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Article published 19/06/2020

How events are adapting to the new digital/online reality

Covid-19 has stopped almost all events going ahead as they were originally planned. As the extent of the pandemic became clear, the news bulletins seemed to feature a new major event cancellation every day.

Some event organisers, however, have found ingenious and innovative ways forward. As we look across both sport and cultural events from around the world there are now a range of case studies that show how events have created new formats, harnessed new technologies, and worked with partners in new ways.

The case studies that have been pulled together provide the chance to learn from their example to identify how events can still be brought to participants and audiences even amidst these most difficult of circumstances.

There is no single blueprint for running events amidst lockdown. When we look at the successful solutions however, we do see three core approaches.

Firstly, some have been able to create a new safe format even within the restrictions of lockdown.

Amongst sporting events, the Tour of Vietnam was one of the first events to run behind closed doors after the pandemic spread. Originally scheduled for April before being postponed, the 18 stages were held from 19 May to 7 June and were broadcast live on both Facebook and YouTube. Twelve teams of 7 riders (84 in total) took to the start line. With the exception of two European riders who rode for two of the Vietnamese teams, the rest were local riders.   

The NASCAR Cup Series has also been able to run events. In their case the format went beyond simply excluding fans from the race day experience to include restrictions on team numbers, temperature screenings and mandatory facemasks. The races are broadcast on either Fox, NBC or NBCSN as well as being available on streaming subscription services. 

Some cultural events have found similar success in allowing performers to use a venue as planned but streaming the performance to audiences online rather than being in the venue. On the eve of the UK’s lockdown, UK label Defected Records live-streamed a 12-hour virtual festival, Defected Fest, from an empty Ministry of Sound to fans watching from home via Facebook. Alongside broadcasting footage, Defected encouraged their audience to engage with the festival through Facebook and Instagram and share details of how they were watching. The event also created curated playlists, videos of DJ sets and produced other digital content to engage with their fans prior and post event.

The event reached over 6 million people, with posts generating 13 million impressions and 1.4 million engagements. Defected saw an 8.1-point lift in brand awareness (around twice the normal figure for an entertainment campaign) and the label has since put on two more virtual festivals, combining live footage with classic sets and mixes from Defected’s roster of artists.

Secondly, some organisers have created ‘made for broadcast’ event formats. Golf has been especially successful at this with Driving Relief, and The Match II events both finding a major audience without needing to have fans on the course or even large support teams for the players. 

Instigated by TaylorMade and featuring four of their high-profile players - Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff – Driving Relief drew in 2.35m average viewers across TV and digital platforms and $5.5m raised for COVID related charities. Meanwhile, The Match II featuring Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and NFL stars Peyton Manning and Tom Brady was broadcast live across linear channels worldwide and attracted an average 5.8 million viewers, peaking at 6.3 million.

Cultural events have looked beyond TV to find broadcast partners. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival worked with a local radio station to do more than simply share the music with listeners. They re-created a little of the festival experience for loyal fans by announcing the virtual line-up as usual, sharing recipes from the most popular food vendors and encouraging people to share their photos and experiences from wherever in the world they were "Festing in Place".

Here in the UK, the cancellation of BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Dundee did not mean an end to this year’s festival. Big Weekend UK 2020 boasted over 50 brand new live sets recorded by artists including Sam Smith and Biffy Clyro from their own homes, as well as bringing back some of the most memorable archive performances from Big Weekends gone by. The digital event kept its festival feel by spreading their programme across five virtual stages including a dance stage with exclusive DJ sets. The live action aired on BBC Radio 1 and BBC Sounds, with visual highlights on BBC iPlayer.

Thirdly, some events have fully embraced new digital formats to engage audiences in new and genuinely pioneering ways.

Nether Meant Festival hosted a music festival on the gaming platform Minecraft. Headlined by American Football with performances from Anamanaguchi, Baths and Hanna, the event promised to be an immersive experience with attendees able to buy VIP passes to unlock exclusive areas, merch and access to a Discord server where they could chat with the artists and organisers. The festival had over 112,000 unique viewers on the accompanying Twitch stream and raised over $8,000 for charity Good360 Coronavirus relief fund.

Meanwhile, the Hay Festival hosted online debate and interactive events rather than simply streaming talks and the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival engaged their audience in a host of online activities with a week of talks, tours, demonstrations, theatre and trivia via Instagram Live with some of the food world's biggest stars. Locals were able to try special dishes, deals and menus from the city’s top chefs direct to their doors. The festival was also interactive with agony aunt 'Dear MFWF' sessions allowing viewers to ask questions to food and drink professionals.

In sport, several events have accelerated their engagement with E-sports to create fresh experiences for fans. The Virtual Grand National was a hugely successful case study of this. By far the most watched horse race in the UK, a virtual version of the event was broadcast on ITV. A computer programme was used to create the virtual race using 40 horses that were among the initial entries for the Grand National and produced a list of fixed odds on each runner’s chance. A virtual race of champions preceded the main event, televised on ITV, in which triple National victor Red Rum ran out the winner.

To overcome the postponement of their season, Spanish football first division LaLiga initiated the #LaLigaSantanderChallenge. Top Spanish esports personality, Ibai Llanos, organised, along with Laliga an EA Sports - FIFA20 tournament with participation of football players from 18 of the 20 clubs competing in LaLiga. Marco Asensio from Real Madrid CF was crowned the best FIFA20 player from LaLiga, after beating CD Leganés player, Aitor Ruibal (4 – 2) in the final. The results from the tournament were amazing, the audience grew consistently day after day, reaching an average minute audience of 120K viewers on Saturday and Sunday, peaking at 173K viewers during the finals on Sunday night.  Along with the broadcasts on Twitch, the event was also aired on TV in Spain: Movistar Deportes 1, Gol and #Vamos showed different moments of the event during the weekend. It also generated 1,100 mentions in online articles from 160 outlets (52% sports specific).

None of these three approaches are easy for an event to pivot to, especially for events that were already at a developed planning stage when the lockdown hit. That said, each case study shows that these new formats, and the new technologies that enable them are practical. They also show that there is a ready audience for digital formats.

In a challenging time for the whole events industry these innovative and pioneering examples may offer some inspiration to the sector, and hope for event-goers who are clearly ready to participate as much as they can from home until gathering in a real crowd is possible again.