Back in early 2020, as the pandemic was rearing its ugly head, we were all trying to understand (while simultaneously fearing) the potential effect that COVID-19 would have on each of us, both personally and professionally. Looking toward something hopeful to report at the time, I wrote an article pertaining to live events versus the new era of virtual events.
In it, I extolled the obvious virtues of live events…but I also looked forward to the potential that virtual events might hold. Think the “glass half full” philosophy. Using what we knew back then, I tried to point out the pros and cons of each type of event, intentionally opining that it would not be an either/or choice. To be fair, none of us knew precisely where this would be heading.
Following on the heels of all that fear of the unknown came the harsh reality of shutdowns. Live events of any significant size and scale were canceled or postponed. And, in our industry, virtual events became ubiquitous. After all, they had become the only game in town. The changes in events were stark. It is safe to say that we were unprepared, but, undaunted, we soldiered on with what was possible.
This month, I want to synthesize what we’ve collectively learned and experienced over the last three years as it pertains to events. Here, I present some lessons and my own observations.
Continuing to Share
Suffice it to say that there will continue to be “sharing” within the events space. Live events will not go away; in fact, they will continue to come back (in modified form) for reasons I will expound upon later. Virtual events will continue to improve and grow, and hybrid events will evolve into what has the potential to be the best-of-all-worlds scenario. Permit me a brief overview of the most visible pros and cons of each before delving deeper.
No matter how good other types of events attempt to be, there can be no argument: Face-to-face interaction is the most effective means of expression and communication. By our nature, we are social creatures.
The downside of live events, however, is that they can be expensive to put on. What’s more, they’re costly both in travel expense and in time away from the office. Moreover, they have the limitation of being in a single location and at a specific time — that favors some, but not all. Finally, as we have seen, live events are at the mercy of things outside our control, such as a global pandemic.
Virtual events address some of the challenges that live events pose. Virtual events are easier to pull together quickly. They’re relatively inexpensive, with no space/setup/travel costs; indeed, they only require access to video streaming. They’re free of any geographical and size-of-audience constraints. They’re easy to record, and you can repurpose the content as desired.
The downsides, however, are considerable. They tend to be impersonal, providing an insufficient dose of human experience. They might also have a lower perceived value, and, with other distractions, it can be difficult for attendees to stay fully focused.
Hybrid events can deliver the benefits of both live and virtual. They give attendees the option to attend in-person or online. A company can send some people to the live event and have others attend online, thus saving time and money.
Hybrid events are typically more expensive because the costs of both event types must be factored into the budget. It’s essentially two events, each with its own set of challenges. Hybrid events also require a complex execution since you’re essentially managing two “platforms.” The key here is synchronizing both experiences, managing the challenges and carrying off both of them well.
Now, I want to dig a little deeper, going beyond the obvious and looking at events from the perspective of human factors. I hope you’ll join me.
Research shows us that 77% of people prefer in-person conferences, and 85% say that in-person events build stronger relationships. In large-system sales, the buy-or-don’t-buy decision is made because of relationships, not because of products.
There is nothing like being at an event where you’re surrounded by people who share your passions and interests, while, simultaneously, you have the opportunity to connect with new people. In-person networking events have proven to increase the likelihood of closing deals as compared to virtual events.
Networking is a key element of the experience at any event. In a live environment, attendees who mingle and network will have more opportunities to find new connections, discover potential customers or business partners, and build relationships.
The best and most fulfilling relationships are those in which personal chemistry comes into play. At live events, things simply feel “more real.” The connectivity at an event can turn into a personal relationship; and that, in turn, can generate opportunities for sales, business partnerships and collaborations. Live events’ capacity to build genuine relationships with likeminded people is unmatched; indeed, it’s the main reason that people attend live events in the first place.
When you’re in-person, you’re invigorated by the energy of everyone around you. You feel more of a personal need to be sharp…to engage…to listen…to try to get everything you can out of the event. This partly explains why people build better relationships in-person. Everyone is just trying that much harder to engage and put their best foot forward.
There’s also what one expert calls the “surprise element.” Not knowing what to expect can be thrilling and inspiring. I call this the tension of expectation. For events in general, it’s important to provide attendees with a genuine experience…something that will be remembered long after the event.
