By Michael Weiss, Co-Founder, Ai4
Our industry connects people. We connect people to learn from each other, to buy and sell from each other, and to have fun with like-minded peers.
COVID has highlighted how many different ways this value of connection can be offered.
There are two spectrums we think about: 1) From fully in-person with no digital components, to fully virtual with no physical components 2) From highly curated connections like a 1-1 meeting or a 10 person roundtable to mass marketed multi-thousand person events.
As an event organizer, deciding which variables to toggle up and down isn’t so obvious. I’ll share a few ways we make sense of these options.
Virtual, In-Person, Both, or Hybrid?
As you might expect, there is no one-size-fits all answer. It’s unlikely you’ll arrive at a “this is our format strategy for all of our events” conclusion. At my company, our main show is a cross-industry technology event focused on helping Fortune 500 companies adopt artificial intelligence. The dynamics of that event are different from the dynamics of our real estate technology conference, which are different from the dynamics of a banking transformation event series, which will be different still from our new crypto show launches serving the DeFi and NFT Art communities.
Each group of people has different connection needs at different times, and seeks to fulfill those needs in different ways.
For example, our AI conferences translated well to a fully-digital format during COVID because most of our attendees are tech savvy people who already self-learn online, and AI is not something you need to touch and feel to understand, so experiencing our events digitally wasn’t a major leap. We’ve been able to hold successful fully digital events in late Q1 2022 for our AI community, whereas our real estate community is less interested in convening virtually in 2022 and wants to be fully physical. So we’re not hosting fully-digital events for our real estate tech series and are adding more physical events.
So the first question to ask is “does the community I serve prefer physical or digital connection experiences?” For our real estate tech series, it’s a resounding “physical!” while for our AI event series it’s “some of us want digital and some of us want physical,” so we’re going to continue providing them with both.
Then when it comes to mixing physical and digital experiences, or “hybrid,” we do not have plans to build a robust virtual event at the exact same time as our physical events, which is some people’s definition of hybrid. For us, providing many digital connection opportunities at a physical event is critical, and makes all the physical events we do “hybrid.” For example, our largest show is our AI event taking place this August at the MGM Grand in Vegas. It’s a 2,000-3,000 person event, and we have a variety of digital connection experiences that we feel are table stakes for any physical event today:
- Provide a networking app to let people set meetings in-person. Then we go a step further by setting permissions within the app so that certain attendee types have more networking access than others, adding additional value to special groups to help them cut through the noise.
- Track attendee movement using bluetooth. At both our AI event in Vegas and our real estate tech event this July in NYC, we’ll be using bluetooth beacons to track where attendees go. This allows us to understand our product better to know which types of people like which portions of the event, and it allows us to provide sponsors with a data offering that they’ve become accustomed to through fully digital events.
These types of “digital” components to a physical event represent a “hybrid” experience for participants, enabling more effective connections in-person by leveraging digital tools.
Highly curated, small format connections or large events?
Similar to the “digital vs. physical” strategy, the type of connection experience you offer depends on the community you are helping connect. “Does the community I serve prefer small format highly curated connections, larger format shows, or a combo?”
As an example, our banking event brand focuses on senior level banking executives. These people are high-level strategy type people who oversee large portions of their banks, and theire ideal connection experience is a highly curated gathering in a peer-to-peer learning environment with a small quality selection of vendors. This series is invite-only, meaning a pass cannot be purchased to that event. It’s very interactive with many roundtable discussions and Q&A based sessions to let attendees get the strategic information they want out of each other. This series will scale to multiple cities, convening smaller groups of about 100 executives in each one. It likely won’t become a multi-thousand person event, and that’s ok.
Our AI event on the other hand does support a large format event. As a space, people are still making sense of AI and don’t even know all of the right questions to ask, so they’re seeking out a wide array of information and people to figure out their way. However, while our Vegas AI event is a larger format with a tradeshow floor and 10 simultaneous stages, it is a combination format in that we host 1-1 hosted buy meetings and 12 person roundtables within the larger format.
Stay true to the connection needs of your community
At the end of the day, if you understand the nuances of the community you serve and honestly think about which connection experience dynamics would be most beneficial, it’s likely you’ll be able to anticipate which format combinations will help the people you serve.
And by intentionally creating thoughtful connection experiences for these communities, you reinforce the value that we add as an industry.
I can confidently say that there are few people on Earth who have spent as much time learning about the nuanced needs of AI professionals and how to help them connect with each other. And the thing to realize is that there aren’t “AI professionals” doing that. This job is for our industry: the events, tradeshow, “connection experience” industry.
I hope this short piece provoked some helpful thoughts for you. Architecting connection experiences is a highly valuable service to provide, and while the exact architecture will continue to evolve- through pandemics, new technologies, and the rest- someone will still need to be thoughtful about which experience to create. That is until AI takes it over of course…but that’s for another post :).
Michael co-founded a conference organizer company called Ai4 with his college friend Marcus Jecklin. Ai4 started as a 400 person AI for financial services conference in 2018 in NYC, and has grown into a 2,500 person AI for everything conference in Las Vegas. Beyond the AI event, Ai4 has launched half a dozen other tech-focused brands in other industries. Prior to Ai4, Michael led history’s first privatized effort to organize a Worlds Fair in the United States. Michael resides in Austin, TX and beyond event organizing, his interests include longevity, AI, belief systems, and spending time with his partner Ally and dog Bean.