Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, event organizers have made huge leaps in translating live events to the digital realm. The buzziest examples have come from pop culture: Ticket holders attended Sundance via home TVs, while the NBA beamed in virtual fans through Microsoft Teams. But dazzling virtual events aren’t reserved for just A-list celebrities and professional athletes; take Quaranteen University, a for the class of 2020 organized by the students themselves.

Over the past 18 months, companies too have adopted production techniques from television and engagement strategies from social media—and they’ve used a few new tools—to create multifaceted platforms where remote attendees can not only seamlessly move between presentations, collaboration, education, and personal connection, but enjoy whole new levels of engagement and access.

Hybrid work is here to stay—as are hybrid events, which offer a mix of in-person and virtual experiences. Even when getting together en masse is a possibility again, it won’t look the same. The pre-pandemic events playbook, heavy on theater seating and often light on metrics, doesn’t work for audiences in 2021. Forward-looking companies that gather people together, whether for conferences or product rollouts, would be wise to toss out that playbook, along with their assumptions about virtual events.

The COVID era has provided valuable, if sometimes challenging, lessons to events professionals. The pandemic “has revealed the intellectual laziness of the industry as a whole,” says Bob Bejan, corporate vice president of Global Events at Microsoft. “It’s such a potent statement to say, ‘There’s nothing like human interaction. You’ll never replace that.’ ”

“At every turn, we were expecting one thing and got precisely the opposite,” says Bob Bejan, corporate vice president of Global Events at Microsoft. “It doesn’t happen very much in business.”

Time and again, digital-first events have called that assumption into question. Whether they sought to transform the physical world through mixed, augmented, or virtual reality, heal communities through innovative hybrid experiences, or create intercontinental dialogue among icons in business, sports, and design, the best events reveal the shift to virtual to be more than a pandemic Band-Aid; it’s a remarkable opportunity.

Producing virtual events has provided “one epiphany after another, in terms of the efficacy, inclusion, accessibility, economy, and scale,” Bejan says. “At every turn, we were expecting one thing and got precisely the opposite. It doesn’t happen very much in business.” In 2019, 109,000 attendees experienced Microsoft-produced events; in 2020, those events reached 1.3 million people—nearly 10 times the number. “Any illusion you have about not being able to do something in the digital world, you really have to set it aside,” Bejan says.

Lessons we can glean now about what’s worked best in the virtual realm can guide the path forward for companies. We talked to Bejan and several other events organizers about some recent aha moments that can inspire new ways of thinking about coming together.

Epiphany: Virtual events can attract—and reach—a much bigger audience

In May 2020, Murray Bell’s global experience company, Semi Permanent, was preparing to launch the World Sports Creativity Sessions in partnership with Dentsu and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Committee. The event—intended to attract a new, younger audience to the Games—explored the role of creativity in sport. Originally intended for live audiences, it consisted of conversations between world-class athletes (track star Carl Lewis, soccer captain Carli Lloyd) and famous creative figures (explorer Chris Burkard, bionic pop artist Viktoria Modesta). Pivoting to digital, Semi Permanent integrated these talks in remote spaces with hosts on the ground in Tokyo.

The World Sports Creativity Sessions hosted virtual conversations between world-class athletes and famous creative figures to explore the role of creativity in sport.

Courtesy of Semi Permanent

“It was funny with the time zones,” Bell recalls from his home in Sydney. On the eve of the launch, Bell says, “I logged in before I went to bed and saw we had 22,000 people. I was like, ‘That’s great. Really amazing.’

“I went to bed and woke up to a flurry of messages. Instead of getting 2,000 people in venues in Tokyo or Shibuya, we ended up getting 2.8 million viewers on our live stream experience, with 163 million viewing minutes over the course of the experience.”

Bejan recalls a similar moment from Build, Microsoft’s first big virtual conference during the pandemic. “One of the most important things we can do as a company is train and certify developers or IT professionals in the technologies we distribute and sell,” Bejan says. “So certifications is a stone cold metric that has real tangible value in the company.” To bring the learning online, Bejan and team gamified it with an experience called the Microsoft Learning Challenge, in which participants earned points for attending, something its creators knew would appeal to Build’s attendees. ”And our goal, when we launched, was to generate about 5,000 participants, because that would have been a huge number in the live world. We generated 18,000. We wanted to do 30,000 certification modules, we did 89,000 certification modules. So then we went, wow, can we do this again?”

