Since March 2020, the events industry has been in a constant state of confusion, with restrictions chopping and changing rapidly. The outcome of these changes has proven to be a steep learning curve for many event organisers.
While some organisers may not have had the chance to take on a virtual platform to host their events, others have been taking full advantage, trying to pivot in a way that works for all parties involved.
With many successes and failures across the board and with the gradual loosening of restrictions imminent, the inevitable question is that once ‘normal’ returns, whatever that may look like, will virtual events still be around at all, or will they be incorporated in a new and improved way?
While some organisations have had to cancel their events outright, there have been plenty of major events and festivals who have transformed their programs to fit a virtual platform. From the likes of Splendour in the Grass who created Splendour XR in July, a virtual immersive experience never seen before, to the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals who adapted their programs to be screened online.
Photo by MontyLov
One of the most popular festivals in the world, Burning Man took an immersive online approach, with their Virtual Burn event, using virtual reality (VR) technology, that included DJ sets, theme camp events and art installations.
Both Sydney and Melbourne’s film festivals were delivered completely virtually last year. While Melbourne’s Film Festival was due to run as a hybrid event in August, mixing both in-person and online features, it was changed instead to run on its online streaming platform after COVID-19 restrictions were extended.
Australian art festivals also took advantage of incorporating an immersive online experience for attendees who were missing out on strolling the galleries. The Biennale of Sydney acted quickly with their transition to an online experience after the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, partnering with Google to allow audiences all over the globe to view the exhibition. The Sydney Fringe Festival also turned digital for a second time with nine gigs that were meant to take place in-person, pivoting instead to provide online performances.
Splendour in the Grass created their Splendour XR event using interactive and immersive technology, recreating a digital replica of Splendour in the Grass’s North Byron Parklands site. Created in partnership with San Francisco VR platform Sansar who help make virtual music events, the experience included being able to create your own avatar, making it dance, as well as having the chance to chat to festival goers from all over the world.
Attendees who also had VR gear were able to transport themselves directly into the event. While wanting to imitate as much as possible from the real-life festival, designers were even able to simulate nightfall and weather events across the virtual parklands.
Once the Splendour in the Grass festival is up and running again in real time next year, there is still the opportunity for the virtual platform it’s created to work alongside the real-life event, allowing others across the globe the chance to experience the festival in exciting new ways.
“Watch this space,” said Jessica Ducrou, co-CEO of Secret Sounds, the company behind Splendour in the Grass.
Speaking exclusively to The Sydney Morning Herald Ducrou continued, “I’m still getting over it to be honest, putting the pieces back together, but [I’m] just trying to think about how you can take this and actually make it a really great addition to what we’re doing in real life, whenever we’re allowed to run [again].”
“It has a lot of potential and I’ve got a number of ideas around how you can extend the experience,” she said.
Photo by Barbara Zandoval
“We’ve now built our festival world and we can improve and grow that … in the future, can we sell a virtual pass on top of the real ticket where people can connect in the world leading into the show?
“And then you have a community. Is it an always-on experience, that happens all year round?”
While of course people are now more eager than ever to experience the wonders of an in-person event again, from the bustling crowds to the electric atmosphere, there are still some aspects of virtual events that serve as a major benefit. The pandemic may well have helped bring the timeline of virtual event innovation and mass participation in the VR world forward by several years.
Event and festival organisers should give real thought to jumping on the hybrid events train in future, where virtual platforms are incorporated alongside real-life events. Not only can online events bring more ticket sales with less physical infrastructure needed but there’s also a chance to reach further afield attendees, including people from interstate and worldwide, expanding the event’s reach.
The opportunity to explore more expansive technology is a massive drawcard for event organisers for future events, from including holographic additions, augmented reality (AR) aspects that incorporate digital features into the real world or mixed reality (MR) which combines both VR and AR technology.
Photo by David Grandmougin
Interactions with famous musicians and talent may even be easier to conduct in a virtual environment and may just be an incentive for attendees to virtually ‘meet’ and interact with their favourite celebrity. There’s also gamification to encourage engagement, along with the inclusion of more user-generated content to allow for even more of an interactive experience, so who knows what advancements could be cooked up next.
The industry’s innovators are no doubt going to have a lot of fun cooking up some amazing and creative ideas in this area over the coming months and years.
Keith Clarkson from the audio-visual company EventSound offered his insights into the rapidly changing events landscape and whether virtual events are here to stay post-pandemic.
“Definitely they are here to stay for the near future and quite a while beyond,” he said.
“Even with real in person events, now we have components of livestreams and virtual links to accommodate interstate and international participants.
“We are already seeing huge improvements in streaming technology from the manufacturers who have worked seriously in the last twelve months, improving this technology specifically for virtual events, live streams and online video interaction.
Photo by Scott Webb
“There’s always an easier and smarter way to do many tasks and now we know the specifics of what we are looking at. People are designing products to accommodate those tasks rather than us all trying to think outside the box to create virtual events from the existing audio-visual equipment we already had.”
While thankfully, festivals and events will continue in person once lockdowns are over and restrictions are lifted, there’s no doubt virtual events in some capacity will stay on.
Either through hybrid experiences or as a supplementary addition, providing audiences with that extra layer of quality entertainment.
Watch this space!