Monique van Dusseldorp, CEO of Van Dusseldorp VB, is an events expert who has curated conferences and seminars focussing on creativity, innovation and technology for thirty years. Currently the International Program Director at Hamburg’s NEXT Conference, here, Monique outlines four pillars which create the enduring appeal of events, and how the industry adapted these into the digital sphere in 2020…
EVENTS HAVE ENDURING appeal, I passionately believe that. Why?
- They bring people together from different industries and professions, which in turn creates new industries, and new worlds.
- They are also labs where the validity of ideas is debated, our knowledge advanced, and our experiences and doubts shared.
- On a more personal level, there is something deeply human about them. Being on stage is a unique thrill; I love it, and it’s easy to see why speakers and sponsors value events.
- But what motivates people to attend them? To sit in a room listening to talks which could be found online. Some might argue it’s like being back at school. The essence of that ‘why’ can be distilled into four core reasons:
Sitting with other people in a darkened room en masse with a singular focus is a tricky environment to replicate. Muted phones, and the fact that you can’t leave the space, means you’re fully focussed on listening. A combination of clever location and scene-setting by curators results in events which are conducive to focus, and the best encourage new ideas to form in situ.
Events are mini sabbaticals for those of us who spend much of our time online, and hold more appeal than ever in these Zoom-fatigued times. What’s key to remember is that the experiences which surround events are as important as the event itself. At NEXT Conference in Hamburg, for example, walking along the Reeperbahn between workshops, or sipping sundowners on a boat cruise after conference hours fundamentally enhances the event experience. It’s deeper than merely circumferential entertainment; we process new information as we walk, and are stimulated by new sounds and sights.
When news of the US election results broke last November, there was dancing in the streets. Despite a raging pandemic, people felt the need to express their jubilation. Attending an event can be a more subdued, but nevertheless strong, expression of emotion. More meaningful than sharing a list of our favourite video streams, it’s a declaration to those in attendance – and beyond – that we care about the topic. A shorthand for our wider convictions, if you will.
Events are gloriously social, not only a place to connect with new people, but also to remove us from those we’re familiar with. Being near strangers offers welcome relief from the daily grind, and affords us the opportunity to be someone else, and to grow. Tech analyst Benedict Evans recently compared a mass event like Web Summit to Gay Pride, seeing events as a conduit for finding a like-minded community. It’s easy to exist in the online space without anyone knowing you’re there.
So, to recap: focus, experience, expression, connection. Easy enough to create when you’re in a room together – but harder to replicate online.
And Then COVID-19 Happened…
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the events industry had to pivot, and get existing events online, offering their delegates, speakers, partners and sponsors the same bundle, but in a digital space.
And while traditional ‘in-person’ events might have been on hold, there were plenty of examples of events which managed to innovatively and powerfully establish those four core pillars with their online offering:
1. Focus: Playgrounds Festival Online
One of the first events I signed up for last spring was Playgrounds Festival Online.
Normally it brings around 4,000 visual artists from across the world together in Eindhoven, Germany. Artists present their work, young talent gets portfolio feedback and digital tool makers present their wares. People hang out and have fun – it has focus, experience, expression and connection in spades.
For their online edition, held in the first month of a global lockdown, the former multi-day festival was reimagined as a one-off digital event, with presentations held on 2 channels on live-streaming platform Twitch (with video and chat), and an afterparty on Discord, a group chat app favoured by gamers.
In order to sharpen focus, Playgrounds did something unusual; they clearly communicated that sessions wouldn’t be recorded, or published later on. Watch now or miss out was the message, and people paid attention.
The most compelling sessions had a clever ‘live feel’. In one, Dutch artist Loish, who has 2.2 million Instagram followers, chatted informally about how she got started and her decision-making process, before turning the camera onto her tablet, and creating artwork on the spot.
The feeling of closeness, and seeing every detail and decision Loish made was fascinating. It was a real ASMR/Bob Ross type experience, I couldn’t look away.
And I wasn’t the only one; over 30,000 people from 30 countries tuned in to Playgrounds that night. Even festival director Leon van Rooij was surprised at the response, and after the event he was inundated with emails from digital artists – based everywhere from Venezuela to Rwanda – who were delighted at having taken part, and by how the online platform had proved a real leveller, and made everyone feel equal.
