15 Apr Virtual Event Industry Insights
Lockdown presented a unique challenge for the events industry. To meet the rising demand for online experiences, London-based Purple Patch Group shifted their business model toward virtual events and conferences. Purple Patch spent the past year delivering 100% virtual and hybrid events, and the company doesn’t expect the virtual event landscape to change any time soon.
The Managing Director of Purple Patch, Paul Campbell, sat down for an interview to discuss creating virtual conferences for clients such as Sainsbury’s, Arla Foods, the NHS, and the European Union, among others. Paul also provides his takeaways from virtual event management and where we can expect the events industry to head in the foreseeable future.
You can watch the 30-minute interview in full or as smaller clips. We’ve split the interview into short snippets, which you can navigate to using the below links. Each short video contains a summary and full-text description as well.
Virtual Event Insights Index
1. Can You Provide Some Background On Your Business?
2. How Has The Business Been Operating During Covid Restrictions?
3. What Have You Learned Through These Changes?
4. What is The Process of Creating a Stand Out Event?
5. What Are The Client Benefits of Putting on a Virtual Event?
6. Which Platforms Are There to Host Virtual Events?
7. What Makes The Perfect Online Event?
8. How Do You Keep People Engaged During a Virtual Event?
9. How Do Online Events Differ From TV?
10. Are There Any Events That Have Stood Out To You?
11. How Do You Think Events Will Evolve in 2021?
12. What Are The Most Interesting Live Moments
Can You Provide Some Background On Your Business?
Purple Patch Group started 15 years ago, catering primarily to film industry clients. The business has since evolved and now has a three-pronged service offering: event management, film production, and presentation development. Purple Patch Group don’t specialise in any one sector or industry, and work with clients from corporate and public sector backgrounds.
Paul Campbell: Purple Patch has been around for about 15 years. Purple Patch is owned by myself and Holly Faulkner, my business partner. Holly came out of a corporate background with Nokia and BT. My background is actually from the video industry. So I’ve worked in sales, marketing and buying for a number of organizations. Blockbuster video was one, back in their heyday and Universal Studios and Paramount pictures on the video side or the marketing side.
When we started the business, all of our clients were film industry clients, and we were having conferences and award ceremonies really purely for the entertainment industry based in Soho. And actually as a sort of years went by, we started to pick up a lot of corporate clients and actually some of them, particularly in the banking sector. And when I look at our business now, all of our clients are corporates. We have no entertainment clients.
So having started as a traditional event management company, I guess about 10 years ago, we started to create content for events as well. And when I look at today, the business is clearly split into three offerings. So we have the event management offering. We have the film production offering. And then we have a presentation arm ,as well.
And ideally our clients come to us to all share those things at once. In reality, that doesn’t always happen. And so we will make purely films for some clients, presentations for others. And then for some of our clients, we do offer all three parts of that service. The company doesn’t have a bias or a speciality. I have a speciality, which is food and farming, sustainability and climate change. And my clients range from people like Sainsbury to the National Farmers Union, Arla Foods and so whilst that’s my bias or my dare I say, my speciality, the business doesn’t have one.
On Holly’s side of the business, we have a lot more corporate clients well outside of the food industry. So people like Rico, people like Deutsche Bank, and then we have public sector clients like the NHS. Critically, I think some of our most important clients are actually the SMEs that come to us. And we are sitting in the offices of Brick Digital in Watford who is our SEO provider. And Brick Digital drives hundreds of SMEs to us every year who become clients mainly on the presentation side. And these are clients who are looking for investment decks or pitch presentations. So in a nutshell, we’re 15 years old. Pretty much, we supply events, film and presentations.
How Has The Business Been Operating During Covid Restrictions?
Purple Patch has been switching back and forth between hybrid and 100% virtual events as the UK goes in and out of lockdown. Hybrid events feature presenters in the same room with a camera crew and broadcast crew, live streaming to a virtual audience.
Paul Campbell: So great question. Clearly the last eight months have been, should I say one of the most interesting of my career? And if I go back to January, it was very much a very ordinary start to the year. We were looking at what we were going to be doing during the year. And we had plans for expanding in certain areas and maybe bringing on some new clients and exploring some different opportunities. All the stuff that you would expect to do in January when you’re looking at 2020 and where you want to be at the end of that year.
