Until a month ago, virtual events were considered by many to be a sleepy backwater in the overall meetings industry, a useful but inferior alternative to bringing people together face-to-face. The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing travel lockdowns, quarantines and "stay at home" directives have changed that, possibly forever. Planners don't have the choice to produce in-person events at the moment, and we don't know how long that will last. Experts say it will be several months at the bare minimum, with restrictions likely to continue into the fall and perhaps beyond.
If virtual events are going to replace in-person events in the way they're now being called on to do, they're going to have to deliver the full set of value provided by face-to-face gatherings. That's a tall order, and it calls for us to shift our mindset. I think it helps to begin by breaking down the different benefits of in-person events.
For simplicity's sake, let's organize those benefits into three main buckets: education, networking and trade show. If virtual events are going to rise to the occasion and deliver comparable value to in-person events, they have to deliver roughly equivalent experiences in those three categories and present them in a cohesive package. Here's the way we're currently thinking about this.
Education: Seminars Become Webinars
This is the meat and potatoes of a typical conference. Whether we're talking about seminars, workshops, panels or plenaries, the model is common and straightforward. One or more speakers are up on a stage, often with a screen behind them to project their deck, and the audience is sitting in rows of seats watching and listening. For many conference delegates, these sessions represent at least the nominal reason for attending an event.
Creating an educational solution for a virtual event is fairly straightforward, as most webinar platforms solve this in a well-tested and mature way. Speakers can share their presentations right from a personal laptop or home computer, and the webcams that come standard with virtually all computers these days allow the speaker to be seen while they talk. Multiple speakers can participate in a single presentation, each from their own location; or, if co-locating and formal A/V equipment is available, the webinar can be broadcast from a central location.
For event planners who want more control over the production value of the presentation and don't require audience interactivity, educational sessions can also be prerecorded and "released" during the time boundaries of the virtual event. This still creates a sense of shared experience and meets the educational (and certification) needs of attendees, while reducing the risk associated with live broadcast.
Networking: Replicating the Hallway Track
While education represents the nominal reason many people attend events, the "real" reason for many, if not most, is networking. At an in-person event, that networking happens in both formal settings (e.g., networking receptions, prescheduled appointment blocks) and informal settings (the hallway outside of session rooms, lunch tables and even ill-advised evenings at the hotel bar).
So how can virtual events replicate this profoundly human-to-human experience? It's not easy, and as a virtual-event platform producer, I will be the first to say that there is no true substitute for face-to-face interaction -- but there are some great opportunities.
First, of course, there are discussion forums and chat channels. These can be conversation areas attached to specific educational sessions or they can be free-standing areas, like a private, branded Facebook page, where the closed set of "attendees" at the event can engage around the topics relevant to the event audience. Good discussion forums will go beyond just displaying names of participants, but also lets people to build out profiles with photos, allowing people to "put a name with a face," a critical step in building social engagement.
Virtual events with discussion forums can even offer a lasting advantage over in-person events in that those discussion forums can begin weeks before the event itself and continue long after it's over, turning a three-day virtual event website into a 365-day community.
But I am a strong believer in being able to see someone when I talk to them. Anyone who has participated in a video call, be it via Skype, FaceTime or Zoom, can attest to the improved level of connection and empathy felt when you can see someone's face. A wrinkle of a brow can hint at confusion that might be missed in a phone conversation, and a wry smile can communicate the tone of a sentence that might otherwise be misconstrued were it typed.
This is one area in which virtual event platforms are expanding their horizons to great impact. At Pathable, for example, we have introduced "Birds of a Feather" small group meetings, akin to the "lunch table topics" many conferences offer. The event owner can put various options on the agenda, allow attendees to sign up in advance, and at the appointed time, they can join a small discussion with their colleagues, with all participants able to see and hear everyone else. Each person's video channel is tiled, "Brady Bunch"-style.
Another approach we've taken is to offer one-on-one or small-group private meetings, where attendees can book times within the boundaries of the virtual event to meet on camera, in just the same way as they might have booked a meeting table or a spot in a networking lounge at an in-person event.
Trade Shows: Don't Forget Who Butters Your Bread
While most events of any significant size charge attendee admission, the difference between break-even and profitable often comes from the revenue that sponsors and exhibitors represent. With virtual events, those who neglect this element do so at their own peril.
Many virtual event platforms offer a "virtual trade show." Some try to replicate the experience of walking the aisle of an exhibit hall, while others use the familiar interfaces of websites that attendees may find easier to navigate with their mouse and keyboard. Either way, "exhibitors" are given the opportunity to present a branded "booth," complete with logo, description and downloadable collateral for attendees to browse.
This is another opportunity for virtual event organizers and platforms to step up their game. Presenting information from sponsors and exhibitors online isn't enough, nor is allowing attendees to simply request information through a website. That's the equivalent of arriving at an empty booth at a trade show and being told to leave a card if you want someone to get in touch with you.
Look for a lot of innovation in this realm. With our latest update, for example, attendees can "walk into" an exhibitor's booth and have an instant video conversation, replicating the interactivity and quick answers you might get on a trade show floor -- without getting sore feet.
Virtual Event: More Than A Sum of its Parts
For a virtual event to be more than just a website with links to videos, a chat room and sponsor listings, the organizers must bring the buckets together into a cohesive whole -- for which people gather, at a specific time, to experience something together.
The event technology industry has received this call to arms loud and clear, and there is a scramble on to meet the need. We will no doubt see enhanced offerings pop up quickly from new and established players to respond to the crisis our industry faces.
Hopefully, this change will offer a lasting benefit to the event industry. The coronavirus epidemic will eventually subside and we will be allowed to return to the convention centers and meeting halls we're used to. When that happens, though, I believe our current experience with virtual events will have a permanent impact on how events are held. The economy is likely to depress business travel for some time, and global recognition of the airline industry's impact on climate change was already causing some to rethink their frequent flying.
What's more, now that people have had the experience of working remotely, I expect that we will see some of that continue even after it becomes less necessary. Events will offer hybrid experiences, where remote attendees can participate via these same virtual event platforms, at perhaps reduced prices, while others continue to attend in person. And perhaps some event planners will be pleased enough with the results of their virtual events that they will turn a sharper eye to costs associated with holding certain in-person events and consider whether to go back.
What the future holds for events is uncertain. What is certain is that we will survive, and event platforms that can address and nurture our humanity will thrive. That's what we're working on, anyway.
Jordan Schwartz is president and co-founder of Pathable, a platform specializing in social virtual events, mobile event apps and online communities. Pathable is a 100-percent remote office, with employees distributed around the globe. Jordan works from his home in Seattle and tends his community of bees in his spare time.