On Thursday, April 21st, in Italy there has been the first edition of the On|Metaverse Summit, an amazing hybrid event of which I have been a co-organizer. It’s been the first time I worked on such an ambitious conference, so let me tell you something more about it and about the lessons I’ve learned in the process… especially for what concerns the differences between organizing physical and digital/VR events!
(Yes, this is one of those days when I write a long informative post about a personal experience I had… have fun reading this during your weekend!)
On|Metaverse Summit has been the first international event on the “metaverse” organized in Italy. It has been hosted by AnotheReality, one of the most important XR startups in our country, inside the amazing location of SuperStudio in Milan.
The idea of doing the event originated from the Anothereality team, but soon after they started involving other people to help them. The CEO Lorenzo Cappannari called me during the very early stages of the design of the event to involve me as a technical advisor. He told me his idea of making here in Italy an ambitious event made to inform professional people about the new technological trends of the “metaverse” and I immediately jumped on board. It is quite rare that such initiatives happen in my country, so I was happy that someone was investing to make this happen, and I was even happier to have the opportunity of being part of the team organizing it.
During the initial call when he invited me, he told me that the event should have had the M-word inside the name, and that made me have some itches all over my body (you know about my allergy to the M-word). I understood that for commercial reasons it would have been a necessary evil, so I took some pills to be able to stand the M-word and went on.
Together with us, I found in the organizing team other interesting professionals, like Simone Arcagni, professor, journalist, and XR expert; and Marcello Merlo, one of the biggest experts in Italy in the organization of physical events; and many others (Stefania Barucco, Martina, I’m not forgetting about you!)
I think we all worked very well together as a team. My role has been involving some top-notch international speakers from my connections, like for instance Tony Parisi, and Suzanne Borders (among the others), plus supporting the team on everything related to the agenda, the topics to cover, and the organization in general.
The organization lasted for months until we delivered the event on April, 21st. And it has been a great success: there were around 200 people in the room, 300 people connected online, and big brands like BMW were involved as sponsors. The speakers’ line-up was very high-level, and also the expo area featured interesting experiences to try. Everyone in the room was making compliments on the event, that while small if compared to other ones in Europe (like AWE Europe), was very interesting, and well organized. Suzanne Borders, who even came from the US to be a speaker at the event, was very happy of participating and said to me it was fun and good for business. Everything went beyond our expectations, that’s why we are thinking of a bigger and better edition for the next year… (stay tuned! And if you want to be involved, get in touch 😉 )
Real events vs virtual ones
I’ve only been indirectly involved in the organization and the logistics of the On|Metaverse Summit, but I’ve been able to perceive anyway the real difficulties compared to organizing a virtual event. You know, I’m not new to working with events: I support Cecilia Lascialfari in doing her AWE Nite Florence online events and with VRrOOm I work every day in doing exhibitions and concerts in virtual reality, but this time it was different because I’ve been tasked with helping to do a physical event. It has been probably the second time in my life, the first one related to an event of this size.
I’ve so noticed that are both similarities and differences in doing physical vs virtual events. Let me describe all of them while telling you some lessons I’ve learned in the process.
Similarities between real and virtual events
Both kinds of events require more effort than you expected in the beginning. Here comes to my mind the Hofstadter’s Law quoted by Michael Abrash at the Oculus Connect 6: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take in count Hofstadter’s Law”.
Doing an event is tiresome, it is a marathon, there are problems during the whole process, and there are always things to do you were not expecting in the beginning. And this happens for ALL the events you want to organize.
One thing that surprised me is that there are always many things to do, even for the simplest of the event. For instance, in the AWE Nite Florence events, Cecilia Lascialfari always cares about the graphical images to promote the event, the social media marketing, the choice of the speakers, the speakers’ onboarding, the coordination with AWE in the US, etc… And we are talking about an online video event with just 3 speakers per session! Imagine how things have been here for a hybrid event with more than 20 contributors! If someone asks you to organize an event, you had better know it’s not an easy task.
