Are virtual conferences on the way out?

Neil Raden Profile picture for user Neil Raden July 1, 2022
Summary:
For a while, virtual events were all we had. Now they're fading - but is that a good thing?

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When COVID hit in early 2020, onsite meetings and conferences gave way to "virtual" ones. The virtual format posed some aesthetic and technical challenges, especially connectivity and organization.

The early ones were a mess. It took a little while for people to figure out how to put on a meeting or even a multi-day conference, and software packages put them together and host them eventually arrived, making the whole experience professional.

Besides adapting to a necessary format for a pandemic, there were other benefits. Speaking at a virtual conference, one may be addressing a much larger and more international audience, being introduced to attendees one might not meet at an onsite event. There was typically no cost to attendees, as opposed to $1,600 - $2,500 to attend an on-the-ground event. This boosted the attendance, which pleased the sponsors, but from my perspective, there was an exceptionally positive benefit - reducing the carbon footprint of meeting travel - and improving diversity and equity. 

Another advantage is that it created a bi-directional dialog with online attendees through chat, Q&A windows, and follow-up after the event. 

From 1991 until 2005, living in Santa Barbara, I took a redeye on average three times a week for speaking and consulting, primarily to Toronto, Boston, New York and Orlando (if I couldn't avoid it). The alternative was to take a daytime flight and lose a (billable) day. Santa Barbara had a few flights but usually at the wrong time of day. For example, from San Francisco, I would have to head out to the airport by 2 PM to get home that night. 

Two million miles was enough. 

My door-to-door trip from JFK-LAX-Santa Barbara could take ten-to-eleven hours on an ordinary evening. From Santa Barbara, the better option was to take the Santa Barbara Airbus, about a ninety-minute ride to LAX. Invariably, I would get back to LAX just after the Airbus left and had to wait two-and-a-half hours for the next one. 

Then, of course, there is the panic and stress of being late and missing a flight or a hotel that loses your reservation; on one trip, I took a redeye to Toronto, a beautiful Sunday in California, waking up Monday still dark to a blizzard at Pearson. They lost my luggage. This was in the era when we still wore ties work, and the airline gave me the princely sum of $150 to buy some clothes. Monday through Wednesday, I was dressed in sweats. Thursday morning, I was leaving when my suitcase arrived at the office. I checked it in at the airport, and when I arrived at LAX, it was lost again. 

Suffice it to say, all of this wear-and-tear on my body and psyche took a toll. In 2005, I sold the consulting company and started giving away my frequent flyer miles. I know my stories aren't unique, but those experiences stand in stark contrast to hitting a Zoom, comfortable in my office at my ranch in Santa Fe, NM, where we relocated in 2010.

There are distinct benefits to going virtual, recapping:

  • The reduced carbon footprint for traveling attendees and company staff
  • Reduced stress and wear-and-tear from traveling, hotels, etc.
  • Reduced carbon footprint at the convention site
  • Growing the audience, which is good for the company, the sponsors and the speakers

The virtual environment allowed moderators to control better the flow of discussion and questions from the audience. By privately messaging one another behind the scenes, they could discuss how a session was going and make adjustments in real-time. For example, in one meeting I was involved n organizing, we had one panelist who we thought was contributing a little bit too much. The moderators responded by using private messages to encourage others to speak, and they made a mutual decision to ask questions designed to draw comments from other, less vocal panelists. That's hard to do in person because everyone is up [on stage], and you can't have a backchannel conversation

So this begs the question, why are companies trending back to the old conferences milieu? Scientists acknowledge that virtual conferences can't entirely replicate the conference experience, usually involving impromptu meetings in hallways and other social get-togethers. Humans are a social species. We're used to seeing body language and being able to interface with someone in person. So virtual meetings might lose some of their appeal once back-to-the-office requirements loosen.

According to Allied Market Research, the global events industry was valued at $1.1trn in 2019, and pre-Covid was expected to reach $1.6trn by 2028, according to Allied Market Research. By March 2020, the industry had already lost $16.5bn, according to UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry. In a survey conducted by EventMB, 90% of event professionals reported that some or most of their business had disappeared, 2.75% were left unemployed, and only 5% were minimally impacted. By November 2020, 52% of event professionals said they had lost income due to the pandemic, while 11% had been furloughed and 10% laid off, EventMB found.

One would assume that the exhibition industry will not roll over and play dead. Tech events remain plentiful and continue to be virtual on the whole. They are aggressively marketing new and appealing venues and activities, and their events will very likely have an effect. Microsoft, Google and Apple, the big hitters, continue their annual conferences online. Google'd dev conference, I/O, is online again this year; Apple has already hosted a headline-grabbing April online event, and has WWDC 2022 coming up in June. 

A few significant events went hybrid for 2022, mainly in Europe – Dutch Technology Week and MWC Barcelona. In Asia, however, Taiwan's annual Computex event remains 100% virtual despite the country being open for business and relatively COVID-free.

My take

The Goliath events are moving back to onsite, with limited hybrid offerings. Assuming three are no new pandemics, like Monkeypox, I'd expect that trend to continue. On the other hand, the mid-market will find the virtual format too beneficial to resist. I've noticed an uptick in invitations to speak or just attend from Europe and even Australia. That suits me fine.

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