Tech Giants: Intrado President Ben Chodor on the Next Virtual Reality
It’s noon on a Wednesday (somewhere) when Intrado Digital Media President Ben Chodor jumps on a Zoom call. There is no ballgame to catch, rush hour to beat or train to hop on. Gone are the days of the easy excuses to take a break from work. Chodor is, for better or worse, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
On the bright side, Intrado employs 1,500 workers in 17 countries. The flexibility to meet with a team across multiple time zones has distinct advantages. It allows for more brainstorming sessions, which, in turn, facilitates innovation. Given Intrado’s crucial role in advancing virtual events over the past year, that time has not gone to waste.
“It’s been a crazy year,” remarked Chodor. “Listen, it’s here to stay.”
Therein lies the downside of “Wednesdays at Noon” replacing “happy hour somewhere.” Not only is it still difficult to meet in-person with colleagues, peers and friends, the work never stops. Finding personal space to think freely is a luxury rather than a given. Plus, the demands of event planners don’t stop—there is always work to be done.
Not one to complain, Chodor knows Intrado has positioned itself as arguably the event industry’s biggest asset in a constantly evolving time. The combination of technology wizardry and marketing services keeps the company top-of-mind.
About 27 million attendees interacted with Intrado’s technology in the past year, a number that should keep growing. “In some ways, we’re like IBM,” said Chodor of Intrado’s omnipresent nature. “You’re never going to get fired for buying IBM. As one of the world’s largest streaming companies, we’re used to having hundreds of thousands of people touch our technology.”
The next phase for Intrado is handing over more tools to planners. Its Virtual Event Express allows companies and organizations a DIY experience. Entire events can be built within hours and without coding knowledge, and sized to fit attendance and budget needs. The advancement is yet another example that, as Chodor says, virtual is “here to stay.”
We picked Chodor’s brain about digital events and what the industry’s future holds.
It’s a given that hybrid will be part of the immediate future. Is that a good thing?
It used to be that everyone was scared that a virtual component was going to cannibalize a physical event. And I think what they realized is that the world can cannibalize your physical event. Having virtual extends your reach, and gives you potentially more reach to get more people excited to come to the physical event.
Intrado has done virtual events for almost 20 years. Has the perfect virtual event been created?
The perfect virtual event hasn't happened yet, just like the perfect physical event hasn't happened yet. It morphs over time. Sometimes you want a big CES type event; sometimes you want a 100-person invite-only event. It's the same concept with virtual. You're going to have to figure out what's right for your organization and for your audience.
Which is harder to produce: a virtual or an in-person event?
It is harder to produce a virtual event than a physical event in a lot of ways because people have been doing physical events since the beginning of time. You know your AV people, your signage vendors, people who how to do your food and beverage – you know what's going to go on. With physical events, I just have to worry about getting people who are in the same building to certain places. Virtually, I’ve got to get people who are all over the globe to the same place and I am always one or two clicks from [an attendee] not coming back.
What are expectations like for 2021?
I think you have a lot more pressure after 2020. You’re going to have to build that intimacy, which we all want with our customer base. Then you’ve got to start really thinking how to be compelling, creative and innovative. That is what makes it really exciting. What's the next thing we can do to get people engaged?
What is that next step with hybrid?
It's going to get to the point with hybrid where you’re not only asking “How do I communicate with the exhibitor or other attendees?” but also, “How do I interact with the physical audience, too?” That, to me, is the part that gets us really excited about the future, where I could be at one location, you could be at another physical location and there is a virtual audience. And somehow, we're all experiencing the same [thing] and have the ability to interact. I think we're going to see a lot of that at first. As opposed to 4,000 people showing up in Vegas, we'll see 150 people showing up at 20 different locations
What should planners watch out for with AR and VR to enhance digital experiences?
The problem is, in general, with VR is that I don't want to put a headset on for five hours. I want to put on a VR headset for portions, then I can take it off. I think it also has to be done in a way that if you want to wear the goggles, you can wear them and have a good user experience. But if I never want to put them on, I still have to have a good user experience.
What’s the right time frame for a virtual event?
You can't do 12 hours in a day, because I don’t want 12 hours of any content. We think 3-4 hours over a couple of days. If I was going to give advice to anyone, the key is don't do a virtual event and then, just like with a physical event, say, “See you next year, for our physical event.” Do a virtual event every quarter, because the one thing we got out of 2020 is we know people don’t mind going on video. It's a great opportunity for you to make your reach longer for your event that you didn't have before.