Man watching a video conference on an iMac

Yohei Guy - Thursday 18th June 2020

Are Virtual Events Really the Future?

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges to industries the world over and few have been more challenged than the events industry. Centred around a product that brings people together, the global pandemic has meant one of their prerequisites to function is now seen as a hazard and in some countries, completely prohibited.

Like many industries impacted, the landscape in the events industry has changed by shifting to online platforms by the way of virtual events. These virtual events have allowed companies and organisations to replicate traditional events fairly successfully.

The question from this that has emerged is whether virtual events will be the new norm once the pandemic has passed? We thought we’d take a closer look.

No competing on costs

One of the main benefits of hosting a virtual event has always been the lower costs associated. When organising traditional events, event planners have to manage a balance sheet that includes costs for venue hire, presenter fees and expenditure, audiovisual, catering, event staffing, advertising and promotional materials – the list goes on.

Attendees themselves incur their own costs as well that include travel and accommodation, hospitality, freight, banners/flyers/merchandise (if they are hosting their own stand) as well as the cost of registration for the event in question.

All in all, the costs on both sides quickly add up which is how the global events industry generated $1,100 billion in 2018 alone.

While some of these organising costs are still relevant when it comes to virtual events like marketing and advertising, for example, there are many that are not. Venue hire, audiovisual, catering, and event staffing are practically reduced to nought while equivalent costs for attendees for travel, accommodation and other incidentals are also not incurred.

Some new costs are, of course, picked up, specifically with respect to the facilitation of the online webinar platforms and support but these pale in comparison to the aforementioned costs for the traditional events. When you consider the wider economic impact the pandemic has had on financial markets around the world, the factor of cost becomes an even more compelling one.

The demand for technology

The technology required to enable these events to take place virtually has boomed as a result of a dramatic increase in demand. Tools like Zoom jumped from 10 million daily users to over 200 million in 3 months as many cities and countries went into lockdown. Despite the fact that this tool is predominantly used for video calls (as opposed to events), the technology is very similar and has reminded people just how effective it can be as a means for video conferencing.

The event hosting startup, Hopin, is just one example of a company that has had an exponential spike in interest and grew its event waiting list to 18,000 in three weeks in February. The flexibility of the Hopin platform and its ease of use are big factors that have attracted event organisers looking for online solutions for the events.

The platform accommodates a wide variety of different events including public and private events, expos, keynotes, plenary sessions, group chats, one-on-one sessions – you can even create a reception area with the schedule which also showcases your sponsors. Your team members can all login individually to the admin dashboard to plan and work together on the event too.

We don’t own shares in Hopin, in case you were wondering, but it demonstrates just how well a virtual event can mimic many of the offerings of a traditional one.

The challenges of the virtual alternative

That being said, there are some aspects of a conventional event that can’t be replicated in the same way via an online platform. The first is the element of human interaction that is quite hard to articulate but is noticeably lost in the transition from face-to-face to virtual encounters. It could be down to streaming lag, lower video definition and sound quality, differing environmental elements – any number of factors which all in their small way break up the immediacy of a face-to-face encounter.

This isn’t necessarily as relevant for the formal presentations themselves but more so during breakout moments in events when you’re casually mingling with other attendees/presenters over coffee, tea or something a little stronger. A lot of business relationships start out in this way when the setting is somewhat more relaxed and natural, given it’s what we’re used to as human beings.

While the networking aspects of online platforms are always improving, the type of interaction described above is quite hard to recreate. People also still don’t feel they’ve “met” someone until they’ve done so in a face-to-face situation. With respect to this, the allure of virtual events is to some, not as enticing as the real thing.

The atmosphere of an event, especially a large scale event, is also difficult, if not impossible to reproduce online. Again, many attendees greatly enjoy the experience of attending an event that has thousands of people with shared interests gathering together, seeing experts in their given fields share the latest news, knowledge and innovations.

This atmosphere can be infectious and in its own way, can bring into focus and raise the stakes of the ideas being discussed and debated. Finding a way to mirror this type of experience on your laptop from the confines of your study at home is a tall order for any online equivalent, no matter what the talents of the developers behind it.

The return of local events

The truth of the matter is that it is hard to know what the future of the events industry looks like until some sort of normalcy returns to our everyday lives. Given the way the pandemic has affected the world so far and the current restrictions on domestic and international travel, normalcy as we once knew it could be a fair way off.

The first true impression we’ll get is when events start to resume at a local level, given regional travel is far likely to return at a quicker rate, as it has here in New Zealand. With the economic impacts still with us, it’ll be interesting to see the type of events that take place and the form in which they do.

International border closures and the reluctance to still encourage mass gatherings may mean that face-to-face events become much more targeted and niche. In doing so, however, they are likely to become more direct competitors for their virtual equivalents which will see a more telling clash of virtues and outcomes.

Will face-to-face events survive?

If face-to-face events can survive the challenge from online events as an alternative at a local level then the return of big events is that much more assured. If they cannot, it could be to the detriment of traditional event management companies which could see far fewer face-to-face events, both large and small. What is certain, however, is that virtual events will absolutely have a part to play in the short term and are increasingly likely to have a larger role in the industry’s future as well.

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