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Dr Willem Coetzee

Dr Willem Coetzee

Department of Tourism

The University of Otago

Events hold transformative power and can bring social change. The 2010 FIFA World Cup was used as an instrument of social cohesion and social reconciliation, and the Gay Ski week transformed social atmospheres and experiences in Queenstown. As an Event Experience research group, we attempt to measure attendees’ experiences using the Event Experience Scale.  This scale was tested in a wide range of settings and different types of events in other parts of the world, measuring engagement and experiences. The common denominator of all these events was the physical nature of these gatherings. But COVID forced a shift of many events towards digital events.

In the past two years, we have seen an increase in the virtual business events market. This increase is not only due to the pandemic but also responsible travel behaviour, inclusivity and the performance of new digital platforms. It is now possible to attract large audiences to virtual events in an engaging environment. At the start of the pandemic, we have seen a lot of meetings moving online, but those experiences were very static (like something out of the 1990s) with minimum opportunities for engagement. Today you will see a lot more interactive content, virtual reality and an Internet of Things to engage audiences. But this type of business event still presents many technical and organisational challenges to get the event experience right.

Another growing digital event market is that of e-sport. These sporting events can take place live, using virtual content and produce high experience levels. Being aware of this phenomenon, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is now exploring the opportunities and threats this phenomenon means for them and how they need to develop virtual versions of Olympic sporting events to engage new audiences. In 2020, we saw a 75 per cent increase in gaming usage and a 30 per cent increase in the number of gamers. During this time, several sports federations were already organising physical e-sport competitions and championships, and a large percentage of these federations are currently working on or planning to launch physical or non-physical e-sport projects in the coming years.

Virtual sports are also among the plans of future hosts for the Olympic Games. When referring to this topic, it is important to note the difference between, on the one hand, the two forms of virtual sports and, on the other hand, video gaming. There are both physical (such as cycling) and non-physical forms of virtual sports (such as football), while video gaming includes both competitive gaming (such as League of Legends) and casual gaming (such as Super Mario). In April 2021, the IOC announced that it will be partnering with five International Sports Federations and game publishers to produce the Olympic Virtual Series, the first-ever, Olympic-licensed event for physical and non-physical virtual sports.

It is possible that virtual events can produce an engaging and exciting experience with the right kind of content and context. But virtual events are not a substitute for physical events. They are a different beast, that needs the application of new technologies and the budget to produce engaging virtual event programmes. Research indicates that virtual business event experiences are still not as engaging as life physical events. We are now questioning the effect of online events on attendee experiences. Will attendees still want to attend virtual events in a post-COVID world? Will virtual events provide the same level of satisfaction and engagement?  How can we produce events that will engage, entertain and educate people? Do these events produce the same levels of emotional attachment and excitement as live physical events in the pre-COVID era? The real change is the birth of a new generation of event planners that have only produced virtual events. They will maybe more to the metaverse and create a new concept of events. To prepare my students for this new normal, the TOUR304 students host in-person and online events, while the TOUR426 students take part in an Olympic Case competition to develop e-sport.