Virtual events have become the new norm in today’s digital world. They offer more reach, more accessibility, and more efficiency for attendees and organizers. In-person events have their own charm, because they offer a level of engagement and connection that isn’t always available through digital means.
For the past couple years, we have seen companies shift from in-person events to virtual experiences and vice versa. There have been many debates over whether physical events will be replaced by virtual, or if virtual events will even outlive the pandemic.
What if it’s no longer a question of either/or? Instead of choosing one or the other, or tying them together in a hybrid mode, there is a better way to use both types of events to your advantage. Lately, leaders in the events industry have found a way to combine them both, but not in a hybrid manner, where the at-home audience feel like lesser participants, but in a new events model called parallel events.
What are parallel events and how do they combine the rich experiences of a physical event with the convenience of an online event? Our February episode of Cadence answered this question, as it featured event experts who shared their experiences and professional advice on how to turn an audience from passive spectators to active participants.
Cadence is a special program hosted by ACE Virtual Events and beedance, where experts in events, marketing, and communication are invited to share their perspectives and ideas on relevant topics around cadence in business. For the Cadence: One Audience, Two Experiences episode, our speakers were Leslie Bailey, Joseph Gerstel, and Ilana Cheyfitz.
Speakers at our Cadence program
Leslie Bailey is the Executive Director of Client Success at beedance. Leslie has extensive knowledge and experience when it comes to digital, physical, and hybrid events. She has project managed and produced digital and hybrid events, created content for both physical and digital audiences and hosted live interviews from in-person events.
Currently, she focuses on developing project methodologies to further both internal teams and clients. Leslie’s belief that teaching and managing go hand in hand influences the way she works to support clients and see a project through to success. Her ongoing goal is to empower clients to keep furthering their strategic thinking after each event to enhance engagements and experiences.
Joseph Gerstel is the Founder and CEO of GetSomeClass. Joseph went from barely eking out a high-school diploma to graduating Harvard Law School magna cum laude. After graduation, Joseph went to work at Davis Polk, one of the best law firms in the country, only to realize that he wanted to do something creative and autonomous.
Taking advantage of the COVID chaos, Joseph launched GetSomeClass, a company that builds high-end virtual social fun for connecting remote teams, and after some promising early success, left his legal career to grow the business full time. Since then, Joseph has turned his company into a leading virtual social events vendor with a series of contemporary and innovative virtual events.
Ilana Cheyfitz is the Customer Success Manager at Gather Voices. Ilana is dedicated to helping her clients develop a strong and sustainable video strategy that helps them achieve their organization's goals. She was the first person the company hired, so she has been with Gather Voices for a long time.
During the pandemic, Ilana helped many clients move their in-person events to a virtual setting, while still keeping the same level of engagement. She has a passion for helping her clients become confident video storytellers and finds the most joy in supporting projects that center grassroots organizing and advocacy work.
Leslie, Joseph, and Ilana spoke about a new model of events, parallel events, how they differ from traditional hybrid events, and how their design offers the same level of engagement to both their in-person audiences and at-home attendees.
What are parallel events?
Parallel events refer to a new event model that combines physical events and virtual events, by creating two different experiences for the in-person and at-home audiences and tying them in with the sharing of key sessions.
Unlike hybrid events that are physical events with an online component, where one program is created and executed in both spaces, parallel events cater to both audiences equally, without having the at-home audience feel like lesser participants, as is the case with most hybrid events.
Ilana summed up that the downside of hybrid events is that oftentimes the people in the virtual space are left in the dust. One of the reasons why this happens is because event planners and their technical teams tend to prioritize planning the program for the physical event and expect to share the same program with the at-home audience.
Joseph explained that this approach doesn’t work because the live audience cannot just pick up and walk out if they’re not feeling engaged, so the threshold for engagement is far lower, whereas for someone behind a computer, it’s very easy to close a browser window and move on. This is why the design for home audiences needs to be very intentional and very different. Event specialists need to design the program to be more engaging for the virtual audience, and not just stream them in.
How to design a parallel event
To start designing a parallel event, Leslie stressed the importance of surveying the audience who will be behind their screens and designing with them in mind. Leslie observed that more people are choosing virtual. More people have decided that they don’t like traveling or being in big groups and they would rather attend an event virtually. Sending surveys beforehand or getting feedback from participants on what type of sessions or interactivity they’re looking for can help organizers be more cognizant about how to design their event.
