Conferences are returning with a renewed sense of purpose after the pandemic-hiatus — and companies are looking for innovative ways to bring their stakeholders together.

    Despite bringing conferences to a standstill at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the effect of the prolonged lockdowns has been a positive one on the events industry in Australia. It has prompted a wave of technology innovations and a readiness in attendees to access content in different ways. The surge in popularity of remote/hybrid events means accessibility is no longer an issue for people in different regions or remote areas. Furthermore, standards for in-person events have been elevated across the board because most events organisers recognise the need to provide a justification for taking the extra time to attend physically.

    In its Tech Trends Outlook 2022: Immersive Reality report, McKinsey and Co found disruptive forces are due to shake a range of sectors, highlighting events and conferences as a key focal point in reeling learning, development and B2C experience markets. The report found 63 per cent of companies that are metaverse adopters have undertaken learning and development for their employees in the metaverse, as opposed to face-to-face environments.

    JPMorgan’s Opportunities in the Metaverse report flagged online gatherings will be so monumental as to impact workforces of the future in the form of “redeployment of event producers that specialise in metaverse experiences”.

    “From a social perspective, the development of more immersive virtual experiences is helping people to build communities based on shared values and to express themselves in more authentic ways,” the report says. “Meanwhile, COVID-19 accelerated the digitisation of our lives and normalised more persistent and multipurpose online engagement and communication.”

    These trends are forcing face-to-face organisers to clear a higher threshold for what brings people out of the home or their augmented reality headset. There is also a strong appetite to reconnect and exchange ideas following two years of lockdowns and minimal corporate travel since 2019.

    Creative director at investment firm Blackbird Ventures Joel Connolly is organising the Sunrise festival for startups. “People are coming out of the pandemic with a lot more hunger and energy to learn, and there is a desire to not just be passive in the world, but to be participants,” he says.

    Interactivity is a must

    This resonates strongly with Megan Haas GAICD, who now seeks an interactive component in the in-person events she attends. “As directors, we’re investing our own funds, so I need to obtain some valuable learnings and takeaways from an event,” says Haas, who is chair of Development Victoria, a council member of RMIT and a director and member of the audit and risk committee of Note Printing Australia.

    “Something else that is important is the ability to interact, in terms of how the agenda has been developed,” she says. “I like being able to ask questions or provide online feedback. I don’t want a one-way ‘death by PowerPoint’ situation — it doesn’t work for me anymore. I could just the read the information being presented.”

    Sunrise has recast its traditional keynote events as “provocations” to signal that it is striving to redefine what a business conference can be.

    “We want to inspire people to go out and solve big problems and build a robust startup ecosystem in Australia,” says Connolly. “We need to provoke them into seeing the world in a way they haven’t done before. A lot of business conferences don’t strive to do that, they’re very transactional. It’s simply about information delivery and networking. If we’re going to pull people out of their lives for two days, we should try to make it valuable for them on a personal level.”

    Tech heralds major changes

    Washington-based events and technology expert Corbin Ball believes emerging technologies will have a profound impact on business events. “The metaverse holds promise for a truly immersive, interactive 3D experience, taking people to a new alternative world,” he says. “It is completely unlike any previous medium. Best practices are still to be invented. However, at the core they must engage people individually at an emotional level.”

    Billions of dollars are being invested in the metaverse space by major tech companies and Ball foresees that in as little as two years, attending events in the metaverse could become mainstream. In Australia, staff at Accenture already attend their meetings in the metaverse — and undertake onboarding and cybersecurity training there.

    “The 3-D immersive experience commonly thought of when speaking of the metaverse will provide exceptional group training experiences in role-playing, gamification and interactive training,” says Ball. “However, in terms of business meeting interactions, I believe there are significant challenges. The main access point to the metaverse will likely be through 3D headsets. This means we’ll be dealing with each other through avatars, as our real faces are covered.”

    Ball believes most people prefer to interact with a person’s real image rather than a “cartoon” when dealing with business meetings and transactions. Other developments being used to drive efficiencies and greater impact are blockchain for event ticketing, and non-fungible tokens to provide unique ways of engaging with attendees.

    AI is another significant enabler of high-quality experiences. It is being used in a multitude of ways for events. These include voice recognition using event chatbots (42chat), real-time language translations (using Wordly AI) and facial recognition for event registration check-in (Zenus AI).

    Haas has observed improvements in voting technologies, which works particularly well on topics such as risk management, organisational maturity and preparedness for cyber incidents. “These are the kinds of answers directors may not want to have attributed to them, so a vote provides instant yet anonymous feedback,” she says.

    Silver lining

    Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, Haas has attended a broader range of events. She engages more in the ESG reporting space and tries to get ahead of the wave in terms of what is happening with regulators in the UK and elsewhere.

    “I’m now thinking about how well positioned the organisations I work with are as changes come down the line. Online events mean I can participate as a learner on a topic I’m not familiar with. If I’m in a room with 20 people and I am quiet, it would be obvious I wasn’t actively taking part. Attending online, I can passively absorb the material.”

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