So in February, COVID was clearly on the rise in headlines and was starting to be front of mind, but still didn’t look that serious. You look back now slightly oddly that we were all singing happy birthday whilst washing our hands. And we were learning how to sort of elbow bump and it all seemed not quite that serious. But then of course, people started dying and started dying in quite significant numbers.
In the first week of March, we had our first set of events canceled by a very large, very important client. And instead of canceling those events, the request was to manage them in a virtual way. And so very quickly we were able to come up with a hybrid offering. And a hybrid offering it’s quite simply where you have the presenters in a room as we are now. You have the camera crew as we’re looking at now and behind that camera crew is a broadcast crew and that’s a stream that goes out to a virtual platform and that’s a hybrid event. No audience. The audience, of course, is all virtual.
And that’s what we did the first couple of weeks of March. We’d never done it before. It was a rapid learning curve. We learned some things which we’ll come on to in a while. And we thought that was our world. We said, “We can do this. That’s great. We’re still managing to deliver our clients messages and their communications.”
But then clearly about March 27th and the first lockdown came with no real perspective. And then we became a 100% virtual. So a 100% virtual in the simplest terms is, I’m probably sitting at home in Buckinghamshire with a whole bunch of screens in front of me. The technicians are sitting in a studio in either London or Guilford with a whole bunch of screens in front of them. The presenters coming in from anywhere in the world on sort of whizzy little links into the studio.
And of course the audience is all at home, obviously in the first of those lockdowns. So that became our new normal and clearly we’ve gone into a 100% virtual back to hybrid late in the summer of this year, which was great. I think a hybrid event delivers a better experience for the presenters, but more importantly, better experience for the audience.
As we sit here today on the third or 4th of December, we’ve just come out of the second lockdown. So we’re just coming back out of a 100% virtual. We’ve gone back into hybrid. And so we’ve been flipping for the last eight months which has been fun.
What Have You Learned About Virtual Events Through These Changes?
Paul Campbell took four learnings about virtual events away from 2020:
Paul Campbell: So the learning has been rapid, as you would imagine. And there’s a number of things. I think critically, one thing you’ve learned very early on is don’t try and replicate exactly what you would have done during a physical event. So if you’re obviously having 200 people at the Forest of Arden and it was going to be a nine hour event with coffee bakes, et cetera. You mustn’t try and replicate that in a virtual world and we’ll come on to why, but that’s too long for people to be watching, et cetera, et cetera.
So we learned that very, very quickly upfront. One of the things I learned extremely quickly was that I was blinding our presenters with the technology. Now, if we were running an event at Stony Park or the NEC or wherever, I wouldn’t bring a presenter into the room them and take them behind the AV desk and introduce them to all the guys in black t-shirts and show them all the buttons and all the toys and all the care and explain how it all works.
But we were doing a bit of that when we started off back in March and April, and I think quite quickly, we realized that instead of calming our presenters down and reassuring them and checking their content, or what have you, we were actually scaring the living daylights out of them. So by the time they went to present, they were on the back foot, shall we say? So we’ve rectified that very quickly.
And actually now, it’s extremely simple for a presenter to come online into our studio. It’s literally one click on a link and they’re in. And another thing that we’ve learned with presenters is that we need to coach them to present normally. If you’re standing in front of an audience of two or 300 people, you would present in a certain way and actually presenting in the virtual world is not that different. You have the tools at your disposal of films, animations, and slides and what have you. Keeping it brief is something we’ve learnt and we’ll come onto, I think, towards the end of this. But definitely keeping it brief in the virtual world is going to be much more impactful.
And coming back to content. Content is always important with live events, but I think even more so in the virtual world. It’s not really good enough just to have a PowerPoint slide with a bunch of text on it. And you sitting side by side with that picture. You need to be slightly more engaging with an audience that is slightly more difficult to engage with. So I think lots and lots of learnings, but I think those learnings stand next in good stuff for events we’re delivering at the moment.
What is The Process of Creating a Stand Out Virtual Event?
For virtual events, Purple Patch asks clients what they want their audience to know, do, or feel differently after their event. After that, it comes down to four aspects: finding the best platform, choosing the right kind of content, timeline, and budget. And the onboarding process lets clients focus on delivering their message.