Thousands of people were mesmerized, watching someone create a digital drawing. A new kind of gig, which worked better online than in a room and certainly provided focus.
2. Experience: House of Beautiful Business
Experiences – we crave them. No matter how fascinating the content of an online event – be it talks, workshops, conversations or brainstorms – it’s not the same as being in a live experience. And for many, the pandemic has meant more screen time – in both our work and personal lives – so how does an online event break the mould?
The House of Beautiful Business is a think tank and events firm dedicated to making business more human and beautiful, which hosts an annual industry event focussed on experiences. Pre-pandemic, they’d bring together a crowd of curious people in Portugal for a five-day event packed with presentations, workshops, dinners, and city explorations. A varied roster of eclectic activities included listening to tech speakers doing musical collaborations, walking blindfolded through a Lisbon square, eating Pastel de Nata, and spending a silent hour with other attendees. Experiences which don’t translate easily online.
During lengthy lockdown periods, HoBB brought their community together with Zoom sessions, featuring music and dance, as well as joint activities like journaling, which everyone could do in their own home.
When it came to their annual event, HoBB put together The Great Wave, four days of online activities and insightful panel discussions, on a range of topics and in many different formats. It included:
- access to a virtual world designed by Waltz Binaire,
- podcasts to listen to whilst doing other tasks,
- a session for mask making, with attendees’ creations to be worn during a dance session the following hour,
- and time in the schedule where everyone was invited to eat dinner together virtually.
One format – a guided Zoom conversation without video, where a group of strangers shared their dilemmas whilst walking outside – was so successful that there’s now a monthly walk-and-walk meetup. After four days together at the Great Wave event, delegates waved goodbye online as if bidding farewell to family, having bonded through their shared experiences.
3. Expression: Tweakers
Tweakers is a Dutch technology website for computer enthusiasts, which features news, best buy guides and more. Its lively, carefully-moderated tech forum has over 700,000 members and over 29 million posts. Their annual summit brings together over 500 developers, while meetups tend to be a bit smaller.
Last November, on a Saturday afternoon, Tweakers hosted The Privacy and Security Meetup online. I curated the speaker lineup for the event, and the Let’s get digital platform, which creates virtual event experiences which feel like physical ones, was used. Around noon, about 500 people logged on, listened to talks, asked questions and chatted, and almost everyone stayed until the end.
My two cents as to why? This audience doesn’t care for small talk, feels confident interacting with others online, and has a razor-sharp focus on the content itself.
Tweakers’ forums are where the attendees meet one another, and getting together in this way further signals to each other, the speakers and to themselves: ‘this is what interests me’. Taking part in the event was a signal for the delegates, who by their presence communicated their love of tech, the importance of privacy and security issues, and the relevance of the topics discussed. Showing up was a vote which said, ‘this is important’.
In post-event feedback, the event was evaluated as one of Tweakers’ best so far: more than 65% of attendees said they preferred online to in-person events.
4. Connection: Alex Lindsay’s Office Hours
‘Finding your people’ is as important for adults as it is for teenagers grappling with their identity. One such online event series which encapsulates that feeling is Office Hours, hosted by Alex Lindsay.
Lindsay is an American computer graphics and video production specialist who hosts a multiple hour Zoom call every day. It begins with an hour of Q&A, and is followed by an hour with a guest.
I stumbled upon it by accident, then ended up tuning in many times as I enjoyed the format so much. The information being shared and discussed – including topics such as next-level audio gear, new software and equipment tips and how LED walls will change the future of film production – is highly relevant for those in the video/streaming industry. So, for the people who log on, it’s packed with the kind of useful information you’d glean when chatting at an industry event, in an online forum, or in a bar talking shop.
What really across comes is the sense that this is a club, somewhere you go to hear your peers talk about stuff you like, a place to find ‘your people’, to hang out, chat and listen. It falls somewhere between a society and a podcast, offering great conversation and more crucially, connection.
About the author
Monique van Dusseldorp, CEO of Van Dusseldorp VB, is a freelance Amsterdam-based events expert who has curated conferences and seminars focussing on creativity, innovation and technology for thirty years. Formerly a program director at TedXAmsterdam, she curated the UK’s first Wired Event, and currently is the International Program Director at Hamburg’s NEXT Conference. For more from Monique van Dusseldorp follow @dusseldorp on Twitter, and sign up for her Future of Events newsletter.
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