Exhibition organizers see long-term value in digital events, with education proving to be the main driver of attendance. These are among the virtual-event trends spotlighted in a new report from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. The first in a three-part series, "Report One – Anatomy of Virtual Events and Financial Outcomes" draws on responses from 346 executives from exhibition-organizing companies.
While Covid-19 has driven a surge in digital events, just 22 percent of respondents said they plan to abandon their virtual-event efforts once we get through the pandemic. More than two-thirds of executives (68 percent) said they expect virtual aspects will be a bigger component of physical events going forward.
Education has proven to be the biggest driver of attendance to attend digital events, cited by 33 percent of respondents as the top reason organizers believe professionals attend their event. This was followed by the need to keep up with industry trends, cited as a top reason by 11 percent of organizers, and fulfilling professional certification requirements (at 10 percent). The full list of the biggest virtual-event attendance drivers breaks down as follows:
- 33%: Education for professional or personal development
- 11%: Keep up-to-date with industry trends
- 10%: Fulfill professional certification requirements
- 9%: See, experience new technology, new products
- 8%: Professional networking
- 6%: Idea generation
- 5%: Reputation of event
- 5%: Build, maintain relationships with suppliers
- 4%: Ability to engage with experts
- 4%: Gather information for upcoming purchase
- 3%: Get inspiration/motivation/recharge
The report's authors emphasized that digital events were seen as an addition to, rather than a replacement of, organizers' in-person exhibitions.
"Virtual events are different from their in-person counterparts," they wrote. "Impactful content in education …[is a] powerful way to build an audience to drive traffic and participation in events that happen in person. Having both types of events in a portfolio will likely have positive, synergistic benefits to an organizer in building membership, participation and, if the events are designed and run well, the bottom line."
Virtual and In-Person Event Differences
The findings showed that virtual events tend to be smaller and shorter on average than the equivalent in-person event. For example, the average number of minutes per in-person educational session is 70, but this dropped to 59 for digital events. While the average number of hours per day of an in-person event is eight, it is just six for a virtual gathering. About six out of 10 respondents charge something for their events, with 37 percent charging on a tiered-pricing model and 19 percent charging a flat rate. On average, attendees are being charged $357 per event, with the median at $200.
While virtual-event financial goals were on average much smaller than would be for a physical event, 44 percent of respondents said they met their financial goals (whether that was to be self-sustaining, turn a profit or some other aim) while 21 percent said they exceeded it.
Some virtual events already have succeeded in generating net profit, according to the report. "Overall, gross revenues remain low," the report notes, "but the ability to glean a profit from such events does suggest virtual events offer staying power as an ancillary revenue stream. Virtual events are more likely to add to an event organizer's portfolio rather than cannibalize or replace in-person physical events."
The report also looked at virtual-event trends regionally and by industry. The U.S. proved to be a laggard in its use of hybrid events, with the geographical use of hybrid events broken down as follows:
- 55%: Africa
- 48%: Latin America
- 45%: Europe
- 39%: Asia
- 10%: United States
- 5%: Canada
The industry most eager to embrace digital tools over the long run was "finance, legal and real estate," for which 82 percent of respondents who said they believe virtual will be a larger component of physical events going forward. This was followed by education, in which 74 percent of respondents said they agreed.
This is the first of three reports in this series. The next two will be: "Report Two – Lessons Learned To-date and Technologies Used" and "Report Three - Case Study Examples." This full report can be accessed here.