By now, most people in the AV industry have participated in at least one—if not many—virtual audio visual events that they had originally thought would present them with a chance to meet new people, renew old acquaintances and learn about products and people who can help their companies.
But, while virtual events have been all the rage in 2020 out of necessity, what’s the future for these offerings in 2021 and beyond, when (presumably) the coronavirus pandemic will be a thing of the past—or at least there’s a vaccine to curb the spread of the disease?
Maybe virtual events won’t be the only option when it comes to learning about new products or starting discussions about future projects across the AV landscape once COVID-19 subsides, but it looks like they’ll be here to stay in some form for the long-term now that they’ve arrived.
“One of the things I’m most excited for our industry is virtual events,” says AVIXA CEO David Labuskes, whose association transformed InfoComm 2020 from an in-person event in Las Vegas to a three-day virtual offering in mid-June. “I think the future is hybrid events.
“I’m convinced we’ll desire and find meaning to create a virtual connection. We will figure out a way to make virtual connections more rich. When they’re more engaging, people will take advantage of them. If we can do that, why would we limit the audience?”
Labuskes sees the addition of virtual audio visual events as an opportunity for those within it to flex their technological muscles.
“Those who can gather in real life will [and] those who can participate only virtually will” he says. “What other industry is going to be able to solve this problem? It’s content, space and technology. That’s what we deliver. That’s what we do.
“The landscape going forward will have in-person events, virtual events and hybrid events. It was very easy to rank the quality of all three types in the past. I’ve never experienced a hybrid event where I felt as engaged as the people who were there,” says Labuskes.
AVIXA senior VP of expositions and events Rochelle Richardson is proud of the example her team is showing about how to transform an event from an in-person experience to a virtual one.
“It’s important for AVIXA to be able to easily adapt and create a new sustainable virtual experience for AV professionals from around the world to come together,” she said in the association announcement about the creation of InfoComm 2020 Connected.
Almo Professional A/V had been exploring the addition of a virtual element to its E4 Experience before the pandemic forced the distributor to reimagine this year’s offering as the E4 Evolution, says VP of marketing and communications Melody Craigmyle.
While virtual audio visual events won’t be Almo’s primary model going forward, “we’re going to have to start thinking about our live events very differently than we have in the past,” she says.
“We’ll have to reimagine the live E4 Experience,” says Craigmyle. “We see this platform as something we’re going to continue with for years to come.
“E-learning is here and maturing. It’s a great way to consume content from anywhere and we have to keep developing it by listening to our customers and what they want,” she says.
Atlona director of marketing Garth Lobban expects Atlona will continue to offer virtual events in conjunction with industry events after hosting AtlonaComm 20 in June, but he doesn’t know if they’ll become the company’s primary way of staying connected with its customers and earning new ones.
“We looked at this as an opportunity to continue this as a concept,” he says. “We could turn this into an adjunct of a real trade show. We think we can use this as a model for the next major trade show’s booth. We can augment the things we can’t bring to the booth.
“It’s something new, it’s something novel, something we haven’t done before. There’s a different skill set in creating this virtual show than you might see in a real show,” says Lobban.
NSCA became the latest group to shift an event to a virtual format when it announced last week the Pivot to Profit event focused on managed services and recurring revenue would be held online only this year, preserving the original dates of Sept. 22-23.
“NSCA staff and our board members weighed the decision to go virtual for 2020 very carefully,” says NSCA executive director Chuck Wilson. “Our priority is to create a level of interactivity that allows us to truly engage with attendees.
“Just having a virtual event isn’t good enough in 2020. The stakes are too high. NSCA has always known that the Pivot to Profit focus of our business transformation conference is important — but it’s vital in 2020 as integration companies reboot and recover,” he says. For us, a successful virtual event isn’t about flashy features — it’s about providing a clear platform for critical conversations.”
AVI Systems director of brand marketing Craig Gudorf says the company is considering transforming its AVI Live shows into virtual events later this year and will use some of the lessons learned by AVIXA and others to build its virtual event.
“People are used to doing virtual audio visual events, so they might be willing to do them more often as long as they’re informative and engaging,” he says. “I don’t ever see the physical events going away, especially in an industry where people want to touch and feel the technology.
“There could be some people who want to get as much of the experience as they can from their homes. If we can cast a wider net and engage people in a different way, we could reach considerably more people through a virtual event and it’s well worth the effort,” says Gudorf.
Diversified was slated to make its virtual event debut at NAB Express, says senior VP of global marketing Anthony Cuellar. He doesn’t know what the future holds for them.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how this format continues after the crisis is over,” he says. “There’s definitely an opportunity to take what we’ve learned and implement some of them. If you’re able to have some of that same interactivity, there’s a play there.”
Cuellar points to virtual broadcast sets as one opportunity for AV integrators to be involved in online events going forward.
How and Why Virtual Events Will Endure
The ingenuity of creating a virtual event will represent the start of a new era in AV, says Labuskes.