If you engage people’s emotions in some manner, you can build long-term, sustainable relationships and create an environment in which people will be quicker to pick up and accept your message. The art of creating this kind of experience resides in the development of a total concept with a high “wow factor.” This is much easier to attain in a live-event environment.
To create long-lasting memories, you must engage your attendees’ senses. This includes the exhibits and their layout, the lighting, the sounds and even the smells of the event. Combining all those sensorial experiences will help you “enchant your attendees,” ensuring they will remember your event. This is something you won’t be able to easily reproduce digitally. Think about watching a ball game on TV versus being there live. Both are good, but the experience and the memories are definitely different.
Finally, traveling to new locations for in-person events is an excellent way to explore the world and even to experience new cultures. They allow for exploration, learning and networking in new environments. No matter how digitized our society becomes, people are always going to be interested in the physical aspect of cities and, yes, of events. They want to experience new destinations, interact with other cultures and try the local cuisine. Traveling is an experience like no other, and online events cannot replicate that.
More Than a Temporary Solution
Virtual events were the salvation of the events industry during the pandemic. But they should be recognized as more than just a temporary solution. They have rightfully become a vital option for events. Virtual events can be quick, convenient and easy, with a broader reach and with less cost. But, as noted, the limitations are considerable. It’s important to understand what virtual events can (and cannot) do. What they cannot do is fully displace/replace live events. What they can do is provide things that location-based live events cannot.
Having attended and participated in literally hundreds of virtual events, I have found that their biggest and most apparent Achilles’ heel centers on poor production values. Too many virtual events appear haphazardly thrown together. There does not appear to be a deliberate format or thoughtful design. There tends to be a lack of wow! factor. Also, technology doesn’t always cooperate. If you try to cut corners on a professional event, it will most likely fall short of expectations — perhaps even fail entirely.
Most consumer-focused or free, business-focused platforms are not built for professional productions; rather, they’re built for informal social conversations. Unsurprisingly, then, they almost always result in glitches or failures. Don’t take chances! Make sure that you’re working with a reputable production company that has the experience and resources to ensure a high-quality production.
Virtual is also rarely ideal for longer events. Keeping people’s attention for long periods of time online is a challenge. Keep your virtual events 45 to 90 minutes, if possible. Research suggests that, in normal circumstances, it typically takes fewer than 30 minutes for someone to start daydreaming or become disengaged. Online events make disengagement even easier: You can watch/attend and still answer emails and browse open tabs on your computer. If you’re in the office, it can be full of distractions — everything ringing phones, to foot traffic around you, to the internet being at your fingertips.
The holy grail is to find ways to keep virtual attendees paying attention. Of course, the perceived value of the topic and the quality of the presenters are key. The ability to interact with the presenters via online Q&A, live polling, etc., can also help. But even in the best of circumstances, it’s still not the same as being there in person.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, research shows that virtual events actually drive attendees to physical events. The fact is that most people prefer physical events. In a recent survey, 77% of respondents said they were “inspired to attend a physical event after going to the virtual one.” When one subject matter expert was asked why, they opined, “Because it simply is the case that the experience at an in-person event will always have the je ne sais quoi factor that a virtual event does not have.”
A Natural Evolution
Combine live events and virtual events — although typically not in equal amounts — and you have a hybrid event. It sounds like a natural evolution of live and virtual, and it is. Although potentially the best of all solutions, it does have challenges.
Planning hybrid events is significantly more complex than planning live or virtual ones. It is a balancing act. You must plan two events in one, and you must consider both groups of participants. Hybrid events require you to create two distinct experiences, using the same content in different ways to attract attendees.
You must amplify what is best in both live and virtual and, at the same time, you must address the challenges that each one poses. A single glitch in either area can severely impact overall event quality.
To sum up, in-person events were the only option up until about 10 years ago. People were, and still remain, most comfortable in those environments. Thanks to COVID-19, everything changed, and events went virtual. It took some time for many to acclimate themselves, but we now know that virtual (if done right) can work well.
Thus, it must remain in the event mix. Live events provide benefits that virtual cannot; likewise, virtual fills in some of the blanks that live events fail to tick off. Hybrid events, meanwhile, have the positive attributes of live while offering the reduced attendee expense, reduced attendee time investment and broader reach of virtual.
As I prophesied in my original article, it is not an either-or situation. Instead, it has become “and.”