Ever since the pandemic, the future of the events industry looks brighter than ever. With today’s technology, virtual events via Zoom, Skype, or Remo are the new normal. So it’s time to master this new form of event gathering. Join Ben Baker as he talks to Chris Nesbit about the trajectory of virtual events. Chris is a co-founder and partner at ACE Virtual Events. He helps create engaging virtual events for his clients by providing a unique digital experience. Learn how virtual events are handled before and after the show. Discover what a virtual water cooler moment is and why that is needed for engagement. Finally, find out whether Chris believes in the future of the Metaverse.
Listen to the podcast here
The Future Of Event Industry With Chris Nesbit
[00:01:10] I’ve got Chris Nesbitt from ACE Virtual Events joining me. He and I have known each other forever. We’re going to talk about the future of the event industry. I have spoken somewhere between 80 to 100 virtual events during the pandemic. Some of them have been good some of them are bad and a lot of them have been downright ugly. I want to get into this. Chris, welcome to the show. Let’s get this started. How have you been?
[00:00:53] I’m good. It’s been a busy time for the last few years. We’ve been non-stop. It got started when the pandemic got started. I come from a background of trade shows and high-level marketing for industrial manufacturing and the corporate environment. I had an opportunity where I wasn’t doing anything right at the time when COVID hit. I was running a marketing company at the time. We were looking for an option to do something different with events and saw this pandemic thing coming down the tracks so we jumped right in.
We found a platform that we liked and I met up with a couple of other guys that had their own reasons for being involved and wanting to touch into the virtual events world. We started playing with it. We spent hundreds of hours on this virtual platform. We learned that we were pretty good at it. We figured a lot of things out so we built a business around it. It’s been good.
[00:02:40] My question to you is what brought you here because you come from a very diverse background. What made that shift? We all had that shift in COVID. We all sit there and have this, “Whatever we’re doing in the past wasn’t working. We need to do something different or we saw a new direction or an opportunity and we jumped at it.” Let’s step back a little bit. Give us a little bit of an idea of where you came from, where you are now and then we’ll get into where the future of the industry is going.
[00:03:13] One of the things, at least for me, from my previous jobs that struck home with me was the logistics battle that goes on with trade shows, in particular. There’s a lot of lift that takes place from the time that you decide to participate in a trade show, not including all the research and everything that goes into it prior to. Once you decide to get involved and there are all these games that you have to play with the trade show companies to get the right placement, square footage and the cost per square foot that you want and all these different things. There are these point systems that are involved. That was always a nightmare to get involved with that.
From that point, I was also being involved in the budget discussions about these trade shows. You want to do a larger show, it’s going to cost you X times amount and then from there, you have to decide how much you want to spend per year. There are a lot of hard decisions that get made and hidden costs that are associated with that.
The budget discussion played a big factor to where we are at with the virtual events because, during that time, when I was coordinating all of that, it was an ongoing conversation with executives, the CEO or CFO. They did not like the cost factor. It was a very large marketing activity. In some cases, certain years we would spend up close to $1 million a year on trade shows. For some shows, it would be several hundred thousand dollars for one show.
You have to fly your staff out there. You have to put them up for the week or in the case of people setting it up, it’d be several weeks. You also had to factor in all the food, flights, cars and all these different elements. That was above and beyond the plot space, decorations and all the things you need for a trade show.
Trade shows, in particular, were very expensive components. We did quite a bit of review on it and it was a very asymmetrical type ROI on these events. You would put a ton of money into it and probably get a lot of great exposure but you wouldn’t always get that sale that would pay for everything. It might happen but it would happen after a bunch of other activities that happened on the road as well. It was a piece of the whole equation to make a sale.
There was always this background conversation that went on about reducing the cost. If there was an alternative that we could explore or an alternative activity that we could explore something along those lines and there was always this background conversation going on with the executives. There weren’t a lot of good alternatives prior to the COVID pandemic. What we saw was there were a lot of webinars but there still wasn’t a lot of buy-in on webinars. Webinars are static so there’s that whole thing to deal with as far as keeping projects engaged.
