What’s Next for Events? A Conversation with Endless Events’ Will Curran

PlanetIMEX, the intersection between gaming and events, questions that event professionals should be asking, and what makes for the perfect virtual event experience.

Categories in News & Features, Virtual Events

We recently connected with Will Curran, Chief Event Einstein and founder of Endless Events.

Will has been named one of the most influential people in the meeting & events industry, and has been producing in-person and virtual events since high school, when he started his first company! Since then, he’s worked with all kinds of clients, including Emerald City Comicon, Anheuser-Busch, Warner Brothers, Morton Salt & Uber. 

Will has also been one of the leading voices helping event professionals successfully make the transition to virtual events.

So, we reached out to him to talk about what’s next for the events industry.

In this interview, we revisit some of the questions event professionals have had about virtual events, discuss the exciting opportunities virtual events bring with them, review the essential elements of a virtual experience, and explore new sources of inspiration #eventprofs can look towards for guidance during this time! 

The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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e180: We’re a couple of months into this “new normal,” and event professionals have accepted virtual events as inevitable. Knowing what you know now about the virtual event landscape and the offerings on the market at the moment, what are the exciting opportunities that you’re seeing open up with virtual events? How are folks getting creative with the experience?

Will Curran: I’ve seen a lot of creative initiatives come up in the last couple of weeks. One example that I thought was very, very interesting is PlanetIMEX. They’ve built this amazing online experience. If you go on the website, it’s actually an island. 

I thought it was cool because everyone else has a landing page, speaker names! Basically a traditional conference page. But when you go onto PlanetIMEX you hear waves! It completely disarmed and interrupted this pattern that traditional conferences have. 

People are also finally seeing through the BS and getting really selective with the kind of technology they want to use for their experience. The events that are solidifying in my mind right now are ones that have a beautiful page design and great content. People are finally figuring out how to go beyond the average virtual event experience.

I will admit though, I probably haven’t been wowed by anything other than Planet IMEX… What I have been waiting for is to watch what content comes out of conferences and makes its way onto YouTube, asynchronously, and naturally finds its way onto my recommendations page. 

For example, take Travis Scott’s recent Fortnite performance. When you think about it, there’s honestly nothing that crazy about it. It’s a pre-rendering of the game, they’re just playing music, versions of this have been done before. Like JAUS did a live performance in VR, and this was months ago. So, I wasn’t that surprised by it. But what I was surprised about was watching the excitement around it, and how something so simple was executed so well, and the media that happened after it was huge. 

What that shows me is that people are willing to experiment with virtual reality. Microsoft and other big name events are doing their events in 100% VR. People are willing to get experimental and do something that won’t necessarily be perfect, but will offer a new experience.

(Left) PlanetIMEX. (Right) Screen capture from rapper Travis Scott’s Fortnite Concert

e180: What’s interesting is that the examples you talked aboutFortnite, and even PlanetIMEX to a certain extentare coming from or inspired by the video game industry. I think what we’re seeing here is that the events, now more than ever, are starting to take their cues from the gaming industry. I think that’s because games, or at least the role-playing games ones, are really good at world-making and creating community, and creating a sense of “happening” which is a word we use at e180 a lot. So, that when you attend it’s no longer just an event you’re experiencing, but an entire world you get to inhabit for a couple of hours. It’s this world-making that lends solidity to a virtual experience that can otherwise feel abstract or intangible.

WC: Exactly! So much of technology follows gaming. Like cryptocurrency—they all use gaming graphic cards; virtual reality—that first became big in gaming; or even chatrooms—I’m thinking of Discord chat, and now we’re using that same kind of chatroom function in the business workspaces. It’s smart for people to watch the gaming industry right now. 

e180: On the flip side, now that folks understand that the pivot to virtual is inevitable, what are the challenges that event professionals are still facing? What questions are you still getting? 

WC: I’ll list them from most common, to less, but still important. 

Something that we’re encountering often is that people are still stuck in the decision making stage. They’ve been told to go out and make a virtual event happen, but they haven’t been given the decision making power to move forward. I see a lot of clients getting stuck on the committee or board approval level. They’re going to demos, learning more about the technology, but then have to report back to managers that don’t really understand it or grasp the virtual experience. On the other side of this, there are still many people who are still at the “I don’t know what I’m doing” or “I don’t know what’s possible” stage. When the decision maker sees that, it leads to a lack of trust between teams. 

The next thing people are looking for are deeper integrations: people are realizing, their platforms and apps need to integrate with other things. Finally, I’m hearing a lot of uncertainty, but about the long term. So, even for events in October, people don’t want to talk about studios, or who they’re getting as speakers. So, it’s uncertainty without the event rather than uncertainty about what the world will look like. 

e180: What are questions that you wish you got?

WC: I wish more people thought about producers as opposed to platforms. A lot of people are still stuck in platform land, without thinking about how they will actually execute the event. 

I want people to ask, how will you support me in the two weeks before, the day of the event, and the week after. How will the 4 week sprint happen and how will you support me through that? 

Because right now people are paying for the platform and assuming that platforms will support them with everything that they need. But the reality is, and what I’m hearing from clients is that platforms are apathetic. They are overwhelmed with business right now and can’t commit to giving you the kind of support that you might need. Planners coming into this expecting full service, will just not get it.

The second question that most people don’t ask is: what are the small pitfalls about the platforms that we’re choosing? People always ask, what are all the features? and they’re satisfied if the platform checks all their boxes. But there are a lot of little things that might not be available, and since no one ever asks about them, the platform vendor might assume that you’re okay with that.

