Senior vice president of market strategy at online event platform Hubilo, Sophie Ahmed, sees that the demand for purely virtual events may have peaked – but tells EN editor Emily Wallin that the rate of innovation sparked by the pivot to digital has seen a boom in the way tech can enable and enhance events and make them more accessible to all.
Sophie Ahmed has been leading the charge in terms of virtual and digital events for more than two decades.
Ahmed co-founded the Virtual Events Institute (VEI) during the pandemic and previously led global events for Informa, Reed Exhibitions, Cannes Lions, and Money 20/20.
Ahmed joined Hubilo as senior vice president of market strategy in April and sees no sign of the demand for digital innovation in event tech slowing.
She agrees that the purely virtual event bubble may have burst – as seen by the likes of Hopin slashing its workforce – but says “tech that enables the event” is definitely here to stay. Having started her career running in-person events she has not forgotten their value but sees how tech can improve them.
“If I was running my old events now, I would love how quickly the technology has progressed over the last two years. I would probably have a 365 year-round community and within that monthly meetups and think tanks, exclusive focus groups, I would have subgroups, I would have micro communities, I would have a matchmaking facility, I would make sure that everyone is getting as much out of my event brand as possible all year, that they’re truly engaged. And I would understand what content they’re discussing what they’re interested in. I would use that to translate into my content strategy, and my overall event design, so my community would feed my event and my event would feed my community. I would do that tomorrow if I went back into my old job.
“By the time they get to the event, they’re all excited, it’s whetted the appetite. You can use the 365 model as the top of the funnel, to get more data, to get more people to come and dip their toe into your brand, to understand what you’re offering.
“If you want to look at it from a diversity, inclusion or sustainability point of view, [the cost of] travel is going up, everything’s going up, then having this digital overlay just means you can have a wider global target addressable market that can also be involved. And maybe one day they will come in person.”
Ahmed sees tech as a less risky way to launch or clone an event.
“If I wanted to launch a show tomorrow in Australia, or to geo-adapt or geo-clone an event, we used to just go and do it, which was quite high risk. But now through technology, we can actually do a mini soft launch in new areas to understand what’s going on, to see that we can get the traction, we can get the feedback, and then when we know we’ve got it, then we can go and launch.”
Apps are now an essential component for events, she says, not least because they improve sustainability by reducing the need for paper show guides.
“We were all toying with event apps pre-pandemic. But now it’s almost mad not to have an app.
“The thing with our platform, whether you’re using it as a one-off virtual event, whether you’re doing hybrid, or whether you’re doing it as a community, we build each of our event environments from scratch.”
They have created the Hubilo Wall – which Ahmed describes as “like a mini LinkedIn or Facebook feed that’s purely for your community and purely for your market.”
While the benefits of using tech to enhance live events are clear, Ahmed agrees the demand for fully virtual options may have peaked.
“It was never going to be like that forever. I did think at the time ‘this isn’t going to last’, but it accelerated the change. And I think there are parts of that that will stay forever. Interestingly, I also think it depends on what type of event it is and what industry sector? Because pharmaceutical, for example, they love virtual events.”
Where event tech can really push change is in terms of inclusivity, Ahmed says.
“There are a lot of people who can go to virtual events, and they couldn’t really go to events before,” she says.
Also within the live exhibition environment technology can improve the experience and make it more accessible. Hubilo, for example, has sign language and closed captioning.
Tech is also crucial for shareability and widening the market for any exhibition, Ahmed says, with growing interest in on-demand content.
“I remember years ago, when InGo and GleanIn and Snöball first came out, and I loved it as an event organiser, because my audience went up 22%, because of this shareability, and the network effect was leveraged. So for the platforms now the shareability function is so important.”
Most significant though is the measurable insights digital platforms can provide.
“What I like most about digitising events, is the analytics,” she says. “Now I can see what sessions people were engaging with, how long they were in that session, how many meetings they did or what type and how long the meetings took place. And all of this lovely analytics I’m going to pull through, and I’m going to find out what really happened rather than before, you would just rely on 10%, filling in the feedback. Now I’m getting a 100% snapshot.”
Despite being determinedly digital, Ahmed is still totally committed to the future of live events.
“Technology is just there to enable the event, whatever it is, if you want it to be purely virtual, you can, if you want it to be a bit of both you can or if you want to be in-person you can, but have tech to enhance it. I don’t think it’s either or.
“It’s just something that helps you make your event better.”