“When we went through the pandemic, everyone became virtual and got familiar with that technology,” says EY global virtual event advisor Erin Babarskis. “We saw a decline in meeting budgets and there was a natural lift and shift to that virtual component.”
EY employs more than 350,000 people worldwide and hosted thousands of in-person meetings annually pre-Covid, so Babarskis’ synopsis may sound like a slight understatement regarding the major shift that rocked the Big Four consulting company’s travel and meetings operations during the pandemic.
Like the rest of the world, EY reacted to the immediate reality of Covid with a nearly wholesale move to virtual. In contrast to many companies, though, EY didn’t see the trend toward virtual as temporary. EY for a long time has foretold travel and meetings moving toward a digitised world and has been nudging the industry in that direction. As the trend accelerated with the pandemic, it made sense for EY to define that future, not to become dictated by it.
“There was a need to have digital event managers who understood not only how to plan an in-person event but also to bridge the gap between event strategy and all the different technologies” used to execute that strategy, says Babarskis.
A year and a half ago, she began leading a centralised team of three other meeting colleagues – one for the Asia-Pacific region, one for the Americas and one for Europe, the Middle East and Africa – to decipher the new world of virtual and hybrid meetings technology and define the path forward for EY’s global meetings and events roster.
What do they do?
Each virtual event advisor on the team has more than 10 years of in-person meetings experience. EY has a robust strategic meetings management programme in place, and Babarskis’ team consults on large events and those in which the organisers specifically seek advice on virtual options.
Who: Erin Babarskis
What: Global Virtual vent advisor
Why: Events are changing to include virtual and hybrid components, and “somebody has to understand it”
Babarskis noted virtual and hybrid events typically are more complex than in-person events. “There are a lot of puzzle pieces that make the technologies fit,” she says.
“We have vetted different platforms with features at different price points for internal clients, so they aren’t researching a new platform every time. Our platforms have all been stress-tested, and we know the level of service we are getting.”
The technologies include simple webcasting tools and templated platforms where creative material can be dropped in or more advanced features turned on, such as networking. At the top end are custom platforms where events are built entirely from scratch.
Success with technology-based meetings requires new formats that don’t necessarily replicate how in-person content is designed and delivered. It also requires what Babarskis called “virtual sparkles and glitter” – added production elements for which EY relies on both both internal and external providers.
Demand is growing
EY’s meetings tech team consulted on around 700 events in the past year and were fully involved with 250 to 300 – still a “small percentage” of the number of events organised by the company, according to Babarskis. But use cases are growing as EY realises the affect of virtual on event ROI and accessibility.
“We have events that maybe had 500 people attending in person but now have 1,500 people online,” she says. “We can also bring a speaker without having them travel across the globe to speak for an hour. They do some testing and show up on screen.”
Babarskis acknowledges that not every in-person event needs a virtual element: “If the goal is networking, I am not going to say you need it.”
She also recognises not every market has reached the same technological maturity: “For a global event, we ask what regions they need, whether they have clients in certain countries and where clients are flying in from. That feeds into what platform we recommend and into the contingency plans” should tech infrastructure fail.
Having tech specialists in the events team will only become more relevant, Babarskis says. “It is important to understand how technologies can connect to give our users and attendees the best experience. Event tech is evolving, and somebody has to understand it.”