Over the last two years, most of us have gotten used to the switch from in-person to online events. While this has made many events more accessible, new challenges are arising around keeping guests entertained and engaged despite online communication barriers. To resolve these issues, the emerging field of virtual hospitality aims to instill a human touch into online events.
What is virtual hospitality?
To answer this question, it might help to first understand the definition of hospitality itself. According to the Oxford Learner's Dictionaries, 'hospitality' can be defined in two ways:
- Friendly and generous behavior towards guests
- Food, drink, or services that are provided by an organization for guests, customers, etc.
It goes without saying that virtual hospitality is the application of regular hospitality to the online sphere. While it may be difficult to provide food and drinks to online guests (unless you have their permission to send food to their addresses at a specific time), being friendly and generous towards guests- and providing services- is very doable.
Remember: one of the key essences of hospitality is service based on goodwill and genuine care for your guest's experience.
That said, a good place to start is to think about what you would like if you were your guest, and then treat your guests the very best of how you would like to be treated.
To help you get into the 'virtual hospitality mindset' for your next online event, we've put together five simple ways to let your guests know you care about their experience:
1) Have human support
AI chatbots are all the rage. And while they may help solve generic queries, it's all too easy to tell when you're one instead of a human.
Now, at face-value, this may not seem like a problem. But research into human interaction with chatbots has found that people generally don't like talking to bots.
A survey by CGS in 2019 of over 1000 US consumers found that 86% of people prefer talking to humans over AI-based chatbots. While this survey may not necessarily be conducted in the context of online events, its findings likely still apply.
That said, it's worth noting that, to some degree, these findings might be age-dependent, as the same survey also found that 43% of those aged 34 and younger were more likely to say that chatbots made it easier to resolve their issues compared to less than 30% of over 35's.
This means that when deciding if you will use human or bot support for your events, it may make sense to consider the age of your participants. While people generally prefer human-to-human interaction, for younger audiences, bots may be less of an issue.
2) Let people know who- or what- they're talking to
If, for whatever reason, you are unable to include human support as the frontline for problems that may occur during your event, it may be best to let your guests know that they're talking to a bot.
A study from the University of Goettingen in Germany of 200 people found that letting customers know they are talking to chatbots if their queries cannot be resolved led to fewer negative reactions than if people were not told.
This, said the researchers, is because chatbots are 'more likely to be forgiven for making a mistake than a human.'. Simply having a chatbot admit it is not human, and perhaps apologize for making a mistake, could, say the researchers, perhaps even improve customer perceptions of your brand.
The same goes the other way too. If you do manage to have human support for your event, then it makes sense to make people know they're talking to a human. This means ensuring your support person has a personality when speaking to guests, which may be achieved by using less formal language, idioms, smileys, and of course, taking the time to understand what guests need.
3) Show you care
If we think back to the days of in-person events, you may remember hosts checking in on you at the start of the event, and then several times throughout- perhaps initiating some small talk or handing over some hors d'oeuvres.
Maybe minus the hors d'oeuvres, there is no reason you can't show similar hospitality in your online event. This may be done by sending an individualized welcome message to each participant and checking in via online chat at various points throughout- especially if you notice some users starting to disengage.
To individualize your messages (and make it clear you're a human with the ability to perceive), you could comment on something on their profile that catches your eye. Maybe you notice they went to the same school as you- or they simply chose a nice color for their profile.
To complete this step, it goes without saying that it may be helpful to gather some publicly-displayable information about your participants- even if that is just allowing them to choose the color of their profile, or a fun avatar.
4) Give Freebies
Just as in-person events my give guests gift bags, it may make sense to consider a 'virtual' gift bag. This could contain any manner of things that are appropriate for your audience, and may contain one or more things at once.
Our personal favorites are:
- A free guide, essay, or collection of written work on a topic related to the event
- A discount voucher for some of your products, or related products
- A donation on their behalf to a cause such as poverty relief or a local community group
5) Track feedback
Lastly, getting feedback- and assessing it over time- is an important way to know what hospitality methods worked in your event, and of course, how to improve.
This could be done by asking participants to fill in a quick questionnaire after the event asking them about how much they enjoyed it, alongside any written or vocal feedback on what they enjoyed most and what could improve.
You could also analyze this feedback alongside their interactions with human support, chatbots, or speakers, whether or not they opened/ used their gift bags, and of course, if they attend future events.
Such insights may help you better tailor your event experience to your audience ie. If participants who interacted more with speakers enjoyed the event more, then it may make sense to introduce more ways to invite guests to speak.
Alternatively, if more people attended future events after donations were made on their behalf than after receiving a free written guide, it may make sense to focus more on making donations on behalf of attendees than giving free guides.