It’s not been easy for businesses operating in the events sector. You might have seen our venues lit up in red announcing to the world that we are on red alert.
We were the first industry to close when covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown swept the globe, and we will be the last to reopen. Fear not, virtual events sprung from nowhere and look like the solution. Don’t they?
Virtual events have been able to offer participants and attendees a platform, albeit a very different platform, to engage and interact with each other during the lockdown.
My business, Quadrant2Design, work with businesses who are exhibiting at trade shows. Many of our customers have chosen to follow the virtual event trend and they have reported mixed reviews of their success.
Different events have different value offering – you can learn, build relationships, entertain or promote depending on the type of event.
However, over the last six months, it has become apparent that virtual events can’t do this. With this in mind, what does the future look like for virtual events? Are virtual events here to stay?
If we can say anything good about this year, it has inspired innovation. While some industries have struggled with the covid-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown, others have thrived. A few have emerged from the woodwork.
Businesses have had to pivot to an online environment. Not impossible by any means. We’ve been slowly making these changes for several years. But there’s nothing like a global pandemic to speed up the future.
Virtual events were one of these digital pivots. They have existed for years. Many organisers would host virtual award shows or stream festivals to expand their reach, gather a larger audience or offer a sustainable alternative to guests wanting to attend.
The ban on mass gatherings meant event organisers had no choice but to pivot to the virtual alternative.
Global tech brands started the craze – Samsung hosted a virtual event to unveil the Samsung Galaxy Fold. It didn’t take long before smaller events such as conferences followed the trend. Before we knew it, everyone was a virtual event planner.
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Did you have a Zoom party or play a pub quiz with your friends on the House Party app over lockdown? Congratulations! You’ve been to or hosted a virtual event.
A virtual event is a gathering of people interacting in an online environment. Rather than the face-to-face communication seen at physical events, communication takes place via chatrooms and event apps.
This format has several benefits. From a marketer’s perspective, the sheer amount of data that you can collect is enough to make your mouth water. Often, virtual events are easier to manage than in-person ones because there are fewer variables that can go wrong.
There is no cost involved when attending the event because you don’t have to travel or pay for accommodation.
As well as being cheaper, a virtual event is often easier for people to attend as they can do so from their home or office. These factors mean, in theory, virtual events should attract a larger number of visitors than physical ones do.
I say “in theory” because, although we have seen a huge increase in demand for virtual events, the data we have available suggests they are nowhere near competing with the physical event market.
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It’s obvious, isn’t it? The reason people want to go to an event in the first place is the crowds. Socialising with friends, meeting new people and discovering new opportunities have always been prominent reasons for attending.
Without face-to-face interaction, organisers are having difficulty keeping visitors engaged.
A study by Wild Apricot found that the biggest challenge organisers were facing when it comes to planning a virtual event was engagement.
Participants have too many online calls and aren’t tech-savvy enough to participate or support an event taking place in a digital environment.
From an organiser’s perspective, over three-quarters reported that they spent less on virtual events than in-person events.
However, almost a third of organisers stated revenue was a challenge as it was harder to get supporters to participate and visitors to engage. Despite being cheaper to run, virtual events don’t make as much money as in-person events.
It’s unfair to lump all virtual events into the same category. Events themselves, whether physical or virtual, fall into several subcategories. To give you an idea, here are a selection of event subcategories:
You can see the predicament. A food festival wouldn’t work online. Visitors wouldn’t be able to smell or taste the food and businesses wouldn’t make any money. A seminar would be easier to migrate into a digital environment.
Virtual events create a distraction-free environment, perfect for educational or persuasive events.
Virtual seminar, press conference and workshop organisers will have all the benefits of running a low-cost, easy-to-manage event. Visitors can achieve everything that they would have been able to with an in-person event without having to travel. Everybody wins.
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A lot of events are successful because of the physical presence of people. Visitors attend because of the atmosphere that a crowded exhibition venue or underground music club creates.
Think about the purpose of the event you are hosting or attending. Does it require people to sit down and focus on a person or series of talks? A virtual event can replicate that. But if it requires people to interact with each other, dance, network and make connections then digital with not replace physical.
Wild Apricot listed engagement as one of the biggest challenges when running a virtual event. Despite these tricks to build a super audience, many of the event subcategories that we listed above need engagement to be successful.