Paul Campbell: So the process is actually relatively simple and it’s the same as the process would be for an event in the physical world. And the difference, I guess, is that we’re very used now to delivering events in this way, and we’ve delivered 40 or 50 of them this year, in the last nine months.
I am increasingly conscious that actually new clients in particular that are coming to us, this will be the only time they’ve delivered a virtual event. So I’m finding myself having to just slow that sort of onboarding process down a touch and not baffle people. And certainly not to go too fast, because it is an unusual world to go into. Fundamentally though, the principles are the same behind a virtual event and a physical event. And we challenge our clients all the time to say, “well, if you’re going to put this event on, if you’re going to deliver this film, deliver this presentation, what do you want your audience to either know, do or feel differently after they’ve attended that event, watched that film?”
Now it could just be that you want them to feel really good about you and your company and your band. It could be that you want them to know a whole load of stuff, or it could be, you want them to do something and that ‘do something’ is quite often, to get in touch with us and engage with us and come and partner with our business.
So you don’t have to have all three. And so that’s exactly the same as it was before we went into this hybrid sort of virtual world. I think the nuts and the bolts of the conversations early on with a new client are really relatively simple. For us, the challenge is to find the best platform for that event to be delivered on. So whether that’s a very simple live stream or it’s something more complicated, content again, is king.
So, is that client going to benefit from having a film produced to compliment the event? Are they going to benefit from having presentations tidied up and made to look great? And so we ask all those questions. The final two bits of that of course, are a timeline, a rigid timeline and a budget. And the timelines at the moment are slightly odd and they’re slightly different to the previous world.
So we’re now picking up inquiries for events and then delivering them seven days later. So clearly that timeline is, shall we say, squashed. In reality, most events are booked about four weeks ahead, but each event comes with a pretty rigid timeline, even if sometimes they’re scarily short. I think so concluding point on that is the whole purpose behind that onboarding process for a new client or existing client for an event is that when they come on work with us, in theory, what should happen is that from that point, they then get to focus on their audience and their content and delivering a message in a concise way and not worry about all the stuff in the background.
John Lawley: So from a client’s perspective, is that the norm? Is that usual having such a short timescale, or is it an aberration of the times that we now live in?
Paul Campbell: It would be very unusual for a client to request a physical event, with sort of seven days notice. It’s actually relatively simple for clients to request us, to deliver a virtual event in seven days. Clearly in the physical world, you could try and find a hotel room and book all that AV. So I think that’s symptomatic of – actually virtual events allow you to book a much shorter notice, which I’m clearly going to regret saying this for forever. But yeah, it is a different landscape and the lead times are much shorter. Having said that as we sit here now in December, 2020, we’re already looking at hybrid events that are being delivered next October 2021.
So it may be that actually, there’s a bit of sort of settlement, but clearly we’re in a different landscape as well. So despite COVID happening and everybody’s suddenly working from home and all the things that we’re used to, we’re still stuck in the mire of Brexit and add Brexit and COVID together. Then the landscape is very difficult to predict at the moment.
What Are The Client Benefits of Putting on a Virtual Event?
Throughout 2020, everyone became more accustomed to going virtual. With this new norm, delivering events virtually has become easy and accessible, and Purple Patch are able to deliver professional events. The number of virtual audience members staying engaged has also increased since the start of the pandemic.
John Lawley: I guess there must be a lot of benefits to a client who needs to put on an event online virtually, very quickly to get a new message out, especially in a changing world with viruses and with Brexit.
Paul Campbell: I think so. There’s few advantages that have clearly come out of 2020. I mean, they are probably sort of countable on one hand, shall we say. That may be an upside tool of this in that as we go into 2021, we, as a provider, are better equipped to deliver these events at short notice. And actually that may plug a communications gap in 2021.
Which Are The Best Platforms For Hosting Virtual Events?
Many of us think of Zoom or Microsoft Teams when we visualise virtual events. While these platforms are great for team meetings or one-to-one’s, users still experience hiccups that make the overall experience less streamlined. Working with a professional team and a professional platform eliminates small obstacles like participants unable to share their screens or people randomly on mute.
John Lawley: So from experience, I guess most people will think it’s easy, just get a Zoom subscription and the youngest member of the team to sort it out. But I guess it’s not just Zoom or Microsoft teams that are out there.