There’s big opportunities for branding as well. Bell says he was surprised to find a huge appetite among certain brands. At a hotel takeover in Sydney, Semi Permanent highlighted electric automotive company Polestar, not by trotting out a car but by hiring engineer and musician Moritz Simon Geist to create electronic music using the car’s parts. Audiences could view Geist’s performance at the hotel or online through a partnership with media brand Highsnobiety, which also gave viewers the chance to craft their own tunes. It was the sort of adventurous hybrid event that spoke more to Polestar’s identity than a product merely could, and accentuated what differentiates them from traditional brands.

“It’s this new range of companies that feels they need to look at things differently, look at new ways to engage people, and get results through these experiences physically and digitally,” Bell says. “In the next two to three years, we’re going to start to see the companies that decided to bunker down during the pandemic and the companies that decided to move.”

Epiphany: Virtual events can inspire awe

Sometimes attendees can’t concentrate on a virtual conference from their couches. They’re beset by distractions, from pets to texts, and exhausted by meeting fatigue. None of this means they’re disinterested in digital experiences (they’re perfectly happy to spend hours with their favorite influencers and streaming platforms). They’re just in need of a production that takes it up a notch.

Bejan explains that organizers have about three minutes to capture attention before viewers navigate away (literally or mentally). Once you’ve grabbed their attention in a keynote session, for example, his team has found that the average engagement time is 24 minutes; that more than doubles with a live learning session, to 51 minutes. So keeping attendees absorbed with crisp and compelling content is paramount.

Sophisticated production can go a long way toward keeping people interested, too, so many events teams have transformed into full-blown TV production stages that rival Hollywood studios. They employ multiple cameras to film expert panels and product demonstrations, switching between angles to create action and movement. They maintain interest with flashy openings and interstitial programming. Behind the scenes, the control rooms look more like Mission Control.

At Ignite 2021, Microsoft producers took things a step further by removing the natural barrier that the screen creates for viewers by using virtual reality technology like Microsoft Mesh. The VR technology’s capabilities were on full display in Microsoft fellow Alex Kipman’s keynote for the event. Audiences accompanied Kipman as he explored an underwater scene with director James Cameron, brought Pokémon Go to life with Niantic CEO John Hanke, and traveled through a vortex to a party island with Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté.

At Microsoft Ignite 2021, and in collaboration with Niantic, the company showcased an augmented reality demonstration of Pokémon GO on HoloLens 2.

Bejan recognizes the VR keynote was the sort of ambitious project that may be unrealistic for the majority of events, but he reminds companies without access to reality-exploding tech that they can still create masterful virtual experiences. “It’s not about waiting for the technology to enable you,” he says. “It’s about, as a creative human being, how do you use the palette you have in a way that’s expressive and can make connections?”

For instance, companies like Double A Labs in Austin are transporting users into “phygital” (physical + digital) event platforms. Much like the Minecraft graduation ceremony, these browser-based experiences look like video games and promise gamified engagement. They also create the sense of shared space, allowing users to steer avatars around in an immersive world, interact freely with other attendees, and engage with conference material on their own terms.

Double A Labs CEO Amber Allen says that her hybrid events platform offers many things that traditional events lack—detailed data analytics on precisely what your audience engaged with, a way for attendees to keep track of everyone they spoke to without sifting through scores of business cards, and the ability to maintain the community that forms around events indefinitely through ongoing features like message boards and weekly presentations. “We have to stop looking at virtual experiences as some temporary Band-Aid and look at them as more of a bridge, a way to solve the things that never really worked that well with live events,” Allen says.

Bejan also points out a number of tools with overlooked potential that are readily available to organizers. In Microsoft Teams, for instance, Together mode uses AI segmentation technology to place video conferencing participants into a single background, like auditorium seating. This not only connects audiences psychologically in a shared space, but also enables all sorts of nonverbal communications: eye contact, nodding, facial cues, and body language. It elevates attendees from passive viewers to active participants and harnesses the full range of subconscious human physical communication. Just as Together mode allows audiences to react authentically, the real-time polling, live emoji reactions, and on-screen chat bubbles in Teams allow users to guide activities, giving attendees exactly what they want when they want it. These simple tools not only help reinforce viewers’ sense of communal gathering and enable presenters to connect emotionally with viewers, but they provide attendees with the power to shape the virtual world in which they participate.