You weren’t getting that one-on-one conversation with the customer, which is what trade shows are all about. When we started this company, we were like, “This is it.” It’s like the light bulb went off. All of a sudden, you have an alternative option and now you have an environment where trade shows are gone overnight. We got lucky to be thinking ahead and knowing the question or problem far enough in advance that we were able to ramp up quickly and try and provide that solution.
[00:06:35] I’ve been involved in trade shows for many years. I started off COMDEX years ago and it became CES. You have these trade show booths that are 100×100. It would take 50 people to man them and the expense that goes into them in terms of building, promotional marketing, flights, hotels, etc. They were huge events and they were exciting.
You have lots of people walking through the booth but you always sat there and wondered what percentage of the people coming in your booth were there for the promotional marketing piece? They are there to see what’s new and cool versus the number of buyers who can justify the amount of space and time and the staff that goes along with it.
I started hearing about virtual trade shows several years ago and they were horrific. One of the big reasons they were horrific was technology. There wasn’t broadband internet like there is now. There wasn’t the CPU power to be able to run these virtual trade shows. I look at it as, like the metaverse 1.0, where it’s cute, interesting, not practical but it’s a place to start.Virtual events are just like trade shows. The more moving pieces you have, the more likely something will go wrong. Click To Tweet
The question is, why do we think now that we’re so much better off that we may be able to take some of the experience, connection and feeling of being at a live event? We are shaking people’s hands, meeting face to face and having those one-on-one conversations and feel that we can bring it into a digital space without it feeling artificial, baked and contrived.
[00:08:25] There are a couple of factors here. The pandemic did change everything. I hate to continue to reference the pandemic but it’s such a huge component here.
[00:08:30] It is truly a black swan moment. We have to recognize that.
[00:08:36] It forced us into a different mindset because we didn’t have any other options. We truly had to explore our options. Doing that, it’s given us an opportunity to commit to making some of these changes and that was a big part of it. Sometimes there are options available but we’re not ready to commit to making the decision to use those options in place. We were forced to do that, at least for some time. I do think that there are hybrid opportunities coming out now and in-person stuff is starting to come back. There are a lot of other factors that are being in play now but we did have a range of times where we didn’t have that opportunity and it forced us to do these things.
In addition to that, a lot of the technology that we utilize now has been in development for many years. If you think about Skype, which has been around for several years and maybe even longer. It’s nothing new but that has translated into companies like Zoom and the platforms we use, Remo. There are all these different components that have come together and given us an opportunity. You referenced one. Broadband connectivity is huge. If we didn’t have broadband, this wouldn’t be anywhere as comfortable as it is now. All these pieces came together at the same time.
The other side of it too is that the surge in demand pushed a lot of financial resources into the sector, which allowed a lot of research and development to take place because the need was so great. These companies were trying to keep up and keep customers happy through this whole thing. Those two things put together, the need is appearing out of nowhere and the amount of money that’s being flushed into the system, made a big difference and then having to commit to making it happen.
Overall, they are different. It’s not a one-on-one comparison. You don’t get to say, “A trade show is the same as this virtual event.” In a lot of cases, we see customers are scaling back a little bit on their trade shows and still doing them but they’re also adding in the component of the virtual event because they can do more of them faster and a little bit less expensive. There are more options and it’s the same as when we had the option of trade shows and webinars. It’s not a one-to-one replacement but it’s becoming closer to a one-to-one replacement if you’re comparing in-person to virtual.
[00:11:01] What have we learned over the last few years? At the very beginning of the preamble, I saw the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve been on some horrific platforms. I’ve been part of some horrific trade shows, webinars and conference events where I’ve been a keynote speaker. I’ve been with some good ones and also some great ones. It’s a trial-and-error industry where we’re going to get better because of the failures that we’ve had. What are the major things that you see that people have done wrong over the last few years? What have we learned from that? What can we take away that we can make that better?