Paul Campbell: So no, it’s not just Zoom or Teams. There are loads of these platforms that we all get invited to and then wonder how if we can share on and what have you. I was on Star Leaf the other day and I hadn’t come across Star Leaf before. So that was an interesting one. So Zoom and teams and the other sort of multitude of those platforms, they’re put up for small meetings and one to ones. And you like me, probably spend half your day now on Zoom calls or in that environment, which of course we weren’t doing back in February. And so they have their place and we are using Zoom to some extent, as a sort of add on some of our events. What they’re not so great at, is delivering that very professional event, seamless event delivery.
And that event experience for four delegates. Now, we’re all very used to being on Zoom and people can’t get on. People can’t share their screens. They play the video and there’s no sound. And of course our favourite is people who are muted. And we see that all the time. If you use a professional team in a professional platform, all of that goes away. Frankly, you’ve got a great looking branded experience for starters, which you can’t do on some of those platforms.
Fundamentally, we think we can address most of the technical issues for a virtual event ahead of that event. So ordinarily we will be checking our delegates internet speeds at their homes, offices, wherever they’re going to be coming from. We’ll be checking their connectivity when we use a program to bring them into our studio.
We’ll also be looking at the environment they’re sitting in. So we’re sitting in a virtual nice environment here at the moment. It looks quite professional. We don’t really want our delegates wearing t-shirts, wearing fleeces, looking up at the camera, looking down at the camera, sitting off to the left of the camera. And actually we help them with all of that as well.
So what you end up with is ideally, a seamless delivery of the event on the day as if you would get at a live physical event, but most importantly, a great delegate experience. And for most of our clients, that’s what they want at the end of the day.
What Makes The Perfect Online Event In Your Experience?
For Paul, there’s no such thing as the perfect event. The best you can deliver is an event that’s on time, on message, and on budget. You should give presenters the tools they need to present in the best possible way, determine the best type of content, and give the audience the best experience possible.
Paul Campbell: I guess there’s no such thing as a perfect event. But I guess the best event that you can possibly deliver and I sort of bake that into four, sort of, recipients, I guess. Well, for the client, the event’s got to be on time, of course. It’s got to be on message and it’s got to be on budget and all of the efforts that we go to, really fundamentally make sure that we deliver everything on time, on message and, and certainly on budget.
So for the second group in that sort of perfect event world, is the presenters. And what we have to do is to arm them with all the tools they need, to deliver their content in the best possible way. And hopefully in an enjoyable way, as far as it is enjoyable to present in a virtual environment.
I think the third element is the content. So the perfect event has got to have perfect content and we will challenge people to consider whether… I think I mentioned it earlier… Is a film going to enhance your event? Is a great looking presentation going to enhance your event? Or is actually just a great presentation by you going to enhance your event? So, the content is quite critical as well. I mean, most important, is the audience. To keep coming back to the sort of delegate experience and we have to deliver the best audience experience possible within the confines of the world we find ourselves in at the moment.
How Do You Keep People Engaged During a Virtual Event?
We’ve all gotten better at experiencing the world through our screens. Purple Patch noticed significant audience drop-off rates for their virtual events in March and April of 2020, but saw almost a 100% retention rate for events at the end of the year. Shorter events with more concise messaging have helped keep people tuned in for the entirety of virtual events.
John Lawley: So I guess most people’s understanding will be that things like Zoom, for example, Zoom fatigue, staring at a screen for a long time, will be difficult for most people taking part to keep their attention and also to keep them engaged in the conversation and what’s going on. Are there any interesting factors and things that you’ve learned that can keep people engaged?
Paul Campbell: Sure. I think we’re in a slightly different position to where we were back in March in terms of our relationship with our screens and with Zoom and teams and all of those platforms. Back in April, May, June, when we were checking delegate numbers, we can see how many people are online at any one point. We can see when they join. And more importantly, we can see when they drop off. And the drop off rates were not insignificant when we started doing this back in March and April.
Surprisingly, what we find now is that actually the audience retention rate towards the end of the event is almost 100%. It waivers slightly as the event goes on, but we pretty much end up with the same number that we started with. And I think there’s some reasons behind that. We’re keeping events shorter. We’re making them more interesting. We’re not trying to do entire days.