Talking about tasks to do, apart from all the logistics, you have always to remember that all events require marketing. And this is fundamental because if you don’t promote your event, no one will come! How to do that is up to you… for small online events, it is ok if the organizing team and the speakers just promote it on social media, but for bigger events like this one, you should set up a budget dedicated to promoting it. And in case you want to be sure the campaign is a success, hiring professionals to cope with it is the way. This is what Anothereality did for this event, and this is how it managed to attract so many people to the On|Metaverse Summit. Marketing is another activity that follows Hofstadter’s Law since it requires preparing a lot of material, sharing it on the right channels, tuning the campaigns depending on the performances, answering comments, etc… So to do it well you need people dedicated to it. Even if you are a superstar and have a big community and can sell all the tickets alone, I still suggest you hire someone because he/she can save you a lot of time and headaches, so you can dedicate yourself better to doing what you are good at (in my case: sleeping). Let me stress it again one more time: plan the marketing from the beginning, it is a pillar of your event, not an afterthought.
Another key aspect of organizing an event is the team. Every event requires a team of professionals to take care of all its aspects. If you want to organize an event of whatever kind, you must surround yourself with skilled professionals: you have to look for people that are talented, professional, and that can think fast about a solution for every problem that you may find. For instance, when we do virtual concerts, I know we can rely on Georgy Molodtsov: he’s smart, reliable, and know how to handle various situations. And in this physical event, Marcello Merlo was the guy doing magic tricks to make the logistics work. Whatever problem we had, he had the experience to think about a solution or evaluate the best option among the various ones there were on the table. I felt safe thanks to his presence: I knew we could rely on him for everything, and he knew that in my field, I would have done everything to make sure the conference would have been a success. Everyone in the organizing team of On|Metaverse was reliable in performing his tasks, everyone was determined to make this event a success, and everyone gave his important contribution. The event was designed well and executed well because of this. When you work with people you rely on, you are sure everything will be smooth. And for an ambitious project like this one, it is fundamental. If you are unsure about your team, start with a smaller event, maybe something on Zoom, which is much easier to handle.
If you are organizing an event that requires hosts, then finding the right ones will be something that will give you headaches. When we had to do our first VR concert, we needed to look for an artist for the show (and luckily we found the great Jean-Michel Jarre), and doing that has not been easy at all. For all the conferences I had to organize, I had to work on the speakers’ list. Finding the right speakers is never easy: you have to use all your connections to find a certain number of people that have something interesting to say, that fit the theme of the event, and that have the willingness to participate in your event. And not only that: there are many other details to take care of, like being inclusive in the choice of them. I’ll give more details about this point later on, but for now, let me just tell you that defining the exact agenda of every event is a bloody hell.
In the end, the exciting part of all kinds of events is that “when you go live, you go live”. You may have prepared in the best way possible, but then once you are live, there’s no way of turning back. If there are problems (and THERE WILL BE PROBLEMS, I guarantee you), the team must solve them as fast as possible, and make the audience discover them as least as possible. People that can keep the blood cold and find a solution fast are the best ones you can have around when you are organizing whatever kind of live event. This is why I stressed before the importance of a talented team: it makes not only sure that the event is good on paper, but that also its execution will be great.
For all the events, “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome” should be your mantra. For instance, we started late the event and so we had to switch the first two speakers on the fly to let Artur Sychov, who had limited time available, give his keynote speech at the right time. And it was the winning choice, because he made all the audience happy by connecting as an avatar from Somnium Space and showing people how a platform on the metaverse is.
If I can give you a further lesson about the above point: whatever happens, smile. In the end, doing events of whatever type is a great thing, and you should have fun in the whole process. Shit happens, but unless it is something truly terrible, keep it cool, and smile. I had the infamous duty to go on stage and interrupt Tony Parisi doing his speech because he was running too late… he was doing a terrific presentation (as always) which was a pity to interrupt, plus he is defined as the “godfather of the metaverse” and had a horse head behind his head, so I was pretty scared of what could happen by interrupting him (I’m joking, of course).
