The Return of In Person Events

and what this means for digital events. 

The picture shows a large stage from an in-person conference

The past couple of months have been very busy for most AV-companies here in Norway. Working as a freelance an audio/video engineer myself, my schedule has never been so packed. 

The drive behind this trend is of course the end of Covid (For now!) and the return of in-person events. When the pandemic struck us, our industry adapted very quickly transforming to virtual events and broadcasting. Now that we are allowed to meet face to face again, a lot of things return to the way things were before Covid: when it comes to live events, whether that’s concerts or business-gatherings, the trend is now that people want to be in the same room and share the same experience. The pure virtual event, evolved during Covid, has lost some of its momentum.(For now!) The middle ground between virtual and physical, hybrid, is perhaps now more relevant than ever, but it seems that the streaming of the events usually has less viewers and given less importance than the live experience in the room. 

This trend is both something that I have observed in my own work, and it is further backed up by what I read online about other events and companies: Since the covid-restrictions are over, some companies have been struggling to create value from their digital content. In this blog I want to give two examples:

1. NHO’s yearly conference: You can’t mingle with the with the Prince and the Prime Minister on a virtual platform. 

The NHO yearly conference is perhaps the most important business-event in Norway. Business-leaders and politicians meet to mingle and listen to influential speakers.

On Youtube I found the streaming of the past 3 years events, and I think the number of viewers are very interesting: 

In 2020, right before the pandemic, the stream has 4300 viewers:

Then in 2021 they were forced to go all digital, and the numbers more than tripled to 14000:

In May 2022 they could finally return to a physical event. And here comes my point: The latest stream has only been watched by 565 people, which is more than 7 times less than what they had before the pandemic!

So why is the digital streaming of this event less popular than ever? To answer this I think we need to understand what kind of conference this is, and why people attend it.

NHO is Norways biggest employer-organisation, and most of the major companies in Norway are members. For their main conference, this means that most of the important CEO’s in Norway will attend. Along with this, NHO always invites the Prime Minister and other major politicians, the Crown Prince and members of the royal family. Then we have some professors, regular celebrities and other influential people. To put it short, NHO’s yearly conference is the place to be for powerful people in Norway. And more important is the dinner afterwards where only the selected few are granted access: This is probably the only place in Norway where non-politicians can mingle informally with the Prime Minister and the Crown Prince at the same time.

Exclusive access to this inner circle is what makes this conference really attractive, not necessarily the content of the presentations. After all, if all you want to do is to watch the speeches, you might as well sit at home and watch the free stream. 

In 2021, all the participants had to watch the conference online. The dinner was cancelled. I am not sure how NHO managed to create value for their participants without the physical meeting. At least, for 2022, it seems they went back to their roots with a physical conference, without too much emphasis on the streaming-part. 

2. The rise & fall of

If you remember back in the spring 2020, it was not allowed with physical concerts, and musicians very quickly started to stream live music. Sometimes these streams would be very simple, with just an iPhone video-recording a musician from his/her bedroom, but this was more than enough for an audience who were still in shock that they couldn’t see their favourite artists live. The concerts were free, but the viewers could donate. For a while it was possible for musicians to make some money out of these lo-fi concerts. 

When the company became known in Norway in the beginning of 2021, it was with the ambition to professionalize these type of streams: musicians should earn money from online ticket-sales, not just charity. They created a new platform where the audience could pay for and watch higher quality streams of music and concerts. The Norwegian state gave them millions of NOK to invest in the idea, and they started to produce their own live streams. 

But recently the news came that this company was bankrupt, with millions of NOK in unpaid debt. It seems that they only managed to attract investors, but they never really got a real audience that were willing to pay for their streams. What I have heard  is that while there was lockdown during the pandemic, managed to attract some interest from venues, musicians and audiences. Some people saw their live-streaming as a new way for musicians to make money, after the CD-sales have fallen to a minimum.  But when the society opened up again, it was very difficult to keep up the sales, so much that it was impossible for them to generate enough income to pay for their investments. People simply wanted to attend the concerts themselves instead of watching it from home, and this was the doom of this very promising startup, 

I had a very interesting conversation with an experienced concert-promoter about why failed: He said that although the pandemic was what gave a flying start, it could also be what killed it: when everybody wanted to live-stream their concerts, it became too much for people to digest. When there is too much of something, the value falls. And when these live streams started to compete with the live experience, the popularity fell very quickly. So, in the long run, could have had a better chance of surviving if the pandemic never happened. Then they could build up more slowly in a sustainable way.

Virtual events are not dead

What I think we are seeing now with these digital events is a backlash from the end of the pandemic. People want to meet, give hugs and do all the things that were forbidden during lockdown. But I think that this is just a temporary situation: Digital events will come back strongly. People will soon start to remember how convenient it is to sit at home and watch the event. And people can be fed up with socialising too..

It could also be that the technology needs to evolve to compete with the physical meetings, and that the pandemic came to early to change the event-industry permanently.  Soon we will have Meta, 3D and virtual reality. Once the event-tech get used to these new technologies, the digital event-experience will be very different from what is the standard now. 

In the short term, I think its a a mistake for A/V companies to sell their video-gear: The pandemic is not over, new lockdowns can come this fall. Trends can shift sooner than we think. What we should have learned from the pandemic is to be prepared for different scenarios. Right now we can surf on the new wave of in-person events, but this may not last forever. 

Written by Morten Brekke Stensland, CEO of PresentationTools A/S