So I think being respectful of the fact that people are spending an exponential amount of time on their screens at the moment, I think we’re all getting better at receiving our information, our events, our entertainment, through those small screens. And I think that the biggest surprise has been that retention towards the end of the events.
How Do Virtual Events Differ From TV?
The three major differences between online events and events broadcast on TV are budget, speeds of commission, and type of delivery. Online events have a smaller budget and can be produced in a much shorter time period. The type of content for online events also varies considerably from one event to the next.
John Lawley: How do online events then differ from TV? And is this the next logical step towards larger corporations creating their own broadcast channels?
Paul Campbell: I think there is a distinct difference and there might be a temptation for logical patients to say, “Hey, let’s have our own channel.” And this is now a new sort of broadcast world. But I think my guess at an answer is that the difference is that the budgets are distinctly different on the event side versus TV side. The speeds of commissions, which we mentioned earlier, which are sometimes quite rapid. And the type of delivery. No event this year has been the same as any other event. There are virtually no repeat events in that store. There’s always something very different about it. So I think that’s the main reason why I don’t think that’ll happen. I think whether it’s a large corporation or a small corporation, and we have many small clients that are coming to us for virtual events.
It’s not just the big headline clients that I mentioned earlier. I think the advice is the same. Find a provider that you like working with. Somebody like us. Of course, I would say that. But with an event management background, because again, the principle is the same as if you were living in the physical world as you are in the virtual world.
And then I would say, get to love the platform that you’re using and keep using that platform because you’ll get used to it. You’ll get used to us and your audience will get used to it. So, no, I don’t see the logical patients developing their own TV channels, but I am very happy to be proved wrong.
Have Any Virtual Events Stood Out to You?
Three virtual events that stood out to Paul are the EU’s One Health conference, a 100% virtual, three-day conference based out of Prague. It had 800 people tune in from over 38 countries. A virtual event for a care home provider, Abbeyfield Society, and the ongoing virtual assemblies for Arla also stood out.
John Lawley: You mentioned there, about no event or no sale event being the same. So are there any that stood out to you that you’ve completed and created this year so far?
Paul Campbell: There’s just two or three that stand up for different reasons. So we were lucky enough to be asked to manage the European Union’s One Health Joint Program, annual scientific conference. So it’s an extremely long title to a conference. So let’s call it the One Health Conference back in May. And that was a four weeks notice. It was coming from Prague. It had to be cancelled because of lockdown and it had to be run. There were a lot of COVID issues that that conference was tackling. It was a three-day conference.
We were delighted to deliver that. It was a long conference put together in a very short period of time, a 100% pre recorded. The results were phenomenal. We had 800 people attend on the first day and from a staggering 38 different countries. So that’s one that stands out to me.
One that stands out and I feel quite affectionate about, is one that we actually did not last week, the week before last, which was for a company called The Abbeyfield Society, who are care home providers. And this goes back to one of my answers from earlier on about clients coming to us. And this is probably the only virtual vendor I’m going to manage in the year and they were nervous about doing so. And it’s a really important event and we sort of handheld Abbeyfield through that. It was technically brilliant. They looked great. Their content came across wonderfully and they were delighted.
And I was just pleased with that because we knew that event was really important as all are, but we knew that it was really important to that client and we will see them again next year, which is great. And I guess the last one… I promise I’m not going to list all 50 as my favourites… But the one, I guess, that stands out for me is what we’re doing with all Arla Foods.
So Arla Foods, obviously, is the UK’s largest dairy company and we’ve managed many online events for them since March. And, it’s really critical for Arla to be able to communicate with the farmers. They have two and a half thousand farmers in the UK. They’re part of a democracy and they must chat with these farmers.
How Do You Think Events Will Evolve in 2021 and Beyond?
Paul doesn’t envision that events will return to normal any time soon. He doesn’t see physical events coming back for some time and isn’t sure many people will be interested in attending huge events after the shock of COVID-19. Paul and Purple Patch are optimistic because people have embraced online events, and they’re hoping to do many virtual and hybrid events throughout 2021.
John Lawley: Speaking then of 2021, how do you think that things are going to evolve over the next 12 months?