But I went on stage smiling, and asking for applause Tony and did it in the happiest way possible. Don’t forget to have fun, it’s very important: if you smile, it will give confidence to your team, and also give a brighter mood to the whole audience.
Differences between different types of events
The biggest difference for me between physical and digital events is that physical events have many more details to be taken of, and taking care of them is slower, more expensive, and more painful. Just to make a few examples of what I mean: scaling a digital event is easier… a webinar with 10 or 1000 viewers is more or less the same. But switching a physical event from 10 to 1000 viewers requires you to: get a bigger space; get more chairs; hire people that can assist 1000 people in the location; be sure that there is food for everyone; be sure they have a place to park their cars, etc… Even adding just 10 people to the mix requires you to get 10 more physical chairs, and this is a real change someone has to perform. When I do virtual concerts with VRrOOm, maybe the day before we add new stuff to a location, like for instance a virtual bar… but in a physical event, you can’t do this. You are always limited in what you can do, you have always to plan ahead, you need almost always to involve other people in whatever practical decision you have taken. Everything looks so slow and old-fashioned once you have tried the fast digital way.
Physical events are full of hidden expenses and hidden logistics hurdles. If it were a Hofstadter’s Law for the expenses, physical events would respect it. They are going to cost you waaaay much more than you thought in the beginning. The location, the staff inside the location, the food for the attendees, the badges, keeping clean the bathrooms, paying for the trips to the speakers… everything you decide to add will be an expense. And I’m pretty sure that if you don’t have the right experience, you haven’t thought about at least 50% of all of this before you started. Just to make another stupid example: if you make an event on Zoom, the speakers can just speak with the integrated mic of their laptops and that’s it. In serious physical events, there is one person on the staff whose purpose is to make speakers wear the microphones and make sure the audio is good at every moment. Plus you have to rent the microphones, which are very expensive.
So, physical events are super-expensive, but from my experience, I can tell you that VR events can be expensive, too. I won’t tell you the exact figures, but I have worked on virtual concerts that were way more expensive than this physical summit. Custom high-quality multimedia assets (3D assets, special effects, music) are not cheap at all, so be wary of considering virtual events always affordable if compared to physical ones, they are not. It is just you are spending your money differently.
People are also the best and the worst problem you may have in physical events. I say they are the best because meeting in person is still something magical, which creates a deeper bond than just having a Zoom call or a meeting in a social VR space. As far as I love VR, and you know that I’m a total freak for immersive realities, shaking a hand, and hugging someone in real life is still something I can’t substitute with anything digital. Plus the serendipity of a real event (like the SXSW) is impossible to find in digital ones. And there is also the fascination of having a trip to a different city. One of the best things I’ll keep with me after the On|Metaverse Summit has been the connection with Salar Shahna, an NFT expert who was staying at my same hotel, and with which I had fantastic conversations during our breakfasts together. In physical events, you are sure you are going to have great connections, and if you are one of the organizers, you are sure you are offering the possibility of having great connections to your attendees. This is a great value for them: they can exchange business cards with everyone else (including the exhibitors and the speakers) and this is good for their business.
But having people there is also a terrible problem. First of all, you have to convince them to get to you. We had some speakers and attendees who didn’t come because we were too distant from their location. Someone I invited didn’t come because had an unexpected workload and so couldn’t spend the whole day attending our event. Zoom events are easy to join because you just click a link and you are in, and you can even just have a short peek for half an hour, while physical events require a commitment by the attendee. He’s paying more for the ticket and he’s investing more of his time for you, so you have to provide him a great value. Selling a ticket for a physical event is very hard because you have to overcome this barrier, which has become even higher after the Covid: with all this digital stuff, I noticed I‘ve become too used to doing everything from home and now I’m so lazy in doing things in presence again: taking a train, go to a location, it’s become something that I feel less doing. That’s why you need strong marketing and to provide great value in your event to convince people to join your conference.
