Yeoh Siew Hoon is no stranger to taking big leaps. Unsatisfied with the industry conferences and events she attended for years as a business events journalist, she decided to start her own event — Web in Travel (WiT). Founded in 2005 in Singapore, WiT has since spun off several global editions. For 2020, Yeoh refashioned the three-day live conference into WiT Experience Week, a four-day hybrid event.
Convene caught up with Yeoh after she had hosted WiT Experience Week, which was also the first hybrid event to be held in Singapore since the COVID-19 pandemic. Spread over four days in late September, this year’s WiT comprised a virtual audience as well as a live audience of 50, who gathered in Marina Bay Sands’ new hybrid broadcast studio. The theme, Travel Zero.0, called on all attendees to pause and reflect on the past in order to forge their future — specifically, to “Rewind, Reboot, Rebuild, Rewrite.”
In addition to navigating a new hybrid format, the WiT team also had new platforms to learn — Jublia for business matchmaking; Pigeonhole Live for Q&A and polls; and Gevme, which they used as the overall operating system. And with the green light for the live component given by the Singapore government just three weeks prior to the event dates, they also had a major time crunch to contend with.
Below, Yeow shares what she learned from the experience as well as her insights on taking an unconventional approach to event design.
On approaching event design through the lens of storytelling:
I find that most conferences — I guess I approach it as a journalist, from a content viewpoint — don’t seem to have a clear outcome; it’s just a series of panels and discussions, and no thread to tie it all together.
So, we started thinking about [WiT Experience Week] almost like a TV series, where day one is episode one, [day two is episode two, etc.], and you’ve got to see episode four to know the ending. So, we then started thinking about a story arc that we could wrap those four days around. What’s the story that we want to tell? How do we begin? And how do we end? [Specifically], an ending that [connects back] to the beginning, so that people feel there’s a sense of completion.
We told the story through the theme of back to the future — travel has gone to zero, we have to go backwards to go forwards. We have to learn from the past, right? That was how we told the story over four “episodes” — Rewind, Reboot, Rebuild, Rewrite.
The first day, Rewind — let’s look at what happened and how we got to where we are. The second day was about how do we reboot now for what lies ahead? Or, we don’t even know what lies ahead, but we know we have to reboot our thinking. The third day was Rebuild, because we are a travel tech conference, so there was a lot on product development, tech innovation, and how companies are rebuilding. The last day was the season finale — how do we rewrite the future together?
On juggling the needs of both virtual and live attendees during a hybrid format:
You need to have dedicated staff to continually stimulate [attendee] chats. I had content people asking [the virtual audience] what they thought about the speakers, and it sparked a discussion on the sidelines. That way the virtual audience is as engaged in the discussion as the people who are physically in the room. Also, you need a super-duper multitasker moderator who can connect the tools [like polls and Q&A] on the spot.
Timing is even more critical during a hybrid event. No one wants to be sitting there for 15 to 30 minutes [if a session starts late] — because the virtual audience is sitting at home and doesn’t know what’s happening. You just need to start on time, regardless of how many people are physically in the room. It’s kind of fundamental, but it’s really important.
On how openness and humility helped them work through hiccups:
When we ran into problems, we got so many encouraging messages in our community chat and speaker groups [organized over WhatsApp] saying, “don’t worry, keep on going.” So that really helped us. The second day was a challenge, because we ran over by an hour. They were very encouraging and stayed with us. In the end, we got there together, and in that way, too, the audience felt that they were part of it as well. The speakers also felt that they were part of our failures and part of our successes, so there was a commitment to the experience.
On why now is the moment to experiment and make mistakes:
There are so many things I would have done differently [laughs]. It was so new to my team, and to my tech team as well, because the user experience was so different than what we had done before.
You could say one lesson is that we could have simplified it. But at the same time, I just felt that it was such an opportunity to really try everything, because everybody’s experimenting, and I think everybody’s open-minded at this time. The appetite for risk, from the audience side, is higher. They’re more willing to accept things that go wrong. Everybody laughs about it, because we’re still at the beginning, right?
Our [Startup Pitch] competition — it was really hard, logistically, to organize virtually. The startups only had five minutes to pitch followed by three minutes of Q&A. It had to move really fast. [The startups are generally] young entrepreneurs, and their first language may not be English. They’re from all over the world … so there was always a lag. It was just not as smooth [as in person].
On why it’s important to view events as content — and how to create “stickiness:”
For me, events are just another form of content delivery. Blog posts, videos, social media — events are just another channel but in a more dynamic, live way. That’s how I approached it. I think a lot of conferences that approach their events through a content prism probably have higher community engagement, higher loyalty, higher stickiness. As long as you can give your customer stickiness — in terms of whether they actually transact a piece of business, or whether they build a relationship that leads to business, or come upon an idea that helps them to build a better business — to me those are the pillars of what creates loyalty.
Use this time to grow your audience, to engage with them not just once a year but throughout the year, so that you keep them. Learn from the e-commerce and media companies. What is unique about us is that we have both media — we have newsletters, live content — and events, so it’s constant engagement throughout the year. That’s a very good way to build community and loyalty.
On the post-pandemic future of business events:
The minute governments allow events to be held, people will come back. The difference is, customers now have the choice and they can basically say, “Do I need to attend this physically or could I just do it virtually?” Event organizers have to recognize that we have to make events worthwhile for people to attend physically, so we have to raise our game.
The days of conferences with long panel discussions, presentations, and sales pitches that drone on and on — I hope those days are numbered. [I want to see] conferences get better at entertaining, educating, and inspiring — and at really making relationships count, and at making the destination experience even more “wow.” I think the destination appeal is going to play a big role in that.
For more takeaways from WiT Experience Week, visit webintravel.com.
Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor at Convene. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.