Hybrid: The Best Of Both Worlds

Durl Jensen, President of CDI World-USA, expands further on his view that the hybrid event is not just a passing phase but an idea whose time has come…

Let’s start by getting the definitions out of the way. One of the inherent drawbacks of the term hybrid is that it’s, well, hybrid – a combination of two or more things. (That’s in the business sense at least – let’s not get into biology at this early stage.) This fluidity makes it hard to pin down, which is both a disadvantage and an advantage.

In the trade show and exhibitions world, a hybrid event has come to mean a combination of physical, face-to-face experience with virtual experience. We’re happy with that, although we think that hybrid can also apply simply to fresh combinations of physical experiences. We’ll save that one for a future article.

Combining virtual with physical isn’t a radical concept. It’s been taken up by certain sectors for years as a way to add a new dimension to product presentations and to excite audiences. And, as you’d expect, cutting edge technology and engineering companies are at the forefront when it comes to putting virtual and digital content on their exhibition stands.

This has given them a certain advantage in recent times. CES®, for example, is one of the world’s largest consumer tech and innovation shows and so their temporary move to an all-digital format in 2021 wasn’t too much of a stretch. Interestingly though, they’ll be returning to in-person mode for their 2022 show in Vegas.    

Describing itself as the world’s biggest connectivity event, MWC Barcelona is attended by global mobile operators, device manufacturers, technology providers, vendors, and content owners. Having cancelled the show in 2020, they are returning in 2021 in fully hybrid form. As they put it, the entire breadth of the connectivity sector will gather at MWC Barcelona, physically and virtually.

The MWC position is that this dual approach will offer even more ways to seal that deal, and the ability to provide a wider choice of contact opportunities is one of the most attractive marketing benefits offered by hybrid events. To reassure and protect physical attendees, MWC have also devised a comprehensive safety plan – a genuine masterpiece of organization.          

Beyond The Trade Shows

Beyond the trade show domain, car makers have been quick to see the benefits of incorporating virtual experience into what was traditionally an all-physical, hands-on event. Way back in 2016, global experience agency, Imagination, worked with Jaguar Land Rover (two of CDIW’s longstanding clients), to create the world’s first interactive Virtual Reality car launch for the all-electric Jaguar I-PACE.

Motoring journalists were invited to key locations across the world and given VR headsets which allowed them to explore every aspect of the new vehicle unconstrained by geographical location. Combined with an informative app, the launch reached over 256 million people. Since then, the virtual-assisted car launch has become a must-have in the auto manufacturers’ marketing toolkit.

The hybrid principle doesn’t have to be technically elaborate to be effective. Museums and galleries have been incorporating digital elements in their permanent displays and temporary exhibitions for years and many now offer online walk-throughs of physical exhibitions or selected sections of them, as well as access to digital archives. Fantastic Beasts The Wonder of Nature at London’s Natural History Museum provides a tantalizing online glimpse of the Harry Potter linked show, although its main function is to entice young visitors to the real thing.

Dj mixing at the Tomorrowland Festival, Belgium.

When the real thing isn’t available, more radical action is required. Try this for a challenge: recreate in virtual form the immersive sensory experience of a major electronic dance music festival for thousands of fans confined to their homes due to lockdown.

Belgium’s Tomorrowland festival has been held every year since 2005, but in 2020 the pandemic made physical events impossible and so the organizers decided to put on a virtual show. Using cutting-edge technology from gaming and movies, a team of 200 created an epic-scale virtual landscape populated with virtual (and noisily enthusiastic) audiences, in which online visitors could experience performances from big name DJs and bands on eight characteristically colossal stages.

Put together in just three months, Tomorrowland Around the World attracted over one million viewers. They bought tickets for the two-day ‘live’ show and subsequent Relive tickets which enabled them to watch specific sets in the virtual landscape. While the show reportedly just broke even, its success has encouraged the festival organizers to run a similar digital event alongside the physical show next year. They believe this hybrid formula will give even more people around the globe the opportunity to enjoy the event.

If dance music isn’t quite your thing, how about craft beer? The Cyberfest online beer festival is the brainchild of Beer 52, which claims to be the UK’s largest beer subscription service. Conceived as a way to support hard-pressed craft beer brewers under lockdown restraints, the festival was held three times in 2020, the first two being enjoyed by 50,000 participants.