If you manage to make people come, that’s great! But this is just half of the battle: now that they are there, you have to manage them by providing them with food, water, toilets, seats, etc… and care about their basic needs. And you have to make sure they don’t get bored: they are in that place for you and so you have to keep their attention high. Online events in general are easy in this sense because if someone is bored, he/she can always open a new tab on his/her PC and do something else. When people are in VR, this is more difficult, because the headset isolates them, but they can still remove it and take a break. If someone has come to your physical venue, he/she is dedicated his/her time to you and you have not to disappoint him/her. You have to offer various things to do, and that’s why we had both a conference area and an exhibition area, so people that wanted to take a break from the speeches could have something else to do. You have to provide breaks during the sessions, or people will get too tired, and that’s why we had a coffee break in the middle of the afternoon. With VR events this is totally different: during SXSW we offered a hybrid 12-hours techno music concert and in the VRChat edition we didn’t have to care about these details at all! People just came, stayed how much they wanted, and then disconnected. Easy peasy.
But it’s also true that when someone comes to your physical event and says that he/she was satisfied, it is a bigger satisfaction for you. Since you know the effort he took to attend, and the effort you made to make him/her happy, the success has a sweeter taste. For instance, when Suzanne Borders told me that she was happy about the event even if she came from the US just for us, I felt so good for me and all the On|Metaverse team!
It is also more difficult to innovate while doing a real conference. I mean, I have closed some events on ENGAGE by making people travel to Mars and creating dinosaurs that throw fire out of their mouths (yeah, it was pretty cool). I have worked on VR workshops where people had fun choosing crazy avatars and then going partying together. But in physical life, this is much more difficult: can you imagine the speaker of a conference that goes on the stage dressed as a furry fox? That would be pretty normal in VRChat, but quite shocking in real life. As I’ve said, physical conferences are usually more old-school and traditional. But they are also easier to understand: you don’t need a dedicated team to explain to attendees how to install VRChat and that no, the VRChat website is not the actual virtual world. Everyone knows how real events work (and especially everyone knows how to eat at a free buffet during the coffee break), so this should be easier on your side.
At physical events, you can also make people try the real stuff. At On|Metaverse, I’ve tried a professional Formula 1 car simulator, the Canon camera to record 180 VR videos, the Tennis game by Anothereality, Weart haptic gloves, and other devices. In digital events, this is impossible. This is a huge pro of physical events for its attendees. And of course, as you can imagine from what I’ve said above, it also adds a lot more problems: where to put the expo area? How to guarantee the sanitization of headsets? Who is going to build the booths? How to guarantee electricity to everyone? Etc… But this is worth it, and can also bring some money for the fees you charge for the booth areas rented by the exhibitors.
After all of this long chapter on real vs physical events, you may ask me: which one is better? And the answer is that no one is, every kind of event has its pros and its cons. It depends on how much budget you have, what kind of people you want to involve, what is the type of your event, etc… Having experienced all types of events, I can say that is fun both attending and organizing all of them. It’s just… different.
Just to give a final thought: I believe a lot in the hybridization of events, and I am sure this is the future of this sector. Having a physical event is cool, but many people won’t be able to come because of the distance, so you should provide also a digital version for them to have at least part of the experience. Having a VR event is jaw-dropping, but many people don’t have a VR headset or they are in mobility, so you should give them also a 2D live stream of what is happening. I did many hybrid events, and I think that it is the best approach to make the biggest number possible of people enjoy somehow your performance. I see this as the future. This is why when we did the big New Year’s Eve concert in VR with Jean-Michel Jarre in Notre Dame, we also showed it on TV and streaming platforms. And that’s why On|Metaverse was physically in Milan, but also on a digital platform, with even more spectators online than in the physical venue. This was one of the strengths of what we did.