Epiphany: Virtual communities can facilitate deep connections

One of the biggest sticking points for virtual events is their inability to mimic ephemeral social interactions between attendees—an impromptu happy hour before a conference dinner, say—that audiences associate with pre-pandemic events. But there are many other ways to facilitate new types of interactions in the digital space.

At Fast Company’s 2020 Innovation Festival, for example, organizers gave audiences unprecedented access to some of the world’s leading companies and figures. A virtual lounge offered attendees the chance to meet one-on-one with mentors like artist Janelle Monáe, Steven Moy of Barbarian, Matt Cooper of Skillshare, and Rachel Drori of Daily Harvest. The festival also brought attendees inside innovative workplaces with virtual visits to Dyson, Abbey Road Studios, IBM, Ben & Jerry’s, and the Uncle Nearest distillery.

Brent Turner, head of strategy at events producer Opus Agency, points to the audience wall as one form of community engagement that’s already catching on. Tony Robbins’ “Unleash the Power” virtual event featured one that was 50 feet long and wrapped 180 degrees using the proprietary design and technology platform CANVAS, developed by Canadian software development and design company Immersive Design Studios. Turner is also impressed with audio-first experiences that connect listeners rather than viewers. In February, for example, female entrepreneur association Women Empower X produced an entire event in the audio social platform Clubhouse, including keynotes, panels, and breakout sessions.

A demonstration that shows the large-scale projection capabilities of the all-in-one design and technology platform Canvas.

Courtesy of Immersive Design Studios

In summer 2021, Black lifestyle magazine ESSENCE also leaned into audio with a live-streamed sound bath, one of several wellness activities in the lineup at this year’s ESSENCE Festival of Culture, which also included career coaching, gospel music performances, and a virtual marketplace of Black-owned businesses. The event also included satellite in-person shows throughout communities in New Orleans, spreading investments across the city while keeping participants safe.

The Microsoft Tech Community recognized this challenge as well, and with its 7 million monthly unique visitors knew this was an opportunity to shine. The team launched a brand-new experience, Tech Community Live, where the technical readiness experience provides the public direct access to the product team with interactive AMAs and live-streamed videos, all of which have been well received.

Epiphany: Hybrid gives us the opportunity to bring together the best of both worlds

Just as the pandemic’s virtual and hybrid events have proved more impactful and effective than anyone previously expected, the hybrid events of the future can continue to surprise, delight, and empower organizers and audiences. People will be able to come in person, or attend virtually—any way they want. And there will be inventive ways to blend the two.

Finding them requires not only a sea change in conceptualizing and executing events but perhaps some reorganization. Microsoft Global Events has already put the majority of team members in new roles and rapidly retrained them, while the Opus team worked to realign investments and throw out old ways of thinking. But that transformation is exciting, too. As Bejan says, “If you’re creative in our industry, there has never been a horizon where there is more opportunity than the next two to three years.”

The pandemic may have closed borders and segmented communities, but innovative events clearly have the ability to bring more people together. To Bejan, the impact was radical: Microsoft went from flying 25,000 people to Orlando to broadcasting to 225,000 around the world; from attracting 27 African developers to a conference to reaching 6,700 of them; from broadly sharing the company’s technologies to creating professional and economic pathways for hundreds of thousands of participants through online certification programs. And the Microsoft team realized these gains in efficacy, inclusion, accessibility, and scale for less money than they were spending on live events.

Even as we look ahead to a post-pandemic future when it may be easier to meet in person, this isn’t the time to retreat from meaningful digital connections, but rather a chance to invest in a hybrid future. That means continuing to explore new technologies, embracing the ambitious mindset of industry leaders, finding room in budgets to try and fail at new things, and lifting up visionaries who want to communicate with audiences in new ways. The future of hybrid events is bright—if we make it bright.