[00:11:37] There’s good, bad and ugly. The things that we’ve learned that are not great to be doing is if you try to make things too complex. It’s like with the trade show. The more moving pieces you have, the more likely something’s going to get forgotten, you’ve done wrong or whatever it happens to be. We’ve seen certain events that are too complex for what you’re trying to do. There has to be a little bit of give and take. We’re there to help guide people through that but we still are able to accomplish a lot but maybe that sound effect doesn’t have to happen at that exact moment. Maybe it could happen in a split second later. That stuff is important to be flexible on.
At the same time, the things that are being done right is that companies are learning that branding is important in these events. We work a lot with having interactive environments beyond the black box Zoom feel. “How do you incorporate your brand? How do you make that unique to your company?” We’ve learned how to assist people to do that much better than we did when we first started. When we first got started, we would put colors on things and that would be enough. Now, we go out to make sure that the look, feel and furniture is good. You have to see it but we designed these environments with chairs and tables and people can click and go to these different spaces to access.
As a reference point, that’s a good example. We found that it has to be more than a video call with 100 people. It has to have some options. People have to have some choice involved as to what conversation they want to be part of, who do they want to talk to and how do they move around. You also have to have some structured time as well where you’re accomplishing what you’re trying to accomplish. There’s some form of a presentation like in a trade show that has its own dedicated time is structured and moves through a timeline or a show flow, in that sense.
There are different parts of the show. Having a well-organized plan that’s flexible and the branding are things that we’ve learned that have made this whole process smoother for the people we work with and more successful and efficient for them. We know what needs to get done and so it’s easier to get there.
[00:14:25] The big thing that I heard you say was engagement and interaction because if you look at webinar engagement several months ago, you would have hundreds if not thousands of people on a webinar. Now you’re lucky if you’ve got 100, 50, 20 sometimes 8 people on a webinar. You’re looking out and all you see is a blank box with the mic turned off because people are webinared out.
People are webinared out because there is no engagement. It is PowerPoint from hell. It is this long-drawn-out droning talk and people think that they can do the exact same thing live that they did on in a virtual arrangement. They can talk for 60 minutes where you might’ve been able to get away with that as a keynote. There’s no way you can do that in a virtual thing.In-person events aren't going to be 100% back with the technology that is available today. Click To Tweet
People want to be engaged. It needs to be interactive and a wave for the audience to be part of this scenario. How have we developed beyond that? You take a look at Webex, Zoom calls and all the other platforms and the majority of these things that are out there. It doesn’t enable two-way communication unless it’s those snide comments in the chat room. How do you bring the audience into the conversation and make them feel valued, welcome and part of this situation?
[00:15:53] One of the things that we found pretty early on and this has always been a component of our model is that you have to have what we call virtual water cooler moments. It’s the ability to run across somebody and strike up a conversation and have it be fairly casual and that drives engagement better than anything we’ve found.
You’re right about it, maybe you’ve got an active chatbox or a lot of companies try to use Zoom and put a bunch of people on a Zoom call. They all have their video and audio on but realistically, in those cases, you’ve probably got 100 people that have their cameras and microphones on or maybe they’re on mute and their cameras are on but you’ve got 100 people watching, 2 people scratch their nose and maybe those 2 are the ones dominating the conversation. That’s not engagement. That might be feedback for the speaker but that’s not engagement.
What you need to have are small groups of people, typically 2 to 8 people and a maximum of 20 people. There needs to be a conversation. You need to be able to have at least 5 or 6 of those 8 people speaking to each other. If there are two people sitting and listening in, okay but if you have a majority say you have 90% of those people listening in, it’s no longer engagement. You’ve got a few people watching a conversation.
[00:17:18] You’re talking about creating more breakout sessions within a webinar or a conference?
[00:17:22] Yes but giving people options to choose their own breakout sessions.
[00:17:26] Instead, being put in a room.
[00:17:34] It’s just like at a conference. We draw a lot of the understanding for successful virtual events from real-life live in-person events. You need to be able to have that ability to go choose the people that you’re speaking with and maybe wait in line to speak to somebody who’s popular but still has access to them. Those are important components. You can’t ignore those and say, “It’s virtual. It’s not the same.” It’s very much the same because it’s human behavior to want to pick and choose a little bit. That gives people a lot more fulfillment in participation, to have that ability to choose a little bit.
