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Rise of virtual exhibitions in post-Covid-19 era

public relations:with Lenox Mhlanga

The new reality that is emerging from the devastation of social and economic spaces is that events will never be the same again. Several countries that were in the severe grip of lockdowns and quarantines to curb the Covid-19 pandemic are taking cautious baby steps to open up.

However, that reality involves avoiding the set-up of physical spaces that require gathering a number of individuals and exposing them to the coronavirus. Instead, businesses and institutions could consider staging online events as an alternative.

Following recent media reports, sport is considering a phased approach with the prospect of playing in empty stadiums gaining momentum every single day. The loss of spectators has been catastrophic from a revenue and entertainment value point of view.

However, the lockdown that forced the fearful millions behind closed doors presents new opportunities along with the rise of new digital technologies. A recent editorial in The Guardian newspaper says the rise of Covid-19 has forced cultural institutions to explore alternative digital spaces with online exhibitions and a rise in virtual reality.

“Since the emergence of Covid-19 and resulting self-quarantine, thousands of museums, cultural institutions, festivals and global happenings have temporarily shuttered operations, leaving behind empty streets and a restless public,” the article states.

For a sector that thrives on in-person connection such as exhibitions, trade shows, concerts and sporting events, the shift to virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), artificial intelligence, and streaming services is now on the rise as audiences replace live venue experiences with digital ones from the comfort of their homes.

With the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) postponed indefinitely, and similar exhibitions such as the Zimbabwe Agricultural Show and conferences likely to meet the same fate in 2020, there is the urgent need to embrace and promote online virtual events using digital technology and platforms to replace live, in-person experiences.

The National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo last year launched an online virtual tour of its Joshua Nyongolo Mqabuko Street premises. As it remains closed in light of Covid-19, they recently announced an updated virtual tour of those exhibitions that were running when the government declared a national lockdown.

Using a link on their website allows for what they say is an invigorating 360° immersive experience.

Event experiences are usually designed, first and foremost, for an in-person audience or on-site experience, and later translated online through a video recording or series of images on the web for documentation purposes. In the more developed parts of the world, there now is a rush to adapt events, exhibitions and experiences for an entirely digital-first audience.

Virtual events, which exhibitions and trade shows will soon form part, demand a new form of event planning that involves novel project management using talent that played a smaller role in the past. This is the moment for digital creators to push the limit of their innovative and technical vision, and a chance to openly experiment. For everyone else, it’s a crash course in digital marketing, says JiaJia Fei, a digital strategist.

Fei, the consulting director of digital at the Jewish Museum in New York, told The Guardian that before Covid-19, the digital space was almost always treated as an afterthought for expanding an audience beyond the reach of physical spaces.

“Achieving this requires an eye toward egalitarianism: almost everyone has a mobile phone and computer at home, but very few have traditional VR headsets, which points to a rise in 360 video, Google cardboard, and conferencing tools that can easily be streamed at home,” Fei points out.

We are in the midst of a new digital revolution, yanked kicking and screaming by Covid-19 into a new reality. Where innovations such as virtual reality were relegated to a new breed of digital nerds, there is a mad scramble by mainstream organisations to adapt and play catch-up. Look at the number of businesses that have migrated to conferencing services such as Skype, Zoom and Face Time to reach out to workers that are cooped up in their homes.

The challenge for event management companies is to adapt and create an immersive multi-media experience for businesses seeking to market their goods and services in a world locked down by Covid-19 restrictions. It would also mean finding ways to monetise the new platforms while taking into consideration the high cost of data in the country.

l Lenox Mhlanga is a public relations specialist with experience working for exhibition companies in Zimbabwe. He is managing consultant with Sunshine Corporate Communications, a boutique agency that advises clients seeking to enhance their experiences and return on investment for participating in trade shows. Contact: lenox@sunshinecomms.coms

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