COVID-19 Cancelations and the Growth of Virtual and Hybrid Events


In February 2019, more than 10 million people attended a concert by EDM DJ Marshmello. At this show, no one danced together (although there was a lot of dancing), no groups cheered in unison, and no one stood near another person. Physically, that is.

The concert was held within the popular battle royale game “Fortnite.” It was not the first virtual concert, but it was likely the largest (data on past virtual concerts, many of which took place in the virtual world “Second Life,” is uneven) and certainly the most publicized. At the time, Marshmello’s “Fortnite” concert was hailed as an “exciting glimpse of the future.”

Photo Credit: Fortnite

Photo Credit: Fortnite

Welcome to the future. Although the path we’ve taken to get here was not what most of us expected, we’re here, nonetheless. It’s a time of social distancing where virtual events are (for the time being) the safest and (again, for the time being) only way large groups can gather. While our current circumstances will not last forever – hopefully, they won’t last much longer – the event industry has already been impacted significantly. Event planners, venues, caterers, freelancers, and full-time employees, every corner has felt the impact as both large and small events are postponed or canceled.

However, the event industry has always thrived on innovation and technology. Both will play a significant role as virtual and hybrid events become an essential aspect of the future of the event industry.

There is a difference between a virtual and a hybrid event. A virtual event takes place entirely online. There is no in-person component. A hybrid event provides engaging content to two separate audiences: those attending in-person and those attending virtually. With a hybrid event, the virtual aspect is not a straightforward adaption of the live content. It is explicitly designed to engage an online audience. The live and virtual content coexist because equal attention is given to both audiences.

We have already seen some events transition a live audience to exclusively streaming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, instead of closing out Milan Fashion Week this February, even as crowds of spectators packed other shows, Giorgio Armani held his women’s fall show in an empty theater. There was no audience, not even press or buyers. Instead, the event streamed live around the world.

Photo Credit: Giorgio Armani

Photo Credit: Giorgio Armani

This anticipated growth in virtual and hybrid events will not be a seismic shift for the industry since the trend has been growing over the past few years. It became a significant focus last year as many event planners and attendees strove to cut down carbon dioxide emissions by limiting air travel.

One of the biggest fears event planners have when it comes to virtual and hybrid events is that the online component will cause physical attendance to decrease. However, that is inaccurate. A recent survey by Digitell, Inc. interviewed over 100 professionals who attended hybrid events.

The results uncovered that the vast majority of the responders, 83 percent, were not planning to attend the event they livestreamed.

It turns out that hybrid events can actually increase in-person attendance. For example, years ago, the Professional Convention Management (PCMA) noticed that attendance at their annual convention had fallen off. So, for their 2010 event, the PCMA offered its members the chance to livestream elements of its annual conference. Over the years, livestreaming became an essential element of their events. Since the organization added a virtual component in 2010, in-person attendance for its annual event increased yearly. PCMA found that “An average of 23 percent of virtual attendees convert to physical attendees within the next 24 months.”

There is already a very successful hybrid event model that the event industry may use as a guide: esports. For example, the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice, Poland, is one of the most popular esports tournaments. It features a variety of championship matches, including “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” (CS:GO) and “StarCraft 2.” The 2019 event had a record in-person attendance of 174,000 people, and another 46 million watched it online to make it the largest event in esports history.

In comparison, the in-person attendance for the 2020 Katowice Intel Extreme Masters was zero, a decision made to protect attendees from COVID-19. However, the event was played to an online audience, and the streaming numbers were historic. At its peak, more than 1.2 million people witnessed the event.

Photo Credit: Katowice

Photo Credit: Katowice

In fact, esports is being used to entertain traditional sports fans who are hungry for some action. NASCAR is among the many sports to have the 2020 season postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For several weekends, instead of turning to FOX to see their favorite NASCAR drivers race around a track, viewers will witness their favorite NASCAR drivers racing virtual cars in the PC game “iRacing.” While the races may look a little different, they will sound the same because commentary will come from the official Fox NASCAR broadcast team of Jeff Gordon, Mike Joy, and Larry McReynolds.

Currently, most corporate events and trade shows cannot pivot to virtual as gracefully as FOX’s NASCAR production. However, having a carefully planned virtual component with curated content as a significant part of an event will mean that disruptions like COVID-19 will be less harmful to events. Instead of having to cancel entire productions altogether, the show can go on – virtually.

Multiple livestreaming opportunities occur throughout an event. Featured speakers, product launches, special sessions, opening and closing ceremonies, live entertainment, experiential activations, special announcements, and more all deliver opportunities for livestreaming.

You can work with speakers, sponsors, and influencers to hold Q&A sessions in the days leading to the . Another idea is to take viewers on a behind the scenes tour as the event comes

together. You can also build anticipation as the event nears by livestreaming major announcements, like new sessions, speakers, and entertainers.

Since an essential part of any live event is networking opportunities, it is important to include these in the virtual event. This can be accomplished through the event app by including a chat function. It may also be possible to use analytics to pair online attendees with potential high-quality matches.

Another way to involve an in-person and virtual audience is to use real-time polling though your event app. Speakers and presenters could also take questions virtually through the app’s chat function.

Additionally, the virtual elements are not a single-use feature. All livestreamed content can be recorded and repurposed to promote upcoming events. With a thoughtful plan, it is even possible to monetize this content. PCMA has generated $1 million in revenue from its years of video content.

The industry was already transitioning to make online engagement an essential part of many events. The COVID-19 pandemic will hasten this evolution. In the near future, the event industry will be better positioned to overcome disruptions, and reduced travel promotes sustainability, as well. Innovation and technology will drive this endeavor, and the results are likely to be spectacular.