[00:18:11] On top of that, I look at it from a speaker’s point of view. I don’t know how many times I’ve been a speaker and even if I’ve done Q&A, all of a sudden, the top of the hour comes off then off I go. I’m kicked out of the system and I’ve got to reboot into the system under a user. There’s no ability for anybody to contact me. There’s no moving me to some virtual green room or side room where people could sit there and come up to me and talk to me afterward, find out information, have a dialogue or whatever it is when I’m coming off stage.
When I come off stage, usually at the side of the stage, a group of people want to talk to you, maybe sign a book, maybe you have an engagement call, talk to you about the future talk. None of that seems to be taken into consideration when they’re booking speakers now. What can organizers do better in order to be able to have an event be more engaging and interactive, to create almost that live feeling without being live and bring that emotion and connection into the game?
[00:19:14] You bring up an interesting point. We’ve done some events together so you know how we would handle it. We would give you that space where you’d be able to sit and people would come up and have access to you. It’s very clear that this is where the speakers are sitting and we would direct you prior to go sit over here or we would pre-stage you in that space. There would be different items of the event where people had that choice to be able to come and interact with you.
Some of that is how do you engage with people on your own and how do you connect with people once the speaker component of that is all finished. Are you asking people to come to see you at the table? Are you instructing people? There’s still an element of telling people what’s next. Not necessarily telling people what to do but prompting them and saying, “Ben is going to be sitting at the table over here in this breakout room over to the left here. Make sure that you go visit him after the presentation’s all done. He’s giving away gift cards or signing books,” or whatever.
You have to make sure that you have a little bit of a plan but overall, there are options to provide some of those same interactions that you would have had in a real-life engagement virtually. You have to think through how all that would work. What are the alternatives? What is the 1 to 2 comparison that you would make against the real-life event and how do you make that in virtual space as well?
[00:20:44] I’m going to go back to something that I almost overlooked and it’s the comment that you made about water cooler moments and how important they are. I don’t know how many times and I’m sure the audience as well. I’m at in line for a drink or buffet or I’m coming out of a conference or going into a conference or lecture, whatever and you run into some stranger and you pick up a conversation.When creating something, keep the barrier to entry low and accessible because relating to people is the most important. Click To Tweet
Those are the things that become the most meaningful part of the conference, webinar, workshop or whatever that you go to because all of a sudden, you’ve made a friend or a potential friend or acquaintance or client or vendor or whatever. It’s those quiet little moments that are why we go. That’s why I get on planes, spend the money for hotels, conferences, food and everything that goes along with it. It’s not the structured event so much. It’s the people that I meet along the way.
Remo, the software that you guys use, enables that to happen in ways before and afterward. During the actual presentation itself, “It’s all eyes forward. Pay attention to us. We’re having a conversation now.” There’s the ability for some back-and-forth engagement but talk to me about before and after. Talk about a virtual room that enables people to have the ability to shake hands, meet each other and have those one-on-one conversations.
[00:22:14] A lot of people probably won’t go look at the page that we have illustrations of what we’re talking about here so I’ll paint a little bit of a picture as to what that looks like. We design a visual representation of a room with tables, chairs, couches and maybe a bar if it’s appropriate. We lay all these things out in front of the viewer in a point-and-click way but it draws the user in and it feels like you’re there. It sounds a little bizarre. It’s not like a video game necessarily where you have to press the up key on your keyboard to move forward. It’s not like that at all but there are spaces that you can pick and choose from and it’s visually represented.
In all of those spaces, users can go use each one of those spaces. For instance, the bar, certainly a crowd favorite, we’ll have lots of little seats there. That grouping of seats is its own, for lack of better terminology, breakout room. Anybody who sits down at the bar can speak with anybody else at the bar and you can split it up differently. You could do 2 seats or 4 seats but generally, that group at the bar is having a conversation and the same goes for the couches off to the left or right or the VIP section. There are lots of ways to design it but the whole point is that try to make it a visual experience, which helps to bridge the gap to what you are used to experiencing in a live in-person event.