Just a piece of final advice on this point, though: if you do a hybrid event, invest in both platforms. Having a master event, with the other one being just an afterthought is not going to work well. For sure you will have a favorite platform, but make sure that the experience on the other one is cool as well, and make sure that also the other one will be communicated, and that there will be many people going to attend it. If you have to feature a digital edition of your event just because it is cool and you don’t want to invest in offering a great experience on it, it is best not to offer it at all. For instance, talking about the above virtual concert in Notre-Dame, we of VRrOOm worked a lot in guaranteeing that the Youtube streaming was entertaining to watch, and not just a dull view of the concert from a fixed point of view. And here at On|Metaverse, we used a reliable platform for the streaming, we worked hard to sell digital tickets, and we even took the decision to stream the whole event also with the full English translation (for the parts not already in English) to make sure that all people of the world could enjoy it. This way it was not just a local Italian event, but an International one.
Managing a big event
This event was small if compared to the most famous ones about Immersive Realities, but as a first edition, it was anyway ambitious. It’s been the biggest physical event I have been involved in as an organizer. And that added additional hurdles to the ones described before.
The biggest one has been deciding the agenda. Oh man, we revised it so many times! We wanted to find the best group of speakers who could provide value to our audience, and at the same time talk about all the different themes of the “metaverse”: VR, AI, virtual beings, Web3, etc… But creating a lineup of speakers is incredibly hard: just to start, many people we wanted to involve were from the US, and of course, for them traveling to Italy was quite difficult in these COVID times; others asked us for a very hefty fee; others didn’t even answer to our requests; others needed to be contacted way before to organize everything. Others were discarded by us because we thought they couldn’t provide enough value to our audience. Then there was the problem of guaranteeing the proper diversity in our lineup, another interesting topic that would require an article per se. We also wanted speakers for all the topics related to the M-word to make a complete and meaningful conference, but “metaverse” is a word that encompasses many different technologies, and we could find dozens of valid speakers on all these themes… but it was impossible to cram all of them into an event that lasted only one afternoon, with only one track. So we had to choose and renounce to call some great people. And we had to make the proper mix of panels, keynotes, fireside chats to keep people engaged, and add the right pauses in the mix to not make everything too heavy. And it’s not finished here: we wanted to allow for remote speakers like Tony Parisi and Charlie Fink from the US, but in this case, we had to be careful not to have too many to avoid the risk of making people come to our event to see a long Zoom call. For the same reasons, we have not put remote speakers one after the other. We also avoided hybrid panels, with some people physically present and others connected remotely simply because they don’t work (being there, done that), because the remote panelists have always less power on the mic than the physical ones. There are a lot of different things to consider when you prepare an agenda. It’s INCREDIBLY hard.
I would like to tell you some magical lessons I’ve learned about this topic, but I have not. There is no silver bullet. It’s all hard work and experimentation. For sure I suggest you start from the best names you can imagine for the speakers, from the stars you can invite to your event, and try contacting all of them, knowing that most of them will say no for different reasons, and trying to have at least one yes. And contact them quite early, because these “stars” need to set up their calendar with a good advance. The other one is to not be shy in contacting people because you will receive so many “no”s that you shouldn’t be afraid of asking more people than you can handle. Use personal connections, friends of friends, Linkedin, cold e-mails… every tool is good to try to contact a potential speaker… and some of them that you think won’t ever answer, will answer your request. And as I’ve said before, start from the most famous names, because they are the ones that will bring more people and give more reputation to your event. Plus, another bit of advice is: diversify (in all senses) from the beginning: for example, don’t start inviting only VR people if you want also to speak about AI and Web3, because otherwise, you will fill the agenda with just one topic, and changing it later becomes complicated.
I think we did a great job with the Agenda inviting top speakers like Tony Parisi, Artur Sychov, Suzanne Borders, Charlie Fink, and others. We managed to speak about many important themes of the metaverse. We probably tried to do a bit too much, and we accumulated a lot of delay. Every speaker that goes on stage may bring a delay, and every unexpected issue adds even more time. The result is that if you have many speakers in just one afternoon, you are going to be late, I can guarantee it. In the end, we finished around 30 minutes late, and while not terrible, it’s still a lot of time. Here the advice for the next time is to add a “delay tax” for every session, counting that for sure there will be delays. And be smarter in sacrificing some sessions for the sake of making the schedule be on time.
