Virtual events are not the new normal – but hybrid events are

COVID-19 has forced Industry conferences and events to go virtual, but this won’t be the ‘new normal’ – not exactly. Physical events will return, but many will incorporate online components into their programs.

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There’s something meta about attending a virtual business conference on Zoom where the keynote speaker is Zoom founder Eric Yuan talking about how Zoom is enabling virtual business conferences.

I attended just such a conference in August when Yuan spoke at the Singapore Institute of Directors Forum. He mostly talked about Zoom’s origins, success and entrepreneurial pro tips. But it did get me to thinking about how event organizers worldwide – like many other enterprises – have been forced to go virtual in the era of COVID-19.

Whether it’s a corporate event for business partners or a trade show for a given vertical sector, conferences in 2020 have turned to videoconferencing and collaboration platforms to translate their planned conference into a 100% online experience. In the last five months I’ve attended over a dozen virtual conferences of various sizes hosted on a variety of platforms, from Zoom, Zoho and GoToWebinar to BrightTalk, Intrado and On24. And – perhaps inevitably, as someone who has been attending industry conferences for most of my professional life – I’ve been paying attention to how virtual events compare to the real thing.

On a general level, one problem with virtual events is that the same issues that plague Zoom meetings with colleagues also plagues virtual conferences – for example, the nonverbal cues that accompany face to face communication, especially with panel sessions where the panellists are in different locations.

Another problem is that event organizers can be tempted to micromanage the conference by making everything pre-recorded and tightly scripted to the point that you can see the edit points. One conference actually resorted to using a video of a speaker recorded at the same event last year. Sure, there’s a lot that can go wrong with a live webcast, but there is such a thing as being too slick.

And then of course, there are the embarrassing technical glitches – from speakers who forget to unmute their mics to jittery video, wonky sound and (in one case) the whole platform crashing and forcing everyone to log back in again.

On the other hand, there are some definite advantages of virtual conferences as an audience member. For one thing, if the session is boring, you can do other things on your device without disturbing other audience members (or even take a nap) while waiting for the next session. More seriously, everything is made available on-demand. So rather than the usual experience where you agonize over which track to attend, then pick the one that turns out to be boring and end up missing the good stuff, you can essentially timeshift everything that you think might be of interest.

So far, the best virtual conferences are the ones that are not only done live, but convey the spontaneity of a live event. It doesn’t have to be people on a stage – it just has to feel like a live broadcast where the speakers can interact with each other in real time, with a moderator fielding audience questions from a dedicated chatbox. This is harder than it sounds – I’ve seen more events get this wrong than get it right. But the ones that did get it right prove that it can be done.

Virtual hybrids

Inevitably, all of this has led to speculation about what it means for events in the post-COVID era (whenever that may be). Just as some pundits postulate that working from home will be the ‘new normal’, others have suggested that while large trade shows will return, specialized conferences targeting small numbers of delegates will opt for strictly virtual productions.

What we’re most likely to see is a mix of the virtual and the physical. That, at least, is the plan – and actually has been before COVID-19 kicked in, at least for some event companies.

Ivan Ferrari, Event Director for Tech, Media & Entertainment Events at Informa Markets, told me in an interview that his three-year plan for 2020-2022 – which he submitted in November 2019 – envisioned adding virtual components to conferences in 2021 to create hybrid physical/virtual events.

“But of course, in this situation I had to accelerate this plan and, and then switch actually to fully virtual in 2020, rather than just a hybrid format,” he says. “So from 2021 and onwards, definitely we will incorporate the virtual part.”

Ferrari says there are a lot of advantages to virtual conferences, starting with the fact that travel is no longer a barrier – anyone on the planet can attend, and it’s easier to commit your time to an event that doesn’t require you to spend hours on airplanes to attend it. Moreover, virtual conferences can leverage the power of data – unlike physical conferences, event producers can generate more exact figures on attendance, views, audience participation and lead generation.

That said, Ferrari thinks that there will still be demand for physical conferences, if only because we are essentially wired for human interaction.

“I never used the term ‘the new normal’ because I think this is definitely abnormal,” he says. “The vast majority of the population doesn’t love to be on Zoom calls all day. So, once the pandemic is over, we’re going to go back to behaving exactly the same way we used to.”

However, virtual conferences are serving as a field test to demonstrate how online platforms can enhance the conference experience, not replace it.

“The core event is going to be delivered on-site, but you can use virtual platforms to enable many more things so you can magnify the event,” he says.

For example, one of the perennial problems of larger conferences is that you can only experience so much of it. You can only visit so many booths or attend so many keynotes, workshops and panel sessions, some of which may be happening at the same time slot in different tracks. Virtual booth visits and on-demand presentations and panels enable delegates to prioritize what they want to see live and what they can check out after the event is over.

“That’s very valuable, and that’s what we will want to keep going forward,” Ferrari says.