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Virtual Events are Unreal and Here to Stay


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I physically attended 24 conferences in 2019. This year I made it to three (CenturyLink, Avaya, and Cisco) before everything went virtual. I’m not certain how many virtual conferences I’ve attended this year, but it was four in October, and boy, are my arms fatigued.
Business travel is a paradox: everyone wants it, yet no one really enjoys it. Personal travel is a horse of a different color. Fun in the sun is a remedy for cabin fever, but travel just isn’t as compelling when it’s on top of full-time work obligations. I’ve spent way too many hours in airports, hotels, and windowless conference rooms. The modern interpretation of “jet setting” is long unproductive days filled with a lot of hurry-up-and-wait.
While I may not miss the travel, I’ve come to better appreciate a good in-person conference. In addition to better swag, a good conference meets two objectives: education and relationships.
All of these windowless conference rooms are usually filled with back-to-back informative presentations. In this regard, online meetings are arguably even better than in-person events. For example, I no longer struggle with getting snaps of slides into my notes. I am more productive with my home-setup (an adult-sized keyboard and multiple, large displays) than at conferences (using a laptop in an uncomfortable chair at a repurposed dining table that doesn’t have enough power outlets). I’ve also come to appreciate volume control and live captioning. I used to look for a seat up front, but I now prefer my seat thousands of miles away.
The virtual events have presentations licked, but the relationship part is weak. Virtual events make it hard to maintain and grow existing relationships as well as forge new ones. I’m missing those serendipitous, ad hoc conversations that occur throughout these events. There’s also the loss of visual discovery, such as the experience of roaming an expo hall.
There have certainly been some creative attempts to replicate schmoozing online. I’ve attended a few online wine tastings and even participated in a master course on cookie baking. These were fun events but not ideal for meeting new people. What’s missing are the whispered conversations. It’s surprising how much one might learn in an elevator, a taxi, or even at a bank of urinals. There’s no virtual equivalent.
At this point, I can’t foresee ever returning to 24 conferences a year. I’ve concluded that trading my airline elite status for less travel is an upgrade. I certainly won’t return to events that are mostly presentations. Pre-pandemic that wasn’t really an option. Most conferences restricted online content to attendees (that doesn’t even make sense). I suspect online alternatives will be available for most future events.
However, the decision to attend conferences in the future may not be mine. Above, I shared my perspective, but there’s also the question if event organizers will return to hosting physical events. Virtual events are less expensive (daresay cheap) to host. Pre-recorded sessions practically eliminate many of the risks associated with a conference, such as logistics problems, speaker no-shows, and venue sizing. Also, the production team can add Hollywoodish effects to the videos.
If the attendees don’t have to be at the event, the same is true for the speakers. That opens a lot of possibilities. I like to think that presenters are more accessible if they don’t need to travel. Barack Obama was a featured speaker at the recent Twilio Signal conference. The last in-person Signal conference featured Mindy Kaling.
The solution to networking and relationships may already exist in team messaging or enterprise social apps, and it’s a matter of rethinking the event. It’s common in disruptions to emulate the past, and many of these virtual events have recreated the auditorium and expo hall. I expect over time that virtual events will evolve into something completely different. It seems impossible to recreate social interactions online, but that’s how people felt about online dating too, — a much more personal interaction.
This year was big for virtual events, and I expect them to get much better. Virtual events in the past few months were already far better than those last Spring. There’s a lot of investment and development taking place too. For example, a U.K.-based events provider, Hopin, raised $40 million last June, that was after just raising $6.5 million in February. It attracted backing from Salesforce Ventures and the Slack Fund. I see that G2 currently lists 60 different virtual event platform companies.
Virtual events rely heavily on familiar live streaming and meeting technologies. But now virtual conferences are breaking out as their own vertical. The pandemic caused lots of meetings improvements in other verticals, such as healthcare, education, and government. Perhaps in the future, virtual event providers will improve ad-hoc conversations at events.
Virtual events can and probably should be very different from physical events. A few months ago, Google hosted its Cloud Next ‘20 event over nine-weeks. It seemed odd at first, but really why collapse it all into a few days if there’s no travel? We also need to re-think our role as participants. I’ve noticed that discussion sessions tend to be more interactive at virtual events, possibly because there’s no opportunity for private hallway conversations.
I do expect physical events to return. It was a $325 billion industry in 2019. The conferences I attend are mostly presentations, but there are plenty of events that inherently require in-person attendance, such as industry-wide events (for networking), car shows (to see and touch), or even dog shows (come!).
I can even see a hybrid model develop for presentation-heavy conferences. An event that uses virtual technologies for the presentations and then hosts a shorter in-person element for interactive discussions and activities. There might even be assigned homework such as read or watch specific content before attending.
While the virtual event is here to stay, physical events will return. Though there will be fewer, and they will be shorter. Maybe we can use unused convention center space to store our CDs, books, and newspapers.
Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.