Why hybrid events are the future of the event industry
The UK Government has confirmed details of a promising roadmap out of the COVID-19 pandemic that could see life return to relative normality from June 21.
It seems unthinkable following almost a year living under tight social restrictions, but in just a few months England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could be free of the current limitations. For the events industry, news of future relaxations was welcomed with cautious optimism. Too often we have seen goalposts shifted to keep the deadly virus under control.
One area for organisers to consider as they forward plan is how to maximise hybrid events. There is a golden opportunity to successfully combine hosting physical events with delivering to a digital audience at the same time.
Bar a small window in the autumn where restrictions were relaxed slightly, most live entertainment during lockdowns were delivered via live streaming online.
We have become accustom to new digital platforms that provide entertainment, including theatre, arts and culture and sport directly into our living rooms. Many organisers and audiences have benefited from live streaming and on-demand online broadcasting. It has given organisers control of their digital output, generated revenue, kept people in work and entertained and developed audiences.
But what does the post-lockdown future look like? Hybrid events will become the norm and is something the digital savvy and content hungry audience will expect. Hybrid events is when organisers accommodate both physical and digital ticket buyers. It is a growing trend that several leading entertainment sector figures are strongly backing.
Easy access for everyone
Broadcasting content online has unlocked opportunities that organisers want to build on as the sector recovers.
Last year Bristol-based theatre production company Wise Children became one of the first to use TicketCo Media Services fully integrated live streaming and digital ticketing solution.
It broadcast five live performances of Romantics Anonymous and sold almost 12,000 streaming passes, four times the capacity of Bristol’s Old Vic.
“Live streaming allowed us to establish an audience beyond the auditorium,” said Simon Baker, Technical Director at Wise Children. “For many people, theatre simply isn’t accessible for a variety of reasons – health, finances, transport or even company. By streaming productions, we are able to connect with a whole range of people that wouldn’t normally attend live theatre. We have now sourced a second revenue stream and have big plans to work digitally by delivering hybrid events for our audiences when theatres re-open.”
And it is increasing accessibility that is a big plus point for the theatre sector.
“Hybrid will create technical, practical and creative challenges,” added Simon. “But it will provide an opportunity for the theatre industry to embrace digital delivery and open up arts and culture to more people. I can see theatres perhaps having a week run of shows in which four are physical tickets only and the last night is a hybrid event which is then available via on-demand. There are so many options to explore.”
Bengi Unsal, Senior Contemporary Music Programmer at the Southbank Centre and Trustee at the Music Venues Trust, believes hybrid events are the way ahead.
“I truly believe hybrid events are the future, especially with ongoing disruption, the permanent risk of local lockdown, and travel continually reduced,” said Bengi.
“There are clear examples of these events being monetisable and economically viable, without comprising artistic integrity or production values – take Laura Marling’s Union Chapel gig or Lianne La Havas’ Roundhouse event, for example. With seemingly limitless viewer capacity online, where the content is compelling, audiences will pay. We just must insist that the artist sees the benefit directly. Long-term, this could also be a way of democratising live events and improving access for those who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to attend in person, either for physical or economic reasons.”
The opportunity spans all event sectors. In the sport industry Steve Nell, the owner of Swindon Wildcats ice hockey club plans to hold hybrid fixtures next season.
“By live streaming games in the future, we will be able to connect with a completely new fanbase – fans that might not be able to travel to our venue because of health, financial, or transport reasons,” he said. The possibilities to market our games are endless when you have the ability to reach out to a global audience. Live streaming can supplement the income we are able to generate from hosting limited capacity crowds to build a strong financial future.”
A cautious approach has been adopted by UK Government to guide all four nations out of the pandemic.
This means three steps must be completed before all restrictions are lifted. Live events will be able to welcome limited numbers of spectators from May 17 earliest with 1,000 people or half capacity – whichever is lower – allowed indoors and 4,000 or half capacity for outdoor venues.
Step three of the Government’s roadmap out of restrictions will undoubtedly present its challenges as social contact levels are significantly increased. For event organisers, it will be critical that they are suitably prepared for each step to be extended beyond its minimum term.
Hybrid event success
Last year the world’s northernmost jazz festival hosted what is believed to have been Europe’s first hybrid festival. It enabled it to reach a large audience during COVID-19 restrictions.
The Varanger Festival held in Vadsø, Norway is a popular fixture in the jazz scene due to its mixture of quality artists and unique midnight sun. To overcome capacity restrictions, it combined traditional ticket sales with pay-per-view live streaming of each show.
André Kvernhaug, Varanger Festival director said: “We believe the hybrid solution we have chosen is the long-term answer.
“Normally we sell 12,000 tickets during the festival. With the social distancing rules, we scaled down sharply. We have moved the festival to a different venue which only has a normal capacity of 250 which was reduced 86 per concert. With 13 concerts in all, this gave a total capacity of 1,118 tickets for the entire festival. Live streaming significantly expanded our capacity and made the concerts available to those who could not or were not be able to physically attend.”
By using our platform the Varanger Festival team received the sales data for both physical and virtual ticket sales via one integrated report.
Growing digital audiences
Establishing a digital audience so demand for your event in its online format grows requires an investment of time and strategic marketing.
“Like any new platform, it takes time to get the brand to look and feel right,” added Simon Baker. “When marketing your show, don’t just sell the performance – sell the experience of streaming as the new way of watching theatre. It’s important to remember theatre-goers have never had to use technology to access performances before, so for us it was crucial that our payment and broadcasting platform was simple, quick, reliable and cost-effective.”
The key word is confidence. Your ticket buyers will need confidence in the streaming and ticketing systems you are using to tempt investment into your product. Last year, The Oxford Lieder Festival – one of the world’s leading song festivals – managed to successfully bring 41 events to life via live streaming and grew their audience by a fifth as shows were broadcast to ticket buyers from 25 countries.
Here is how they did it.
Test for success
Since The Oxford Lieder Festival was formed in 2002, it has firmly established itself as the UK’s most popular song festival, attracting thousands of people each year. Growing their audience by a fifth in 2020 amid the pandemic did not occur by chance, though – nor was it down to beginners’ luck.
The detail was revealed in a recent in-depth study conducted by Norsk Publikumsutvikling into theatres, orchestras and museum audiences, commissioned by organisations including TicketCo. By providing ‘festivalgoers’ with free content in the build up to the event, trust between the Oxford Lieder Festival, the customer and live streaming was established. And Facebook campaigns in America and Japan helped to develop an international audience too.
Also, it chose to make all performances available on demand for a limited time after the festival concluded.
In the report an Oxford Lieder Festival spokesperson said: “People wanted more time to watch the festival on demand the following weeks. Therefore, people were willing to buy packages that were more expensive to gain access to on demand content that would be available for a limited time after the festival.”
Making digital sustainable
Streaming does not have to be operated under a pay-per-view platform – YouTube, Facebook and Twitch allow businesses to stream events globally for free. But by using a secure, fully integrated, streaming and ticketing system, event organisers can monetise performances and ensure a smooth customer journey and user experience.
David Kenny, Head of Global Partnerships at TicketCo Media Services, said: “The pandemic has not only accelerated viewers’ demand for digital content, but in many examples, it has formed it. A combination of reduced capacities in the short-term with making entertainment accessible and affordable to all means there is an exciting future for hybrid events.”
The definitive guide for theatres to live stream shows
The absolute best, most up-to-date, definitive guide for theatres to learn how to live stream theatre productions to their audience.