Paul Campbell: I think that’s the sort of million dollar sort of question and which I’m not sure that we know the answer to. I look at this year, the landscape has changed quite often on a weekly basis, sometimes on a daily basis. Going from virtual to hybrid to virtual to hybrid and back again. And we’re now just coming back into hybrid now.
We’re not currently talking to anybody about physical events in 2021. All of the conversations we’re having are about hybrid. I was interested to see Oliver Dowden in parliament, who said that he considers the events industry to be back to normal by Easter next year. Nobody would love that more than me, but I do have a question mark over whether that’s achievable, I’m in, as you will be in group five, six or seven for the vaccine. There’s 60 million of us here, and we will need two shots, et cetera.
And a lot of our delegates look like you and I. We’re lost on the list of the vaccine. So that has to happen first. Equally, I wonder about people’s appetite in 2021 for actually getting together after this, the shock of COVID. Do we really want to go and sit in a room with 500 other people? I’m not sure in 2021, that our delegates are necessarily going to rush to do that.
That sounds really sort of negative. But when I look at 2021, actually I look at 2021 with some sort of optimism, having existed in this strange world for the last sort of eight or nine months. We said earlier, the audience is much better at receiving the coms in this way. And they’re much better at digesting virtual content than they worked back in March. The audience reaches are phenomenal. So we have clients who are expecting maybe an audience number of 400. And we’ve seen them achieve 800.
We had a client two weeks ago that was expecting 800 and actually had an audience reach of 1,250. Now these are on the sort of wider, sort of more open invite events which can achieve those numbers, but that’s really encouraging that we’re seeing more people attending than certainly we would do in a physical environment, but more people attending than our clients set out as a criteria.
And one of the criteria is obviously the attending numbers and return on investment. So, I think the optimistic part about 2021 and virtual events is the clients are going to be able to reach more people, possibly more economically as well. The other surprising thing is the drop off rate and the risk of me sort of repeating this, the drop off rate has flattened. there was almost no drop-off rate now at the end of virtual events.
And that’s such a surprise to us that indeed in the last four weeks, we’ve actually seen numbers increase towards the end. And that’s kind of odd as well, because you think, “Well, where have you been? You joined at the start, left and then re-joined at the end.” But clients love that. They love the fact that people… So I think that again gives me a sort of sense of optimism in 2021.
My best guess and my hope is that we’ve seen the end of a 100% virtual. Whilst I think we’ve had great success with a 100% virtual, the hybrid model is so much better. And I think we will have the hybrid model for quarter one and quarter two in 2021. And then what my hope again is, that once we hit quarter three and quarter four, we start to see a kind of mush up between hybrid and live. So I would love to see hybrid events with a small audience of maybe 50 or a hundred people. The other 900 or so are virtual. And I think that would be super impactful. It’s better for the centres. It’s good for that live audience, and it will be good for the virtual audience. Who knows?
What Are The Most Interesting Live Moments You’ve Seen?
Before COVID-19, any interruptions during a live stream or videoconference were seen as disastrous. Now, having your kids wander into the room is acceptable and even expected. These days, it wouldn’t be a normal live event if there wasn’t an Amazon delivery or a cat jumping on the presenter’s lap!
John Lawley: So there must’ve been some rather interesting moments you’ve seen live.
Paul Campbell: It’s interesting, because we only have to go back maybe sort of 12 months and the American ambassador to South Korea and he hit the headlines because his children came into the room and everybody was aghast that that happened. And he’s become sort of legendary, for that incident.
Well now actually it’s pretty acceptable for your kids to wander in on a Zoom call. It’s actually not unknown for your kids to wander in doing a live stream event, even though it’s not in any way ideal. I think this week alone, we’ve had Amazon deliveries, which are a regular feature of our events and the greatest we can do about that. We can sort out technology, we can’t avoid the Amazon delivery. We’ve had children of course, and we’ve had a whole whole array of pets.
We had a chief executive of one of my clients, had his cat jump onto his lap, during a live stream a couple of weeks ago. So I think actually a lot of those things are a lot more acceptable than they would have been when our American diplomat friend had his kids walk into the room. And equally, I don’t think they’re distracting anymore.
I think we’ve all spent whatever it was six months working from home. And our work environment is now within our home environment. And actually it’s acceptable to have an Amazon delivery and it’s acceptable to see your pattern. And we actually quite miss it if we don’t have a pet or a delivery during a live event.