You referenced the before and after. Before the presentation and after the presentation, you have the opportunity to go have conversations at these tables with whoever’s in the “building.” We may pre-stage speakers in certain lounges or over couches. Maybe they’re at the bar. Sometimes we put bartenders behind the bar to give that banter feeling. We try to build in the experience.
During those times before and after, we find that attendees connect with each other. They go over and visit with the speakers. Back when things were in-person, I would always seek out the speaker or the entertainment and I would always have a few words with them before the event started. After we would probably sit down for a little bit and spend some time together, that was my routine. It’s very similar with our virtual environments.
You have your presentation. You mentioned being locked into that and most of the time, that’s true. We can certainly set it up that way but there are also opportunities where if you wanted to keep a space open like at a trade show or a conference, that people could go off have a few drinks together or talk together or whatever it happened to be, consider it the lobby.
We’ll go out there to have a conversation while the presentation is going on because that’s where everybody else’s attention is but you want to have access to the premium people. Maybe they’re out in the lobby. We can set it up to be able to do all those different types of things. It doesn’t feel forced or contrived. The platform is designed to make that a very fluid transition for everybody. If you’ve got different phases, you’ve got different spaces. It’s important how you design it and put it all together.
[00:25:17] What’s important is if you have twelve different tables set up, each one is a table of eight. You can have twelve different sets of conversations going on because the person at table 1 cannot hear the person at table 2. You’re only hearing the conversations at table one. If you sit down at table one, you have a conversation. You go, “There’s no one here I’m interested in. I’m bored. I’m ready for my next conversation.” At any time, you look for a table that’s got an open space. You click on that chair, all of a sudden, you’re moved to that table and you’re part of that conversation.
It allows you to control where you go, who you’re with and say, “I’ve been looking for that person. There they are. I can go join that table virtually as long as there’s room.” The ability to control and to have a choice is huge. It enables us psychologically as human beings to sit there and say, “I’m interested in this person. I’m not interested in this person. I can make a choice whether I stay or I go.”
[00:26:19] You can invite them to a completely new space and have a private conversation with them. You never know. They may not be enjoying the conversation they’re having either. You can always call them over. Maybe you both are in the same space and can have a better conversation. I can’t tell you how many times that type of serendipity has taken place. I tend to be a little bit bold when I’m networking as a whole.
I assume, “I want to have the conversation. This other person wants to have the conversation.” I try to facilitate that as best as possible. Maybe that’s a character trait but there’s the opportunity to do that. The ability to call somebody over and say, “I would love to talk with you. Let’s go sit over here,” opens up a lot of the same lovers or mechanisms that you would utilize in an in-person networking event. Networking is such a key component. If you don’t have a social aspect to it, you’re probably are losing a lot of people or at least their attention.
[00:27:13] Let’s switch gears and talk about what’s next because I want to make sure we cover this. Where do you see us going in the next 24 or 48 or 60 months that is going to take this to the next level?
[00:27:29] It changes monthly. We’re all still trying to feel our way through this one as far as what’s coming next. Is it going to all go back to in-person? I don’t think we will see 100% in-person ever again because we know that the technology is available and it works but that’s certainly something to keep in mind. The word hybrid is turning into a little bit of one of those overused dirty words. I like to think of virtual and physical and then link them together. Rather than calling them hybrid, I like to think of them as giving more options to different demographics.
There’s the demographic that’s a little bit more introverted. They tend to get a little bit exhausted when they go to in-person live events. You also have the extroverts who want to be back in in-person. I don’t think either of them is going to disappear. For companies or organizations that utilize this technology from a virtual perspective, their opportunity is that they are now servicing two demographics that they might’ve not had access to with the trade shows only or conferences only.
[00:28:38] Do you see some flip of a switch some technology something that you’re looking at that is going to either revolutionize this or change it or enable all those things to happen either faster or better?