Removing sessions can also have the advantage of not giving too much cognitive burden to the audience. After a full audience with many speakers on different themes, I could perceive at the end of the day many people were mentally tired. This is another issue to consider.
After the agenda, I would say the second biggest problem of such an ambitious event has been the budget. The bigger the event, the higher the needed budget… I don’t think this rule surprises anyone. Luckily Anothereality decided to invest in this summit, and also was able to involve important sponsors like BMW and Mini. We also managed to get on board Pico, who besides being a great sponsor, also provided the hardware for many experiences. As I told you before, everything you want to add to an event has an unexpected cost, so the needed budget grows pretty fast. What you have to do as a team (and that we did for this event) is to be careful about how to spend your money, plus try to do the best you can to onboard sponsors, and technical partners, and also to sell your tickets (and we had pretty success with it!). It’s hard, but sometimes you have to choose between adding something cool and saving some money. Anyway, all the money spent for this kind of event is actually an investment, so evaluate before how much money you have to invest for it and what you expect in return (Reputation? Leads? Ticket sales?). We did all of this, and it was not easy at all.
If the event is ambitious, you also have to give value to its brand: finding a catchy name, doing the proper communication, involving the press at all its stages, and so on. The location is also very relevant, and that’s why we did the event in Superstudio, which is one of the most beautiful locations for these purposes in Milan. You have to keep the quality high in everything you do, and also communicate externally about this quality. And it’s also important that the speakers and the audience there have a great opinion about your event and their experience there: this way, when they go back home, you can have free marketing via their word of mouth. So treat everyone at your event in the best way possible!
One last thing we did well was creating the right mix between technical and business people among the audience. This is what makes collaborations possible: if an event just has tech guys and girls, every developer can just try to sell its products to other fellow developers, that are actually his competitors. Sounds good, but doesn’t work. While if there is the right mix of people with different roles and needs, collaborations become easier, and many people can find good leads to do business with.
Notes to myself
There are two critics I did to myself after the event and that probably may be useful to you too in similar contexts.
During the event, I was very operative: I was always in an alert state, trying to do things behind the curtains and helping all the others of the team. This meant that I haven’t exploited the event myself a lot to do networking and business in general. Plus I haven’t enjoyed the conferences completely because I was more paying attention to how the organization was going than to what was being said on the stage. I am happy of having helped in making sure everything was running smoothly, but maybe next time I should chill a bit more. Anyway, the event was so good that even this way I had a few meaningful meetings during the breaks, too.
I also think that, for the n-th time, I’ve not communicated enough my participation in this amazing project to the mainstream media. I should become better in making people outside the VR communities see the cool things that I’m contributing to… I made the same mistake with the Jean-Michel Jarre concert in 2020, for instance: Italian TV talked about the show but had no idea that there was a good team of Italian people (me included) involved. And this time, almost no one knew about my involvement either. Probably I should hire some professionals in this sense.
The final result
You know me well, and you know that I’m always very critical about what I do. So I know we had many delays and a too-packed agenda. I know we had some people that had to wait in line to perform the initial check-in. We sent the invitation codes for the online platform too last-minute. I could criticize many things that we did and I know we could have done better.
But, notwithstanding all of this, I think the result was truly great: we had amazing speakers, interesting exhibitors, and an amazing classy location. The audience was a good mix of people from different backgrounds. There was a very good vibe in the air. Everything was good. Everyone was satisfied.
And it felt so special to be part of this adventure because we managed to organize the first truly meaningful international event about the metaverse here in Italy. And being the first has always a sweet taste: at the end of the day, we all had a special smile on our faces, because we knew we did something unique.
But the journey doesn’t stop here, we are just at its first step. And we hope to do the second one, a bigger one, next year, together with you. See you at On|Metaverse.
(Header image by AnotheReality)
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