Is anybody out there? The journey to in-person events has to be reimagined

The Exchange
The Exchange
Published in
6 min readJul 27, 2022


How do you create an enticing in-person event at a time when people are no longer used to live experiences?

My goal was to create an open house event to promote the new Exchange Lab space in the summer and, in the fall, a big Exchange Lab opening. I have been following the trends of online, in-person, and hybrid events across gov and beyond, and the average attrition rate is around 50% or more.

Another hurdle to cross is reigniting engagement and interaction from both a facilitator and attendee standpoint. Before COVID, most meetings and events were in person, and audiences looked forward to connecting with peers and contributing to the session at hand. Since COVID, most meetings are now online. We are now in our homes or a cubicle on our work computers. The opportunity to multi-task and get other work done is now an option.

I take that back, it’s not an option it’s a reality. The lines are very blurred around unplugging to take in a session to interact and engage — we are hardwired to keep working during these sessions. So what’s it’s going to take to bring the focus back on the room, bring the focus back on basic interaction and engagement?

So armed with the information that I have studied, I knew it was essential to build a strong community and partner with a diverse group of event planners, facilitators, copywriters, and designers. We are all trying to figure out how to create a fantastic event that people attend.

So why not offer micro events in an agile format where the audience becomes the voice for continually improving future micro-events. Once the team believes we have the ingredients to hold a successful big Exchange Lab opening with subsequent future events. We will share all the lessons we have learned.

What I have noticed at government events with attendance of 30 or more people throughout COVID:

  • Very few participants put their cameras are on
  • Majority of people with their cameras on are multi-tasking
  • Assumption: most of the people with their cameras off are also multi-tasking
  • Poor to good engagement
  • There is a limited and sometimes exclusive crew of people that do most of the talking and contributing

At an online event, most people do not put their cameras on. Instead, I watch how each person with a camera on pays attention. For many, a few minutes into the event, eyes start to wander, and attention is split as reading and working on other material begins. Multi-tasking throughout COVID has become the new normal at events because there is so much work to do, and we are no longer in a room with our colleagues.

My most telling experience of watching an online audience multi-task happened in June.

The lead presenter shared a powerful and moving personal story. The story resonated, and many people with cameras on were crying. I could see that many were still working. The temptation to do more than one thing and be productive is hard to self-monitor, even when we are moved deeply.

Pre-COVID attrition rates for events were a huge topic of conversation. I utilized surveys, behavioural insights practices, incentives, and sharing and learning from others to improve our attrition rates continually. As a result, our attendance numbers were good. We averaged around 20% attrition for both in-person and online. During COVID, attrition rates increased. It became more accessible for a potential attendee to say yes to an event and not show up if something more urgent arose.

A big goal of the event is to bring together the best event producers in the government and private sector I have worked with to create a super team and let them fly.

The Events Team

The teams’ goals in creating the micro events are:

  • Attracting Digital Talent by showcasing what the Lab has to offer and how it works
  • Build interest and confidence in the Exchange Lab 2.0 for new and seasoned users
  • Focus: Digital Transformation is more about people than technology
  • An interactive experience where we listen, learn, iterate and pivot future micro events mainly based on feedback and comments of the attendees.

Collider part one was on July 6. Shortly after we started promoting, the 15 spots were immediately snatched up. Even though attracting 15 people to an in-person event is small, it was exciting to see strong interest. Finally, the event was in person. We knew that our audience was accustomed to online events. So we ensured all our messaging stated clearly the event was in-person.

The big day arrived, and seven people showed up. I won’t lie; the lack of numbers hit hard. However, we had done everything to create an engaging experience. Attendees mingled in the kitchen and enjoyed coffee and pastries. We waited for an extra 10-minutes in the hope more would arrive and begin.

I am sitting on the right. You can see by my face that I am still digesting that only seven of the fifteen people attended.

I opened the experience by sharing the importance of being present, and the event commenced. The two hours flew by. The seven people were immersed in the experience. We knew there would be areas of opportunity through the survey responses and team retro. There was work that needed to be done to improve attrition and experience for the Collider Part 2.

Former Executive Director of the Exchange Lab, Rumon Carter. Current Executive Director of the Exchange Lab, Catherine Chernoff
Engaged audience

Collider Part 1 — Survey Feedback

  • “I’m not sure I can provide anything constructive about improvement as this was one of the most engaging sessions I’ve been to in BCGov.” -Attendee.
  • “Time control. You have many interesting things to share, but the time was tight even with a small number of audiences. I think you could either make the event longer or split it into a series of events. That would allow more interaction opportunities.” -Attendee.
  • “Insightful and inspiring, the sharing from the Exchange Lab makes me feel we are closer to a digital organization.” -Attendee.

A 45-minute retro with the Executive and the team happened a few days after the event while the experience was still fresh. Even though there were a lot of positives, I was concerned there would be a lack of interest by the Executive in going further since the numbers were low. I was wrong. The group was excited to go over all aspects of what worked and could be improved and continue with the next iteration on August 10.

What went well

  • Engaged audience.
  • Networking and understanding the culture and motives of Exchange Lab
  • Presentation on the past, followed by present and future.
  • Professional pictures and b-roll for marketing and advertising for future Exchange Lab experiences
  • Separating the kitchen, so it was still functional for other Lab users
Matt Hall — Senior Director for the Common Components Program

What could we improve?

  • Ambiance — music, etc., something to boost the atmosphere
  • Attrition rate
  • Icebreaker to clarify motivation of attendees
  • Name tags for speakers and attendees
  • Timing: Make the event longer
Steve Chapman — Director for Digital Products and Marketplace

The team is busy creating Collider Part 2. Will it be better? We hope so. We will use the information learned from the first Collider to make a better experience with less attrition. After Collider Part 2, we will survey and retro again to figure out how we can improve until we get to where we are confident in hosting a big event.

Please share your insight if your team is creating events or better learning experiences or meetings. We are all learning from each other and welcome your thoughts.

Author — Ari Hershberg



The Exchange
The Exchange

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