After two years of attending virtual events, followed by a few smaller hybrid events, I recently attended my first large-scale in-person experience, at the Experiential Marketing Summit at the MGM Grand Las Vegas.

I must say, it felt amazing to return to meeting face to face. And EMS didn’t disappoint. 

The organizers did a fantastic job of balancing the agenda. We’ve all been cooped up for months, and frankly nobody wanted to return to the stodgy conference room where it’s just session after session after session. You could tell attendees were ready to move around and have a little fun.

The EMS team wholeheartedly leaned into facilitating those magical moments you can only experience in person. There were circus performers, interspersed moments of crowd participation, and even dancing.

I think the organizers recognized how you can really enhance the in-person experience with the same thought, diversity of movement, and mix of formats and experiences used to make virtual events exciting and engaging.

Fingers crossed we don’t return to a fully virtual world. But I believe we’re never going back to the same old in-person experiences. We have seen firsthand how virtual event technology increases audience reach, improves accessibility, unlocks powerful event data, among other key enhancements. 

Even as we return to in-person events, experienced organizers will increasingly deploy these virtual components to make their events better than ever.

Digital elements at EMS

As I walked through the EMS venue, it was nice to see organizers include the virtual elements that evolved over the last few years and made virtual participation so viable. Some of the virtual elements I observed included:

Event apps become a go-to feature

Pre-pandemic, many organizers utilized mobile event apps, but they were more of a nice-to-have feature. Not anymore. Now they’re a must-have feature — there’s simply too much powerful information you can pack into the palm of your hand. I saw attendees using their phones to navigate the venue, build their agendas, sync up with other attendees, and play the event game. 

With most of us already tethered to our phones, organizers see tremendous value from using mobile apps to digitally connect attendees to each other and event content. It just makes sense. I’m certain we’ll never go back to carrying around a crumpled paper agenda for days on end.  

Virtual engagement features enter the ballroom

The industry relied on event tech features like polls, gamification, and live Q&A to drive attendee engagement for virtual events. It was awesome to see these features carry over to the in-person experience.

We’re seeing speakers work with organizers to say, “Hey, I’d like a couple of polls and maybe a quiz during my talk, and I’m going to encourage my attendees to take out their mobile phones and interact. Then, I’m going to bring the results on the screen behind me and we’re gonna talk about them in real time.” 

These virtual engagement features give speakers more power by helping to inform the content and also provide a dynamic tool to create real interaction scale. It’s very different when asking the audience to shout out their answers — you’ll end up with a cacophony of responses. But when you can actually ask folks to type in their answers and they appear live on screen, they become part of the content. 

More screens — but with purpose

One of the post-pandemic changes that really stuck out to me was the number of video screens throughout the venue. But they did more than welcome attendees to the event. They were synced to event technology and the organizers used various screens to showcase content and make the event feel more interactive.

As you walked through the venue, you’d see the agenda and promos for upcoming sessions, speaker bios, sponsor videos, entertainment schedules, and of course the game’s leaderboard showing the top contenders.

What are the key benefits of including virtual components to in-person events?

With the industry increasingly adopting event technology to mix digital elements into the in-person experience, I think we’ll continue to see organizers find creative ways to level up, and for good reason. 

Technology enables continuous engagement

When you utilize tech to digitize your in-person event, the event experience begins the moment attendees register and gain access to your virtual hub. We’re seeing organizers really lean into the opportunity to interact with attendees and expose them to content in the days, weeks, or even months prior to when they arrive at the exhibition hall.

It motivates attendees to engage with your event content, so they arrive steeped in knowledge. They’ve read the speaker bios, built their agendas, answered polls, and connected with other attendees, or maybe even scheduled a private chat or meeting. Ultimately, they’re excited to show up, and the chance of not attending greatly decreases because they’re engaged. 

Organizers are leveraging polls and surveys or setting up collaborative white boards to facilitate pre-event engagement and inform event content. It allows the organizer to say, “For the keynote, we decided to address this big topic, or we’re going to shape the agenda around these topics that came out of the pre-event surveys and polls you all voted for.”

Digitization also expands your event year-round. One of the biggest challenges of a traditional in-person event is that there’s only a limited amount of time. Everything needs to happen in a matter of hours, then folks go home and they’re done. Virtual allows you to stretch out the experience for as long or little as you prefer. 

You can make all event content available on demand, so attendees don’t need to pick and choose sessions. They can attend them all. It’s a huge benefit because attendees can go back and revisit content and truly experience everything they hoped to. You can offer exclusive elements throughout the year, like eBooks and white papers. And attendees can continue the interactions with other attendees, as well as your event speakers and sponsors.

When you adopt a year-round mindset and engage your audience pre- and post-event, it ultimately allows you to share more of your content, as well as your sponsors’ content. You continually gain new information and learn more about your audience, helping to build a community around your brand connection and loyalty.

Digitization unlocks new sponsorship opportunities

We’re increasingly seeing event organizers leverage the power of technology to level up sponsor packages and deliver better ROI, even as sponsors and exhibitors enjoy a heavy in-person presence.

A sponsor may prefer a physical booth space, but why not give them a digital presence? In-app banners can boost exposure and drive attendees to content or promotions, while an event game connects specific challenges to desired attendee actions. 

We’ve seen savvy organizers tie their sponsorship tiers to certain benefits built into the app itself. So, maybe your platinum sponsor receives two game challenges. One requires attendees to go and visit the sponsor’s virtual booth, while the second challenge directs the attendee to physically visit the sponsor’s booth and speak to a representative.

When you take advantage of the technology tools to shepherd certain experiences and interactions, it unlocks so much more value for your sponsors.

Capture key event data and boost ROI

Speaking of showing value, it can be tricky to quantify the number of people who see a banner hanging in an exhibition hall, but just think about how much data you can unlock by connecting technology to your in-person event. 

Let me paint the picture for you. If you include no digital experience, you might have attendees who walk through the trade show floor and visit a booth. Maybe they pick up a handout and they go to all of the sponsor’s sessions and really soak up the content. But it just so happens that for whatever reason, the attendee and sponsor never find the opportunity to connect, despite the attendee being highly interested in their product or service.

With a digital experience, typically via mobile event app, organizers gain a trove of valuable event data. They can see the specific sessions I added to my calendar, or if I visited the virtual sponsor booth and downloaded their PDF. If I have a badge with a QR code on the trade show floor, they can easily scan and qualify my lead information. 

You can make all of this rich information available as part of a sponsorship package. It allows you to say, “Here are all of your leads, but these specific leads attended your featured sessions and also visited your website and clicked on a promotion.” 

You can charge more for sponsor packages when vendors understand you’ve made it easy to make the key connections they desire. Now you can potentially give them hundreds or thousands of quality leads who actually engaged in the behaviors they’re most interested in. It creates a healthier experience for attendees, sponsors, and organizers as well.

Technology will power a hybrid-event future

There’s no doubt the digitization of in-person events has begun to accelerate, and I’m certain we’ve only scratched the surface on how tech can revolutionize events. Fortunately, over the last few years, event technology companies have been deeply focused on building exciting virtual event technology solutions. Looking forward, I believe we’ll increasingly see new virtual features transposed into in-person and hybrid experiences. I’m excited to see where we go next.

Check out our case study on the American Med Spa Association to find out how they enhanced their in-person event with virtual elements. 

Andrew Pearson
Andrew Pearson

Webex Events (formerly Socio) CMO & seasoned event marketer, with a career in, and passion for, event success!