“When you have no choice, you figure out how to solve the problem,” he says. “The magic is taking the learning from when you had no choice and turning it into an acceptable choice.
“This isn’t good enough forever. This is just good enough for now. Part of this ‘better normal’ is making it better. It’s fun watching people figure out how to deliver an effective, engaging presentation. We’re all learning. As we get better at it, we will become part of that ‘better normal,’” says Labuskes.
“We need to be able to provide that hub for the profession not only in real life, but also in the virtual world,” he says. “AV is the profession that can glue that digital world to the physical world like no one else can.”
Craigmyle understands some people in AV are turned off by the idea of virtual events because their early experiences with them weren’t good but she thinks that mentality can change with some hard work by those within the industry.
“There were some earlier iterations of online events that were not a good experience for people,” she says. “I think that set us back as an industry.
“With AV being such an experiential part of what we do, naturally people are drawn to the live events, but I think there is a place for e-learning in the market. It’s a different way to create the content. I’m glad to see other organizations producing online events,” says Craigmyle.
“As an industry, need to keep the dialogue going and helping businesses,” she says. “I’m glad we’re part of this whole group that’s bringing education to the industry. It’s incumbent on all of us to reshape and rethink and continue the dialogue, albeit online.”
While virtual shows are all the rage now out of necessity, Lobban says they’ve been rare in the past because people still enjoy the opportunity to gather together.
“The big reason I think we haven’t seen this yet is FOMO,” he says. “It’s that handshake opportunity, that chance to sit down and talk to someone about an opportunity and a project. It makes perfect sense to have it as an adjunct to the real show for people who can’t get there. That’s how we’re looking at it.
“Maybe this allows us to create environments for smaller regional events. It’s all a big experiment. It’s not completely outside of our wheelhouse, it’s just a little bit different,” says Lobban.
Gina Sansivero, VP of marketing and corporate communications for AtlasIED, sees a future for virtual events but doesn’t think they’ll replace in-person experiences completely.
“I think virtual events will continue to be an option, as they provide the ability to reach individuals who are unable to travel,” she says. “However, I think traditional tradeshows will still hold a lot of value just from the personal interaction and social benefits alone.”
“If this year has taught us anything, it’s that virtual can get exhausting and doesn’t have the lasting engagement or impact or influence that a good in person interaction has,” says Sansivero.
Gudorf expects virtual audio visual events are now a permanent fixture on the AV landscape.
“This was the nudge we needed to take a step in that direction,” he says. “People fall into patterns of doing what’s always been done. People have had their eyes opened to the power of doing something like this.”
AVIXA senior director of market intelligence Sean Wargo sees live events professionals and other AV industry providers “pivoting and supporting” virtual events as much of the in-person work has dried up for the moment. That change can also mean new opportunities for everyone in AV, he says.
Presentations by speakers can be captured and redistributed for those who miss the initial broadcast. That means recording, post-production and optimizing and managing the content will become more important than ever.
“We’re going through an experimentation phase and we’re probably going to overdo it,” says Wargo. “It’s not all going to work. We’re still left with the same fixed resource: our own time. There will be differentiation strategies that help some survive and some not.
“That [differentiation strategy] may turn out to be the in-person experience,” he says.
Cuellar wonders where virtual events will fit in the future.
“Americans in general have short memories,” he says. “It’s amazing how resilient we are as a society. We’ll see about the fear factor. The one thing you get at a trade show that’s really hard to replicate in a virtual environment is that real human connection.
“There’s so much more that goes on that’s totally ad hoc. You’ll run into someone you haven’t seen in a while and learn something from that connection or be in a particular booth and someone will ask a question and that’ll trigger something in your brain, then that expands exponentially,” says Cuellar.
“A lot of business gets done after 5 o’clock [at a trade show],” he says. “It’s an expensive endeavor, but it has an ROI because of so many intangibles. I think absolutely [virtual evets are] going to be an add-on [in the future]. The software that exists now will improve.”
USAV Group VP Chris Salazar-Mangrum and director Patrick Whipkey are excited about the potential for virtual events. The buying and integrators group is part of PSA Security Network, which is hosting Adapt—an in-person conference—in Hilton Head, S.C., in October.
“Our industry is starting to be looked at closely to solve these problems,” says Salazar-Mangrum. “Obviously, in-person is always preferred. You can’t replace that human element.”
“Pivot” and “hybrid” have been popular words across AV lately as everyone tries to adjust to the new realities they’re facing, says Whipkey. That includes virtual audio visual events, he says.
“People crave that human interaction,” says Whipkey. “I think you’ll see a reduction of the events that are in-person.”
That’s not necessarily good news for Lifeline AV president Scott Wright, who says a reduction in large trade shows will means he’ll have to figure out another way to meet with manufacturers.
“You don’t get those relationships one-on-one,” he says. “There’s nothing better than a face-to-face contact.”