It’s day one at CES, and after a summer of increasing vaccinations and planning for the big comeback of in-person events, the show looks different than we had envisioned.
It’s not the virtual show of 2021, nor the pre-COVID gathering of thousands in 2020. Even the best-laid plans can go astray.
But as brands were sent reeling as COVID once again wreaked havoc on their strategies, I began to wonder how the industry’s definition of “best-laid plans” might start to shift… for good. The pandemic has unfolded for almost two years now, and yet it’s still taking us by surprise — and at times, making us feel like we’ve lost control.
After decades of working in experiential marketing (two years of which were during a pandemic), we’ve gathered enough learnings to craft an event strategy that stands the test of COVID. In other words, one not heavily dependent on the public health situation at a certain time and place.
This unpredictability may be far from ideal when it comes to planning, but one thing is certain: the key to taking back control and making smarter investments is well within our reach.
Recalibrating your events strategy
The tough reality of brands scaling back at CES feels like déjà vu. But there are plenty of ways to COVID-proof your 2022 events strategy.
While nothing can quite compare to IRL, we’ve learned a lot about the power of virtual connections. It’s time we take learnings from two years of digital transformation and apply them to what we know about events. The future is hybrid, and a bonus of this approach is that it’s easier on the environment and bakes in flexibility.
Take Riot Games’ Valorant as an example. The franchise put on multiple activations that blended online and physical elements into a unified, hybrid experience. A limited number of fans and streamers were invited on-site in Dubai and Cairo to participate in physical challenges. Meanwhile, a larger virtual audience could hack the activities and beat attendees in a real-time battle between the physical and virtual worlds.
Experiences like this not only guarantee engagement in-person while extending reach with a virtual audience, but offer the flexibility to pivot to a fully virtual experience if necessary. Moreover, as the metaverse forms and virtual worlds become more complex, being well-versed in hybrid experiences will better prepare us for what’s to come.
Purely virtual events can go a long way, too — as both the #Pokemon25 Post Malone Virtual Concert and Ariana Grande Rift Tour so craftily proved. But hybrid can be a smarter investment, especially if a physical component is crucial — as is the case for CES and other large-scale gatherings. The right combo of in-person value and online amplification can be more effective than just another broadcast or a purely offline installation, both in terms of engagement and cost.
Change your mindset
Hybrid experiences mirror the way digital blends into our lives. Our lives are not exclusively physical or virtual; they are both, and so should be experiences that brands create for us.
While physical activations can transform brands into tangible experiences, AR/VR and other immersive technology can create lasting memories that translate into brand awareness, affinity and loyalty. We must move beyond thinking of online and offline as two binary options, and instead focus on blending both into a unified experience that reflects how people interact with the world.
In addition to bulletproofing your plans against unforeseen events, this approach will also unlock new benefits and opportunities you would’ve missed otherwise: a larger audience, more content at a lower cost and the chance to experiment with new technologies.
2022 doesn’t have to look like 2020, too
We have the perfect opportunity ahead of us to cement what we’ve learned and make better consumer connections in 2022 and beyond.
CES was set to mark the great comeback of physical events, and for a moment, some forgot what we’d learned from two years of digital transformation. I urge the industry to take the very best ideas that stemmed from those two and put them toward making smarter investments and better connections.
If this unexpected change of plans sets the tone for the rest of the year, let’s begin on a high note.
Chris Kaliszewski is VP, experiential and virtual events at Media.Monks.