For example, the platform people might assume that you’ll be fine if the schedule doesn’t automatically match up with geo-clock on a user’s computer. But if that’s incredibly important to you, you need to ask about it. Most people assume that anything is possible. I love asking that question when I’m about to invest money into a software that I think is perfect. I always say: I’ve pretty much decided I’m doing this, but what are the blindspots I’m not seeing? That way the vendor will feel more comfortable being honest with you. 

Finally, I wish more people asked about strategy. I’m still getting a lot of people stuck in design, like the number of rooms they want or the experience they’re looking for. No, I want you to talk to me about the purpose of this event. Why does it exist?

The second question that most people don’t ask is: what are the small pitfalls about the platforms that we’re choosing? People always ask, what are all the features? and they’re satisfied if the platform checks all their boxes. But there are a lot of little things that might not be available, and since no one ever asks about them, the platform vendor might assume that you’re okay with that.

e180: Definitely. Virtual events tend to be very tech-centric. What we’re realizing is that the focus needs to shift from thinking about the event purely from a tech perspective to exploring the strategy we will use to engage with the humans who will be attending, and the humans who will be organizing the event. People want to import a lot from the in-person experience. Ironically, what they end up missing is the human element. 

Which brings me to our next question: In your opinion, how can event professionals bring human elements into the experience?

WC: Braindates would be my first natural response. Beyond that, when it comes to creating a human experience at a virtual event, the experience should be personalized to the person attending. 

Let’s be honest, if I attend an event, I only want to attend one session because that’s the session that will have the biggest impact on me. I should be allowed to do that, and it should be easy for me to do it as well. If I have a personalized experience, it will be far more impactful than if I was just sitting in on a generic session. 

And virtual is totally capable of doing that! The event you spend money on should have great content available to you and should allow you to create a personalized journey through it. PlanetIMEX is a great example of that. That event will have more impact because you got to choose what you wanted to do, whether it’s island hop, or focus on one of their sessions. You feel a personal connection to it because you get to choose what you were doing. 

e180: I love that! I think we’re very aligned in the way that we’re thinking about virtual events. At e180, we always talk about participant autonomy: you have to allow people to make their own choices. But what really resonated with me was your point about personalization. Yes, more networking opportunities make events feel more human, but personalization is what can make the event experience feel truly transformative. For us, personalization comes from helping braindate participants achieve their personal learning goals. 

Besides the human element, what are the most important pieces of a virtual experience? 

WC: For a virtual event, you need to have a way for attendees to continue the experience naturally after the event. 

I’ll use braindates as an example: Someone came in as a lead from a braindate I went on during C2. The engagement for that continued because once she had met me, she had a resource available to her naturally. I didn’t have to send her marketing materials, I didn’t have to follow up with her. It happened organically. 

If I go to an event and see a great speaker, I want links to their twitter, their youtube channel, so I can follow them. Or maybe I can buy their book at the event, so a month after when it shows up, I can read through it and continue my engagement. We talk about this in strategy and design all the time: Events should be used to change behavior. One of the most important things is for you to be able to change a participant’s behavior in a way that their engagement continues beyond the event. 

The next thing that I think is really important for a virtual event is that it should be easy to attend the event. The participant shouldn’t have to block their calendar, reschedule everythingit should just be easy. Almost like you’re not even attending the event because you’re so ingrained and one with the experience. For example, I don’t think about the fact that I learn so much stuff from YouTube, I just watch the videos and casually learn things. It’s just this process that I go through, it’s not like schedule YouTube time. Virtual events need to have that same feeling. 

If I had to pick one last thing that I think is really important, it would be… virtual events should have an overarching alignment into your overall organizational strategy. If you’re generating all these contacts and all this engagement data, it shouldn’t just live within the platform. It should instead integrate into your marketing platform and launch you into having a subscription service or having a mastermind group. Your virtual event should grow your organization. These events tend to live in the silo rather than being a catalyst for how your strategy can evolve. 

We talk about this in strategy and design all the time: Events should be used to change behavior. One of the most important things is for you to be able to change a participant’s behavior in a way that their engagement continues beyond the event. 

e180: Who can we look at during this time for inspiration? 

WC: Microsoft is one of the companies we should be watching right now. They were one of the first to say, we’re not doing in person events until 2021. Everyone said, no way! Microsoft is crazy! Since that’s happened, multiple companies have said that and no one cares anymore. It’s because Microsoft was the first one to do that. And now they’re doing stuff with VR, like their Dev Days event. Microsoft really understands the digital world and they will move us so much further into virtual spaces. Microsoft is really important to look at for the future of technology. 

Besides that, I don’t know… I’m excited to see what happens in the next coming months. There are a lot of companies that will do impressive things, who just haven’t come out and done it yet. For example, I’m excited to see what Google is going to do. I’m also looking forward to seeing all the event tech platforms make the pivot and find ways to stand out because right now a lot of people are doing the same thing. I’m looking forward to seeing the systems that come out, that go… the brady bunch view (where you can see multiple people at the same time) was cool, but here’s a better way to ingest multiple people doing video with each other and here’s how to do it efficiently. 

But really, it’s the people I haven’t even thought of… I’m excited to see what they come up with. 

Key takeaways from our conversation with Will:

Where you can find inspiration for your next virtual experience:

  • PlanetIMEX
  • Gaming industry
  • Microsoft

If you’re planning a virtual event, these are the questions that you should be asking:

  • How will you support me in the two weeks before, the day of the event, and the week after. How will the 4 week sprint happen and how will you support me through that? 
  • What are the small pitfalls about the platforms that we’re choosing?

In order to make your virtual event experience memorable think about ways of…

  • Bringing elements of personalization into your event
  • Designing your event experience so it seamlessly integrates into your participants’ day

Virtual event planning mantras:

Events should be used to change behavior.

My virtual event should grow my organization, and launch the next phase of my overall organizational strategy.