[00:28:50] There are question marks. You referenced metaverse. We all are quietly keeping an eye on that out of the corner of our eyes, “What’s that going to look like?” I don’t know that the buy-in is going to be as high as they’re making it out to be because we still have different age demographics that we have to contend with. Not just age demographics but access demographics too.
To participate in the metaverse, you have to have very specialized technology and understanding. You have to have a headset, understand how the metaverse works, how to navigate it and all these different things. I’m not sure that that’s going to be the next thing. It probably is another 5 to 10 years down the road that ubiquitous with the space.
I do think that these virtual spaces like I’ve been referencing this whole time, will continue to evolve and become a little bit more complex and be more integrated not in daily life but more common. People will be more comfortable jumping into, say a Remo space and be like, “It’s Remo, I know how to use this.” It’s going to be a comfortable experience. We spend a lot of time onboarding attendees because it’s new technology and we don’t know what level of understanding people are at. As that barrier continues to come down of access, people know how to use these tools a little better that you’ll see them be a little bit more casual as an option.
As far as actual technology now, that’s looking like it’s going to change the game. I wouldn’t say that I see anything, in particular, that is right over the horizon. There are things that we’re keeping an eye out for over the horizon that could disrupt the whole process quite extensively. If we were able to say that VR became a little comfortable, accessible and it’s a $50 device you buy at Best Buy, Walmart or whatever, that you throw on, you’re good to go, automatically connects to your computer, there’s no software that you have to download any of that. If we had all that in place, I could see that being a very one-to-one comparison, it would be a lot easier to get involved in those types of technologies.
We’ve even seen it with different virtual event platforms that exist now or even came out at the beginning of the pandemic. If you make it too complex, you make it that video game layout where you get a 3D avatar and you have to pick your hair, skin color, clothes that you’re wearing and do all these different things. You have to control it and move it around with your mouse and keyboard and all these different peripheral devices. When you pull all that in, your bio goes way down.
People look at it and says, “That’s too complex for me. I’ve got to go run a business. I need to be able to get in, get out, spend an hour here, talk to a few people, do my presentation and I’m done,” versus, “I have to make sure my computer is good and I have to navigate the space and spend five minutes walking because the games decided that’s an important factor of the trade.” It’s all these different things.
Keep it simple but keep it enough where it feels like it’s an in-person but you don’t have all the things that suck about in-person, like the walking is terrible when you go into a conference. Keeping the barrier to entry low, accessible, understandable and relatable to people is important. Anything that comes out down the road has to meet those criteria. If it doesn’t meet those criteria, you’re not going to see it be revolutionary in the industry.
[00:32:16] One last question. People can find you at AceVirtualEvents.com. Here’s the question I ask everybody as they walk out the door, when you leave a meeting or an event and you get in your car and you drive away, what’s the one thing you want people to think about you when you’re not in the room?
[00:32:45] The one thing that I want people to think about me and/or my company is that we make it easy for you to gain access to this type of technology. You can come to us with an idea on a napkin and a date and we can make this happen for you. It’s not something that’s overly complex and we can make that happen for you. The behind-the-scenes stuff is fairly complex but we deal with that for you. Let us put those virtual water cooler moments together for you.
[00:33:16] Chris, thanks for giving us all your wisdom, advice and a little bit of insights. I appreciate it.
[00:33:21] Happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
- ACE Virtual Events
- LinkedIn – Christopher Nesbit
- LinkedIn – ACE Virtual Events
- Vimeo – ACE Virtual Events
- Facebook – ACE Virtual Events
About Christopher Nesbit
Christopher Nesbit is a Co-founder and Partner at ACE Virtual Events. He helps create world class, engaging virtual events for companies looking to provide unique digital experiences to guests.
Chris works directly with clients to figure out their strategy and come up with a game plan that meets all their event objectives. Adept in Graphic Design, Chris himself designs the virtual layouts that bring a client’s vision to life. His designs have been called “out of this world”.
Prior to the pandemic, Chris worked in the tradeshow and marketing industries, showcasing products and services for top clients. Featured in many podcasts and fireside chats, Chris is considered a leading expert in the events and marketing industries. He has indelibly left his mark.