Slow and careful return of in-person events
Game Conference Guide Insights - October 2021
During September we have seen the rise of in-person events and return of face-to-face meetings and interactions on a number of occasions around the world. These are very rare especially with the raging Delta variant, the surge of new cases after the summer season and start of the new school year.
I took the opportunity to talk to a few organizers and investigate the ups and downs in organizing an in-person event during the pandemic (all of them happened during September), discuss the challenges and learn about behaviour of attendees and to see what has changed. All of the interviews were done via messages and emails during the past few weeks and for a full disclaimer, I have to say, I have known every single one of them for a long time and we are friends.
Before we continue with the main topic, think about this for a second:
How long would it have taken you to find out all events through traditional web-browsing means?
How many sites would you have to visit?
How many newsletters you would have to subcribe to?
Isn’t having one website covering events just… better?
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Now, lets continue.
First, I want to congratulate every single one of them for delivering a safe and a successful event. I know how important it is to see smiles on the faces and especially the feeling of accomplishment that gives you enough energy to repeat this again no matter how challenging the process was. It is very sad to hear from Lerika Mallayeva that part of her team organizing DevGAMM wasn’t able to see each other. „It was such a pity that the Ukrainian part of the team couldn’t make it to Moscow because of the restrictions.“
Majority of in-person events are still hyper local, meaning the majority of the attendees are coming from the country of origin with few exceptions. Different countries have different rules, especially if you decide to travel internationally. Maybe you are asking the same questions as I have for the past months. Is it the right time to have an in-person event? Should I go to one? Is it going to be safe? Let’s hear some thoughts from the organizers.
“The biggest challenge is timing and balance. It's balancing the risks and other people's feelings towards it too. We settled on an outdoor event as the general sentiment from our industry members wasn't keen on an indoor event, which was the right call for this moment,” explains Guy Blomberg, founder of Games Industry Gathering, that ran an in-person event in Seattle with 150 vaccinated industry folks in attendance.
“The major challenge in organizing this event was people's reputation. Since we were holding this event in cooperation with the government, we had to be careful not to cause any problems by holding the event,” says Masahiko Murakami, board member of JIGA (Japan Independent Games Aggregate) that organized BitSummit in Kyoto, Japan. There is a lot of preparation that goes into an in-person gathering when you are organizing it in a bureaucracy heavy system. If you have ever registered for Tokyo Game Show, you know the number of forms required is extensional. “You'd be amazed at the number of inquiries we handled,” he added.
And even though the preparation times are shorter, the demand on bandwidth of the organizers team is higher and it isn’t just following restrictions and the health recommendations rigorously. “Our biggest challenge was finding a venue everyone would feel comfortable in. Most fears were questions based on Covid-19 guidelines and general anxiety around going to a real life event again.” explains Alex Boucher, MD at Analog, involved in organizing IRL MCV in London, United Kingdom.
Trying out new things is a challenge on its own, especially to create a safe environment for all, which is something that everyone points out as a priority. Without a QR code, a proof of vaccination, negative test or that you are Covid-free these events were out of bounds. BitSummit went one step further though. “We actually didn't accept any international exhibitors for the event this year. We did, however, make it possible to exhibit different works from remote locations using our remote booth exhibiting.”
All of these events are pioneers for everyone else. What to expect from your potential first in-person event? A clear indicator on your badge that you are fully vaccinated or wearing a sticker saying „No Hugs“ to counterbalance an anxiety from meeting strangers in a new place for example. Another tricky part are the social interactions. Are we doing elbow touch, a hug, a handshake?
We like to think there hasn't been much change, and on the first glance it might look like it. The crowd dynamic is affected by the pandemic and how we are interacting between ourselves. “What's most interesting is just how much people are more aware of each other.” explains Blomberg. “People were very obvious to check before doing things that would have been standard before - "Can I give you a hug?" "Can I shake your hand?" and even "Did you want me to wear a mask while we chat?"
The uncertainty, travel restrictions in place, social anxiety combined also contributes to dip in a revenue stream. Tickets are bought super close to the event. „We had a huge spike in sales two weeks before the event and finally were sold out,“ says Mallayeva. Another significant difference she has observed was the registration process: „Apart from the usual check of an ID and a ticket before printing the badge, we also had to check the QR code,“ which makes the process slower and create a possible queue. Blomberg quickly corroborates: “What would have been a guest list check in system that would take 30 seconds was a process that took around 3-5 minutes per person.”
“I don't think there was a significant change in participants' behaviour this year. Also, now that the vaccine is finally here, people are slowly getting used to living in our society alongside the virus,” said Masahiko. And I have to agree, we have to learn to live with the virus and put more trust into the extra layer of protection vaccine provides.
There are multiple reasons why in-person events will always have place on our calendars. I will leave you with a few comments from the organizers and reasons why to consider to attend one. “To see friends and new colleagues in person again and to catch up,” explains Boucher the driving force behind IRL MCV. “There was no place or event to display new products/games or meet up with friends for a long time,” follows Murakami.
And to end on a high note, here is Blomberg’s comment on why physical events have an important place in our lives. “As big an advocate as I am of virtual events, nothing beats the face-to-face connections, especially if it's folks you've only MET in a virtual space. It's an emotional moment for everyone too, going to an IRL event is acknowledging that life as we know it is slowly (cautiously and optimistically) returning to a new normal.”
State of the Games Industry Events
During the past few weeks we have seen an increase in physical hyper local events, while a handful of them managed to solve the formula on how to run a proper hybrid event. Bear in mind activities on events are not transferable when moving to virtual or back to physical format (see learn more about this topic, click here). The adopted magic formula is to open the event with an online offering (In most cases it covers networking opportunities, in some there is a small selection of talks as well) followed by multiple days of physical activities while having additional options – streamed sessions and networking - for those who are unable to travel or to participate on-site.
Another observation coming directly from organizers is the report on attendance level or the lack of it. Bear in mind these are not accurate, and they are approximations coming from various types of events. The reality is, that the attendance levels are dipping by 40 – 60% compared to 2019 which was the peak for events when it comes to number of visitors. This is something I was predicting last December by following trends. You can read the predictions and by how much I was correct, here.
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[Game Conference Guide is tracking games industry & game developers events, trade shows, festivals, conferences and events around the world.]