The Virtual Experience Economy

written by Alistair Turner

In 2019, this report covered the emergence of the Virtual Experience Economy, an era that followed the Experience Economy (2009 – 2020) which, it was suggested, would bring together a mixture of technology, purpose, and a higher level of engagement within events.

The key to this era is a recognition that the way we engage with our world has changed. We live in a more seamless live and online world requiring a more hybrid approach that delivers not just more engaging experiences, but experiences that are more personal, accessible, environmentally sustainable, and socially purposeful. Transformative experiences that can make a real difference.

Of course, The Virtual Experience Economy is not just confined to the meetings and events industry; it covers retail, workspaces, attractions, marketing, and learning. However, it is the expertise of those within our industry that many are looking to as the primary guardians to design, create, and deliver a new level of experiences.

Want more insights?

Download the full IBTM Trends Watch Report for 2022, where you can discover more regional specific trends, insights into corporate, association and incentive planners and a look across other industries that can inspire the events industry.

In the wake of the pandemic, there has been an understandable dip in the number of live shared experiences created, and the ‘virtual’ element of The Virtual Experience Economy has gone into hyperdrive. Kim Myhre, CEO and founder of Experience Designed explains, “In the Virtual Experience Economy, a new generation of digital-native audiences have emerged. Needs and preferences have changed and new event technologies, and the digitalisation of experience, has created new expectations and new opportunities for event designers.”

However, it is important to underline that the events industry has been experimenting with hybrid experiences for decades, what has changed is the recent more rapid adoption of technology. Again, as in the previous section on Security, a large proportion of this adoption has been about the need for, and value of, events, but also those unwilling to take the risk of a fully live event. Virtual and hybrid events have been driven by necessity as well as opportunity. Now, more and more, hybrid isn’t just the contemporary option, but one that speaks to a world where businesses have heightened sensitivity around risk and liability, but which have also become more comfortable with meeting online.

As the technology - much of which had been in development pre-COVID - that powers quality hybrid meetings continues to be adopted, a raft of ‘hybrid-ready’ delegates also enter our meeting rooms, but with a renewed confidence in the technology at their disposal. Kim Myhre continues, “Today, most of us already live in a ‘hybrid’ world that is partly live and partly online. We shop live and online, network live and online, drive with satnav; we read, entertain ourselves and learn live and online.”

Kim continues, “So, as we begin to meet live again, will we want the same disconnected events of the past or will we want the excitement of new more connected, technology enhanced, content-rich experiences? This is all now possible in a hybrid event format that reflects the way we experience the world.” Better understanding the needs of this more digitally enabled audience is one of the key issues the meetings and events industry continues to wrestle with in our ‘post-COVID’ journey’. How has the industry changed to keep up with the changing demands of its delegates? Are we ahead or behind the curve?

Toby Lewis, Managing Director of international meeting and event organiser The Live Group adds: “Our whole business reset itself over the pandemic. We had always been doing hybrid events and will continue to do so. I don’t see one meeting, out of the 1,000s we will organise in 2022, as being purely live. The shift though is that we look to organise digitally first, and then add on a live version if it is justified; in the past it was the exact opposite.”

Kim’s view is that many working in experience design are beginning to recognise the potential of this opportunity, representing a brighter new face of the industry, “The move to hybrid offers significant new opportunities to enhance and transform the attendee experience in ways that traditional live events never could. Imagine this new world of technology enhanced experiences, that can reach and actively engage more people in more personalised, convenient, meaningful, and potentially life changing ways.”

Equally, as The Virtual Experience Economy also looks to take on this new frontier within the meetings and events industry, there is still a chance that it goes back to previous outdated models. “The events industry should take advantage of the recent disruption to finally apply the fresh thinking and innovation that we have all needed for some time,” advises Kim. “Earlier this year, nearly everyone I was talking to in the events business had just one thing on their mind - ‘Live events are coming back’. This was, of course, good news for organisers and the ecosystem of suppliers that support them. But for many, the jury may still be out. Have we learned anything new that we can now apply to create better event experiences on the other side of lockdown?”

Finally, outside of the technological aspects of The Virtual Experience Economy, it’s important to remember that the movement is as much about brand values as it is about technology. As Kim says, “Corporate brands are now more motivated than ever to demonstrate that they care for the social issues that their customers care about.”

This is about a new demographic of consumers pushing their brands to do more, which is reflected in the events they run. For example, in the UK there are more than 17 million millennials that make up the largest generational workforce. In Africa, the average age of the population is 19, with millions of teenagers moving into the workforce over the next few years. These people are digitally enabled with access to more, immediate information about the world around them, and they want to associate with brands that care about the issues that are important to them.

Says Kim, “According to a Nielson Survey, 81 per cent of Millennials expect their brands to make a public commitment to good corporate citizenship. The growing trend to make brand experiences more purposeful, meaningful, and socially impactful is positive progress. But there is still some heavy lifting to do to deliver on the promise of purposeful experiences. We often use words such as ‘break-through’ and ‘game changing’ to describe the brand experiences we create, without seriously moving the needle on social, environmental or wellbeing initiatives.”

The Virtual Experience Economy is like many trends. While it has been a key beneficiary of the move to a more digitally trusting and competent consumer, it has also spent a good 18 months working to overcome resistance to change. However, this mixture between live experience, intelligent technology, and authentic purpose, does all play well into the new psyche of many societies around the world. We know that modern consumers place a high prize on experience. If we can engage them with heart as well as innovation, this will be a trend that will continue to make incredible progress over the next 12 months.