I am gonna skip the intro where I tell you about how many events, conferences and exhibitions we have all been to in the last few years and how this year has been different for obvious reasons. I am not gonna tell you about how many times we have flown across oceans, driven on the autobahn or sat on a train to reach destinations far and near. 2020 has been an eye opener as COVID-19 is everywhere and all of us business travellers are facing a new reality of how we do business.
But although our frequent flyer miles remain at zero this year, it still feels like we have been all over the place - virtually. Most of us have used WebEx, Zoom and Skype for many years, long before the virus. But the rate at which we have been using these and many other new digital communication tools since spring of this year has been unprecedented.
Why do companies participate in events?
Let’s have a closer look and examine for a moment why we actually have business events, for example conferences and exhibitions. From a company’s perspective, there are usually these three ways to participate in an event:
As an exhibitor
From an exhibitor’s perspective, events are one of the strongest sales and marketing channels available. A booth on an exhibition floor provides a great opportunity to show off products to a very targeted and relevant audience. High value, complex and large size products often benefit the most in these environments as they can be touched, examined and understood by potential customers that otherwise would not be able to experience this product. Lead generation is usually the primary reason for investing in often very expensive exhibition space. Participating as an exhibitor is a bit like entering your industry’s market place. You make yourself visible to your competitors, customers as well as existing and potential partners.
As a sponsor
Getting your brand out there in front of the leaders in your industry is a valuable way to increase your visibility and exposure to important stakeholders. A sponsorship at an event is often a way to not only get visual presence by having your logo displayed on various signs, badges and brochures, but also to have your company’s name mentioned during keynote speeches, announcements and press releases. At many events and conferences, a sponsorship can also “buy” the most prominent speaking slots and best booth locations on the exhibition floor.
As a speaker
The main reason for getting behind the podium at a conference is also mostly driven by the desire to get exposure for your company and product. This is usually packaged in an interesting speech topic and delivered by one of your most knowledgeable executives to attract the audience. If your company happens to be a sponsor of the event, you may also get the first keynote speech of the day for maximum exposure.
So, regardless of whether you are an exhibitor, sponsor or speaker, your goal is to showcase, explain and demonstrate your products and services to visitors of an event.
Visitors and delegates are what the above mentioned groups are after as they bring interest, time and purchasing power to the event. They participate in conferences to inform themselves on what the market has to offer by attending speeches on topics they are interested in, by wandering around on the exhibition floor and of course by meeting and shaking hands with people at the various booths they visit.
As you will have noticed, each of the above images shows how active and innovative the virtual events platform space has been, especially in recent months, trying to find ways to simulate each of the described scenarios virtually.
The building blocks for virtual event experiences
Given the recent increased demand for more sophisticated virtual event platforms, most solutions out there focus only on certain aspects of the overall event experience that we are used to in the physical world. Let me give you some examples.
The use of Zoom for video conferencing between two people or among small groups of 5-10 persons has been widely used even before the pandemic. However, the platform has been pushed for upgrades to support larger groups throughout this year. Zoom now accommodates much larger audiences enabling virtual events with dozens of active conversation participants and in some cases hundreds of people viewing the live video stream of a panel discussion or presentation. But of course that’s not the same as a real world event. No exhibition space, no random networking at your own control, no touching and trying of products, you get the idea.
Another example is Mozilla Hubs, which has been focussing on providing virtual reality (VR) environments for relatively small groups, currently with a maximum capacity of 25 people. Although this limitation is not practical for hosting large events and conferences, it does provide the ability to literally step into an immersive 3D environment by the use of a virtual reality headset. As the penetration of VR headsets increases, we are likely to see more meetings and small events in three dimensional business environments.
Contrary to Mozilla Hubs, AltspaceVR focusses very much on providing a platform where users can discover other people’s events. Open meet-ups on specific topics can be joined freely or by invitation. Given the variety of open and public virtual spaces, AltspaceVR can be an interesting “place to be” to meet new people with similar interests. The spatial audio feature - the ability to hear where a voice is coming from - makes the avatar based networking experience even more enjoyable. It allows you to listen into conversations happening around you and decide which one you would like to join at free will, very much like you would do at a real networking party at a bar or restaurant for example.
The human touch
As the above suggests, virtual events have the potential to replicate many of the physical scenarios and satisfy many of the motivations why we go to events. In some cases they do this very well already, in others they still lag behind real world events as only bits and pieces of the real experience are addressed. The most obvious drawback is of course “the human touch”. Meeting someone in person, shaking hands, sitting down at a table to have a cup of coffee together can certainly be an enjoyable and meaningful experience to establish a business relationship. Who would disagree, right? The flip side of that argument is that these encounters can also be incredibly time consuming. Some devil’s advocates might even call this inefficient or waste of time? Hmm. Perhaps some of you may have had the experience of actually traveling a far distance to participate or even exhibit at a promising, yet very expensive event. You might have had high expectations in terms of your return on investment, but went home with nothing but expenses and only a handful of business cards worth very little.
Will virtual events replace physical events?
As almost always, the truth is probably not a clear yes or no. While the above shows some of the pros and cons for each, it will come down to a cost-benefit evaluation for each event you are planning to hold. I dare to predict that we will see more and better virtual events going forward, even beyond COVID-19. What we have learned about meetings and events in virtual environments since the beginning of the pandemic and with the multitude of tools developed this year especially, it is likely that we will see a long lasting paradigm shift in how we approach events as part of our go-to-market strategies. Of all the terrible things corona has caused this year, it certainly has done one good thing: innovation acceleration!