a certain element of trial and error in that as well. But I definitely think that going forward every event, every large scale event at least is going to have both forms, side-by-side together. And I think overall that’s going to be a good thing for the industry as a whole because I think it’s about time it came into the new digital age in truth”, he adds.

“I think the trade show industry is, is a little bit behind many other industries around the world in terms of embracing technology and moving forward with the times. It’s a positive overall for the industry, a silver lining that we can take from this horrendous period that we’ve all been living through over the last six months. And I think it’s going to be really interesting to see where it goes and how in the medium to longterm future of the industry”, Matthew concludes.

Exhibitor Experiences For Virtual and Hybrid Events

Exhibitor Experiences for Virtual and Hybrid Events: Pitfalls

“I think on the virtual side, event planners, because this is also new, they don’t necessarily understand all of the features that are available to them”, explains Matthew. “And, therefore, don’t use them as well as they could.  So they might have an online platform supplier speaking to them, submitting a proposal to them saying, we can do this. We can do that. We can do the other”.

“But the event planner doesn’t really know what they want. So they’re just being guided by what the supplier has put in the proposal. And it’s not necessarily what they want to achieve from their event or what they want to include on their virtual platform. So they end up just having all these features that the visitors don’t really have a benefit from. They’ve kind of gone ahead with it because they don’t know better. So I think a little bit of education is needed in terms of what works well and what doesn’t on virtual events”, he adds.

“And this is not a criticism, because this is also new to us. So I’m not going to sit here and say, I know all the features of a virtual platform. Because I really don’t. I think we’re at that stage where none of us really know what works and what doesn’t. And overall in the industry, it’s a bit of trial and error at the moment. Because it’s so new and we’re learning as we go. And over time we’ll get better at it. But right now I think there’s a lot that can still be understood more deeply and utilized better”, Matthew concludes.

Conclusions

And that’s a wrap on yet another amazing edition of the Event Tech Podcast. This week, it was all about creating exhibitor experiences for virtual and hybrid events. But the awesome content surrounding the event formats of the future is nowhere near done! Stay tuned for more articles and podcast episodes talking about topics you want to know about.

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Will Curran

Author Will Curran

Information junkie, energetic, and work-a-holic are just some of the words we can use to describe Will Curran. Aside from spending 20 out of 24 hours a day working as the Chief Event Einstein of Endless Events, you can catch Will ordering a chai latte or watching The Flash with his cats. He is also well known for his love of all things pretzels.

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