Zain Jaffer is a tech entrepreneur, and the founder and CEO of Zain Ventures, an investment firm with more than $100 million in assets under management. Zain Ventures invests in a variety of initiatives, including commercial real estate, technology start-ups and private equity. Visit zain-ventures.com.
There’s been no shortage of important conversations during the last year of crisis management. Managing diminished revenue, safety concerns, talent turnover, supply chain shortages and the emotional effects of a global pandemic, stakeholders were faced with important decisions. Founders and owners found themselves engaging with their teams on complicated issues. At times, industry leaders had to put their minds together regarding the best survival strategy and the next direction forward. And due to the physical restrictions, all of those conversations had to take place at a distance.
Among their many lessons, the corporate world has learned that important matters can be handled in the digital realm. Deals can close, decisions can be made, speakers can be heard and conference-style networking can still be managed across the wires. And while that learning certainly doesn’t negate the need for face-to-face meetings, corporate travel and in-person conferences, it does mean that the value proposition of our in-person events have shifted.
As the continued vaccine rollout lessens the pandemic pressures, organizers, planners and business leaders are negotiating their return to in-person activities. The value proposition of the post-pandemic gathering is in need of redefinition. To lose our in-person gatherings altogether would be a loss of almost unimaginable proportions. But a return to pre-pandemic operations will no longer be enough to justify the travel, the accommodations, the event spend and the need to dust off that suit jacket at the back of the closet. The new normal of meetings and conferences offers something different than we’re used to, and smart technology is at its core.
In the early months of the pandemic, the powers of smart technology went primarily toward ensuring the virtual experience offered meeting and conference attendees adequate access to engagement and participation. On the backbone of video conferencing, planners and organizers slowly integrated breakout rooms, and organized Q&As and compelling visual presentations.
And as we look toward a hybrid arrangement for post-COVID meetings and conferences, the enhanced virtual engagement will no doubt be a crucial area of integration. For large-scale conferences, filming and production could become an area of differentiation, and it might not be uncommon for an entire production team to focus solely on the quality of the virtual experience, just as organizers would devote a team to producing the live event. Further, teams might invest in integrated conferencing platforms that are better able to distribute the virtual experience to a wider audience, with archived lectures, engaging networking capacities and ample opportunities for participation.
Similarly, post-COVID meetings will be influenced by the demand for hybrid access. The most important priority for employers and organizers will be to ensure that remote employees feel as involved and present as their in-person counterparts. Never before have virtual conferencing technologies had higher standards for performance; a video lag, a lost file or a platform that’s hard to navigate will take a significant toll on the experience on both ends.
When consulting firm McKinsey & Co. conducted a 2017 survey, almost half of the surveyed executives reported prioritizing cost savings in their digital strategies. Now, 67% of executives said investing more in their digital-related capital expenditure was one of the ways they remained competitive through the pandemic, and only 10% are looking to cut costs with their communications technology. Priorities and needs have shifted; seamless file sharing, clear audio and uninterrupted video conferencing is the hallmark of a successful hybrid meeting.
Just as communications technologies are making it easier to offer the meetings and conferences experiences at scale, artificial and virtual reality technologies are offering professionals and attendees a reason to return. As the cost of mixed reality technologies becomes exponentially more affordable, technologically enabled experiences are becoming more central to a conference’s offerings. Vendors, speakers or representatives are integrating VR viewings at their booth as a way to communicate with, teach or exemplify their offerings to conference attendees.
A medical convention could offer a real-life training experience by professionals in the field. A real estate conference could offer immersive virtual tours of choice properties on the market. Travel representatives could transport attendees straight to the accommodations they’re offering, giving them a realer-than-real tour of the landmarks in the area. These are more than strategies of engagement; VR capabilities are extending the limits of our ability to communicate, demonstrate, teach, connect and, when needed, convince.
Even though VR hardware is more affordable than ever, the medium still lends itself to one-on-one experiences—perfect for a booth browsing conference, but hard to offer an audience at scale. Artificial reality, on the other hand, is VR’s natural complement. AR technologies are designed to offer technologically sophisticated experiences at scale. Conference flyers can be scanned to an integrated app that allows attendees to navigate, interact and engage with virtual experiences throughout their attendance. Business cards with AR components can scan to open a video or connect people directly through a networking platform. Booth-browsers can interact with 3D renderings of products or tools, speakers can lead audiences through guided virtual scavenger hunts, and attendees can have a more sophisticated, more contact-free method for self-led conference navigation.
It goes without saying that advancements such as these come with new needs. Organizers, planners and event leaders have seen a universal need for broadband access through the duration of the pandemic. Companies and employers have had to allot real capital into cybersecurity, protecting the increased amount of attendee data that comes in through a digitally connected experience. But with those boxes checked, the technological response to pandemic-era restrictions is changing conferences and meetings for the better. The attendee standard has increased, and we’ll soon be able to reap the benefits of better tech-enabled experiences. The most important point of focus is offering an equitable experience between on-screen and in-person attendees. From there, the powers of affordable AR and VR technologies remove all limits; with technology at their core, the long-term future of post-COVID meetings and conferences has many more surprises in store. C&IT