The exhibitions sector has shown a remarkable degree of resilience in the face of the pandemic. That’s impressive considering this is a business focused on close human interaction, and that the rulebook has been completely torn up overnight. Show organisers, agencies and brands have all been thrust into a very unfamiliar world, and we are all trying frantically to establish a new version of normality.

Acceleration in the pace of innovation and reinvention has been staggering. Virtual conference platforms in all their forms are popping up everywhere. Industries as diverse as pharma, banking, motor and tech shows have all embraced this new technology. Congresses and clients are forging ahead with a 'show must go on' attitude.

For now at least, the emphasis is on virtual. Whilst I think that a virtual show can never replace the engagement of face-to-face engagement, this ingenious technology can go a long way to replicating many 'in real life' experiences (and in some cases even offer enhancements). These capabilities, along with almost limitless audience reach, duration, scale, ROI metrics, and benefit to the environment, make them a very attractive tool.

Despite a strong desire to get out there and communicate with delegates, there is still uncertainty around virtual congresses. This caution is entirely understandable considering the seemingly vast array of platforms on offer combined with very diverse opinions on which approach is most effective. They range from simple content repositories to fully interactive 3D virtual environments.

While caution has been fuelled by scepticism of the effectiveness of virtual congresses, several months of data from the virtual space has demonstrated that there has been a respectable appetite from delegates. Initially, and as expected, the transition from physical to virtual wasn’t a hasty one – with several limiting factors, from technical issues to environments that were built based on a need to quickly deliver rather than with the need of the audience at the forefront. However, as time has passed and the reality that virtual (in some shape or form) is here to stay, we have seen advancements in design, user experience and delivery which, in turn is driving further engagement.

But that’s not the end of the story. Just when it seems that we are starting to get our heads around virtual, it’s time to think about a hybrid model.

Hybrid is clearly the logical next step in the journey.  This pandemic doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon and although national lockdowns are being lifted, localised ones are being imposed with very little warning. I believe the general consensus is that, face-to-face shows will start to go ahead, although at a smaller scale with lower, more localised attendance.

This is the primary factor driving the hybrid approach.

Overlaying a virtual platform on top of the live show will offer the same one-on-one interaction for those who can make it, while providing the reach and longevity of the virtual platforms. It’s worth mentioning here that we’re finding delegates quite like the idea of spending a couple of hours attending a show from the comfort of their own home, rather than taking four days out of their busy schedule, and away from their families, to fly half way around the world to attend in person.

So what does hybrid look like, and how best to embrace the model?

Adapt the model to your audience. I don’t think that there will be a standard approach across all industries. The guiding principle of knowing your audience, how they want to communicate, and how to engage them, still stands and should be applied. For medical congresses, this will result in platforms that lean towards easily navigable scientific content and two-way discussion. For product trade shows, platforms with enhanced 3D animation capabilities will be prevalent. For more consumer-focused shows, platforms with interactive gaming environments, with the scope to build your own avatars, will perhaps work best. Specialisms in these different approaches are forming amongst our technology partners so an agnostic approach combined with a good knowledge of a range of different platforms is crucial.

Provide interaction between physical and virtual. Two-way interaction between the physical and virtual audiences presents an exciting opportunity to enrich conversation and deliver engaging moments. Mechanisms should exist in presentation sessions, demos, meetings, even casual conversation over a coffee, to encourage two way dialogue and make both parties feel part of the show.

Be mindful of the needs of a virtual audience. The viewing habits of the virtual audience should be paramount when designing their user journey. Nobody wants to sit behind a laptop screen for more than two hours at any one time. Content must be curated carefully to take this into account – giving people easy access to what they want to see, learn or experience.

Adapt the design of the physical space. The virtual audience needs to be visible in order to facilitate that two-way interaction, and this must be considered at all major touch points with the addition of cameras and screens. Most importantly, we must consider how to keep people safe. Appropriate social distancing, and measures to protect both staff and delegates need to be carefully considered and meticulously implemented.

There’s no doubt it’s going to take some time to establish the new norms. Until then we must find a way to deal with all this uncertainty. We have to deliver our messages with commitment and conviction, so a tentative, half-hearted approach simply won’t work. In my opinion, the only way to overcome this is to develop your strategic vision, your creative and your messaging with the same energy and ingenuity as before yet be prepared and ready to adapt your method of delivery at a moment’s notice.

Mark Jackson, head of Environments, WRG – the live, virtual, hybrid division of The Creative Engagement Group