Business events that promise to connect suppliers with buyers will not be successful without engagement. Sports teams won’t be motivated or encouraged without a stadium full of cheering fans. And the same goes for live music and festivals.
Where engagement is key to running a successful event, the virtual event industry has to find a way of engaging visitors. The available options aren’t working for the majority of subcategories.
Frankly, it is impossible to predict what will happen in the future. Everyday our outlook is changing. But having watched the rise of the virtual events industry over the last six months and seen how people responded, I don’t think in-person events have anything to fear.
As highlighted, there are only a select few event types that can successfully run on a digital platform.
In most cases, people aren’t interested in participating in or attending a virtual event that doesn’t offer engagement. Where face-to-face interaction is essential, virtual events will never replace in-person events.
On the other hand, it is impressive how the events industry managed to pivot off the back of a crisis so quickly. Organisers have shown their ability to adapt and innovate under pressure.
If they can keep this up, maybe they will develop a new form of virtual event that encourages engagement and interaction.
There is something to be said for the reduced costs associated with planning and attending virtual events. As the UK braces for the largest recession in generations, budgets are likely to be tightened in a business and consumer sense.
Furthermore, travel restrictions are still in place across the globe and capped venue requirements make it almost unfeasible to make sufficient revenue from in-person events. Venues need between 70%-90% capacity to run efficiently and make money. Otherwise, they would have to increase their prices or limit their services.
Virtual events will likely be around for a while. They may even replace some types of events indefinitely.
Webinars and press conferences are easier to manage online and require a distraction-free environment. Attendees get everything out of the event that they signed up for without having to leave their home.
Where virtual events don’t offer the same benefits as an in-person event does, such as with live music or business events, we will see their online alternatives filter out. This won’t be an overnight change.
Virtual events will be around until there is no threat from covid-19. Before lifting travel restrictions and social distancing, we will need to see either a dramatic drop in the number of cases or a vaccine.
Virtual can assist in-person events until organisers trust them to feasibly bring in enough revenue.
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As in-person events begin to take place again, organisers have been left pondering whether they will attract the crowds and offer the value they did before lockdown. But with an audience who have had enough of virtual events, what is the solution?
Travel restrictions and budget reductions mean physical events won’t be feasible in the immediate future. Event organisers have to adapt to another new situation.
People are depending on in-person events to come back, but virtual events have proven a worthy alternative since the ban on mass gatherings.
Hybrid events are the future. A physical event with a virtual twist. Two events that run alongside each other allowing face-to-face communication, relationship building and networking whilst providing a platform for those who cannot attend to do so.
Looking at business events such as exhibitions as an example, exhibitors will be able to have a presence on the floor. The people who attend will likely be senior decision-makers who are in the market for a new product.
Nobody will risk his or her health for a day out of the office. A virtual platform will create an environment for learning and sharing industry secrets, replacing the speaker sessions and workshops.
Exhibitors will be able to display their products at both events, increasing overall reach.
Hybrid events will help to overcome the challenges organisers have raised about virtual events. The in-person element is a chance to engage with attendees and those who aren’t as tech-savvy or bored of virtual platforms.
The virtual event will create a distraction-free environment for audiences to learn about new products or brands and keep up with industry innovations.
Organisers don’t have to worry about travel restrictions because everyone can attend the event from their home. Participants benefit from additional visitor data and feedback. Hybrid events are better for everyone.
In conclusion, covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown have forced an industry innovation that needed to happen. There are several benefits when it comes to virtual events.
Reduced costs, easier management, data collection are just a few reasons why participants have enjoyed them.
However, we have seen a drop in engagement as people admit to being bored with virtual alternatives. Without engagement, events don’t work. It is for this reason that I don’t think virtual events are here to stay. Not in the majority of cases anyway.
Educational or professional events, such as workshops or seminars, may be held in an online environment for a long time.
They offer the same value to visitors and participants both in-person and online. Virtual webinars offer a distraction-free environment and don’t hinder a participant’s ability to learn.
Organisers have been paying attention to this. They’ve seen which formats and types of events work online, and which don’t. They’ve come up with a solution to ensure that everybody wins.
Hybrid events will become a new trend. Introducing everything that we have learnt from virtual events to the in-person events that offer so much potential to participants is the way forward if we want to revive the events industry and combat the challenges that we will all be facing.
Do you agree?
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