With this knowledge in mind, organizers can then start promoting their online content more effectively. Leslie suggests that to not make your virtual audience feel like an afterthought or an additional piece, it’s important to design the virtual experience first and to put more emphasis on promoting it.
If at-home audiences know what’s in store and they’re aware of what content will be streamed, they can better prepare to voice their opinions or ask their questions. Along this same line, Leslie mentioned that she has seen sessions where the viewers at home are invited to turn on their mic and camera and ask their questions, and this tremendously increases engagement.
Ilana’s recommendation also focused around engagement. She argued that engagement with attendees shouldn’t just happen during the event. It needs to start before the event and ideally, go on long after the event has ended. Her advice is to make it a year-round experience.
This is crucial because regular interaction with an audience allows hosts to learn what they actually care about and what they want to see, and this insight helps make the event more appealing. She also warned that a lot of content online causes fatigue, but one thing that never gets old is an authentic story. So, aside from sharing valuable information, sharing unique stories and experiences contributes to a memorable event.
Joseph’s advice was to focus on the things that provide value. He said that, instead of creating novelty experiences that lose their edge quickly, it’s better to offer the audience learning experiences and networking opportunities. If event planners focus on what the audience wants, such as learning, fun, education, or relationships, then they are offering real value. Joseph also brought up some creative ways to allow people to be noticed.
For example, including a host who welcomes guests as they enter the virtual arena and shows them how to get to the main room, or a comedian who keeps the at-home audience entertained throughout the program really makes participants feel seen and acknowledged, and on the same level of importance as the live audience.
The importance of parallel events
Parallel events allow organizers more creativity to tailor different experiences and puts the live audience and the online guests at the same level. Leslie used the phrase “sharing, not comparing” to describe the key difference that sets aside a parallel event. She said that in her experience with hybrid events, the audience at home are simply watching the live audience enjoy the program and can’t wait for it to be over. It causes disconnection, and inevitably, the remote participants will negatively compare their experiences.
Parallel events, however, grant hosts the freedom to create different content and cater to all audiences, allowing guests to share their experiences. Leslie also commented that this type of events model had better feedback from attendees in terms of what worked and what didn't. This valuable feedback means that event planners can build on it and create new strategies to keep improving the quality of their events.
Since virtual events were the predominant events method during the pandemic, many people who want to go back to attending in-person events no longer feel as if virtual events should be given any importance. However, as Joseph reasoned, that kind of thinking is short-sighted and quite frankly, bad for business. He pointed out that many convention centers can only hold a maximum of 5,000 attendees. Compare that to a virtual space with a limitless capacity. The potential reach alone makes digital components more valuable than the in-person side, because they have no spatial limitations and no geographical boundaries.
Another reason why hosts should consider parallel events is because people have now experienced a variety of event models, and as mentioned earlier, more people are choosing virtual. With more options available, it’s illogical to completely do away with a model of events that has clearly worked. It also doesn’t make sense to cater only to your live audience and ignore what the at-home audience wants, like what usually happens with hybrid events.
Event producers need to find more ways of delivering value if they want to maintain their communities and set themselves apart. They can only do this if they listen to their audience and make them feel valued, and parallel events allow both of these things to happen.
Leslie pointed out that a lot of organizations are already subconsciously creating parallel events, because they are designing more sessions with their virtual audience in mind. She mentioned that from the moment they let speakers know that the sessions will be streamed, speakers find ways of fostering interactivity and engagement, especially with the virtual audience. Speakers are very willing to collaborate and get more involved because they want good feedback as well. They always want their sessions to translate well to the virtual audience.
Truly, the key to creating a successful parallel event is to keep the virtual audience in mind throughout the entire planning process. The real value of a parallel event is that both the live audience and the participants behind a screen are given the same priority, resulting in both of them feeling seen and acknowledged.
Does this mean that hybrid events should be retired? Not necessarily. A parallel event will take careful planning and executing by a dedicated event producer and a technical team. Realistically speaking, not everyone has the resources to create two different programs. Consequently, some companies and organizations will have to keep relying on hybrid events. However, as more companies start listening to their audiences and start seeing the value in parallel events, we predict that it will become the preferred events model.
Are you thinking of hosting a parallel event? If your organization wants to host an event for live and online audiences, and you want to give your at-home audience the same priority level, consider ACE Virtual Events as your expert in digital events. Set up a time to meet with someone from our team, and we’ll gladly discuss the services we offer and how we can make your virtual component a success.