The mechanics are refreshingly straightforward. Buying a ticket for the event (you can attend on a Friday or Saturday evening or both), gets you a box of selected craft beers delivered to your door together with a beer guide and, thoughtfully, a glass. On the evening (or evenings) of your choice, you sit down and watch a live stream featuring brewery tours, stand-up comedy, celebrity interviews and a quiz with prizes. Most importantly, you sample your beer in the virtual company of fellow enthusiasts and brewing experts.     

Glasses of different kinds of dark and light beer, ready for tasting as part of an online beer festival.

Cyberfest is not only perfectly tailored to its audience, it’s also a classic example of an integrated hybrid event, uniting a virtual online experience with a sensory physical one – each element enhancing the other. We suspect that the wine drinkers may be making similar plans…    

Capturing in virtual form some of the sensory experience of exclusive designer shopping has become a preoccupation of the big-name fashion brands in recent restricted times. Ralph Lauren customers typically used to travel across the globe and drop into the brand’s flagship stores in the cities they visited. The ambience of the stores, some in iconic period buildings, and the artistic set dressing and staging was as much part of the experience as the look and tactile quality of the chosen garment or accessory.

The brand’s answer was to replicate the store interiors to allow a three-dimensional walkthrough for online shoppers. Hot spots were placed on the items which clicked through to a more conventional, but highly descriptive, online shop. While the virtual technique can’t, for the moment, replicate the full multisensory experience of shopping in an actual store, the online version can provide items with a strong visual context (assisted by some unobtrusive mood music) and also keeps the sense of discovery that a real Ralph Lauren store provides.

Ralph Lauren’s online offer, in common with an increasing number of brands, incorporates another element known to encourage visitor engagement – the game. With gaming becoming a mainstream diversion for adults, rather than an obsession confined to antisocial teenage boys, brands are experimenting with games as a way to build positive relationships with customers while subtly reinforcing brand qualities.

Some are seasonal, like Ralph Lauren’s Holiday Run game in which a small ‘Polo Bear’ runs through a major city jumping for prizes. Simple and 2D but delightfully addictive. Others, such as Gucci’s Bloom game, in which players move their hero avatars through a garden labyrinth making blossoms bloom with fairy dust (what else?), are linked to product launches, in this case a new fragrance. Bloom runs exclusively on Gucci’s Arcade, the brand’s official app that already includes a number of Gucci-modified takes on classic arcade games.              

Woman Trying Virtual Sneakers via a Store AR App

Gucci have impressive form in other technologies too. In partnership with social media platform, Snapchat, they were the first luxury brand to provide an Augmented Reality lens that allows consumers to virtually ‘try on’ shoes with their smart phone before purchasing online.

Although given further impetus by recent lockdowns, the use of AR to improve the online shopping experience through more effective product demonstration is likely to become a mainstream feature in retail – even if the ultimate test of good footwear is always going to be sliding your real foot into a real shoe in a real store. And here we touch on one of the conundrums of the hybrid concept – the relative roles of physical versus virtual.

To explore this, we’ll return to our own specialist area: the trade show and exhibitions sector. In recent times, when vast numbers of physical shows were cancelled, virtual was often employed as a temporary substitute – a next-best-thing until normalcy returned. Understandable in the circumstances, but definitely missing a trick in the long-term.

The CDI World Approach

At CDI World, we share the view that every communication medium has its own strengths and, while there will always be overlap, the most effective approach is not for one medium to replace another but for each to complement the others. It’s a holistic perspective that is at the heart of our interpretation of hybrid. If the balance is correct between all the physical and virtual components of a hybrid event, the result will be more engaging, more resilient to unknown factors (insert your own unknown here), and much more effective.

This makes it all the more important that each component – whether we categorize it as physical or virtual – should be thoroughly tested for its performance and cost. The recently involuntary hiatus in conventional physical trade shows has led many exhibiting companies to ask themselves whether they are receiving the return on investment they expect – especially from bigger shows.        

While there is no questioning the value of face-to-face contact, that only physical shows can provide convincingly to buyers and sellers, there is a strong demand from exhibitors that trade shows must adapt. They must, for example, consider reducing their duration and cost, sharpening their focus to pull in buyers who want to concentrate their limited time on particular product group.

Most significantly, there is also a growing view, borne out by our own research as well as direct client experience, that the future format of trade shows will comprise physical and digital-virtual events running side-by-side. The best of both worlds is definitely possible, and it’s definitely hybrid. 

Durl Jensen

President CDI World-USA.

CDI World offers complete hybrid events packages for trade shows and exhibitions. We create diverse physical structures together with linked virtual-digital elements to provide accessible and compelling experiences that build customer relationships and sales. Let’s talk hybrid. Contact us now to find out more.