Digital Enterprise

Is the Future of Global Technology Events ‘Virtual’?

 As a B2B technology editor, every year I attend a couple of tech summits, spending some time in observing the excitement among the sponsored companies, their business partners, speakers, attendees, PR groups and events organizers. Huge hallways and auditoriums,  over the top keynotes, mega launches and announcements, grand networking opportunities and gala dinners were inseparable part of those epic events. Over the last few months, as countries around the world have gone into lockdown, physical events died down, my inbox was suddenly overrun with invitations to join virtual briefings, talk sessions, panels, online launches and more. I was initially skeptical about these events: what was the point in attending these sessions if I am unable to meet these cool companies face-to-face and benefit from the actual networking. Also if needed, I can watch the YouTube recording, I thought… And then out of curiosity, having attended a few virtual events over the last few weeks and speaking to some experts, I wish to share my opinion with the world.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, IT companies around the world relied on conferences and in-person events to empower employees and partners, generate new leads and foster future opportunities. Since the time the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the coronavirus pandemic, and with countries and companies issuing travel bans, organizers of a number of tech events and conferences were forced to change their plans. While some have cancelled their annual events or called for a postponement, a good number of meetings and conferences have been redesigned as virtual events.

The phenomenon of large technology conferences being converted into remote gatherings within a short span of time naturally poses a question: Does this portend a fundamental change in how dozens of tech summits are held annually, or is this a one-off until public health officials contain COVID-19?

A trek to the virtual world

Online events aren’t new in the corporate world. Reel back in May 2018, the whole world turned on their computers to watch Warren Buffett’s comments at the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholder’s meeting. And in September 2019, Apple’s iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and Pro Max launch event kept 1.8 million people glued to their screens as the event was live-streamed for the first time. As data becomes more affordable, the debate intensified whether ‘the future will become all about remote participation, especially in the technology industry.

However, the trillion-dollar event industry drastically changed ever since corona struck. The first major tech conference to cancel due to safety concerns was Mobile World Congress (MWC), the annual gathering of electronics makers. But with millions of dollars on the line, and the fact that conferences are a critical way to exchange ideas and build professional relationships event, organizers found a scalable solution in virtual events. Thereafter a number of high-profile tech events have been forced to become digital-only, and growing number of organizations like Google, Apple, Oracle, Cisco, Microsoft, Amazon and a flood of other companies announced that their in-person events and conferences for 2020 are moving online.

Google Cloud Next ’20 became Digital Connect and promised that what once was a three-day conference to be a “free, global, digital-first, multi-day event” that would use the Next ’20 content. Facebook has cancelled all physical conferences and events by June 2021, including the F8 Developer Conference and Oculus Connect 7 virtual reality conference that was supposed to be held in San Jose. According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, some of these will be organized as virtual events instead.

Microsoft has already announced to make all its events digital-only till July 2021, including its flagship Microsoft Build and Microsoft Ignite 2020.

Other global events such as the SAS Global Forum, Red Hat Summit, Microsoft Build, Cisco Live, Dell Technologies World and many more that were to be held at various locations for the coming quarters have gone virtual because of the coronavirus, so that people can participate virtually and scale up their digital offerings to new heights.

When ‘virtual’ is the way to go

Some in the industry believe, this meeting format is probably the best alternative in these challenging times. Congrex, a Switzerland-based events management company, mentioned in their official blog, “By their very nature, virtual events allow attendance irrespective of travel restrictions and facilitate the delivery of vanguard information. Moreover, this format is perfectly compatible with event marketing and sponsorship strategies while allowing planners to be ready for any eventuality.”

Parag Naik, Co-Founder and CEO, Saankhya Labs
Parag Naik, Co-Founder and CEO, Saankhya Labs

Parag Naik, Co-Founder and CEO, Saankhya Labs agrees, “Virtual events are a great way to hold events because they allow more people to attend than live events. There are no travel arrangements to make, no plane tickets to book and no requests to management for time off. You sign up and log in to the event at the appointed time.”

Some companies are trying to bridge the gap between in-person events and virtual ones with platforms that combines video, instant messaging, social networking, chat and a slew of other audio-visual tools.

Based on projections from Grand View Research, virtual events will grow nearly ten-fold over the next decade from $78 billion to $774 billion.

The research also focuses on a new industry boom happening currently: the online event industry. While these platforms existed before, their numbers were relatively low. Now they see a phenomenal increase in demand with hundreds of companies waiting to use their products. In the first few months of 2020 alone, virtual events software companies such as Eventbrite, EasyWebinar, GoToWebiner and Demio are seeing a huge traction on their platforms.

Rahul Sharma, Managing Director-India, LogMeIn
Rahul Sharma, Managing Director-India, LogMeIn

Given the current market dynamics and the need for social distancing, virtual events come across as a superior alternative vis-à-vis the physical ones, believes Rahul Sharma, Managing Director-India, LogMeIn whose virtual meeting app GoToMeeting offers flexibility and support for users, regardless of their location, with collaboration, messaging, mobility, among others. “Virtual events can perhaps help organizations to forge relationships that even last beyond the pandemic,” he says.

But all’s not well in the virtual land

In theory, virtual events have a lot going for them. They’re better for the environment. They’re more accessible. They save attendees time, as they don’t have to travel or stay overnight in a hotel. They’re cheaper — organizers don’t have to bother with hiring a venue or dealing with caterers, so ticket prices can come down. And in some ways they’re more flexible — the audience, for starters, can be far, far larger.  But they also have some obvious drawbacks.

There are no free drinks, there’s no time for serendipitous bonding. Remote attendees are more likely to be distracted by their emails — or children. And people just aren’t used to them yet.

Not everyone is happy with the way events are crafted. For example, Vikram Roy, a senior analyst at a Mumbai-based IT research firm, terms some of the recent virtual IT events as “dull and boring”. He believes that many virtual conferences offer little opportunity for attendees, partners and media to interact with each other and vendors. In addition, many vendors so tightly try to control messaging and content that the events turn out to be more promotional.

Roy’s experience is common and this problem is likely to plague virtual conferences, unless companies and event planners come up with compelling ways to design and execute these events.

According to some others, the alternate ideas such as webinars and panel live stream often lack the visual cues that govern face-to-face interaction. As Xiaoyin Qu, the co-founder of a virtual conference startup, Run the World observes, “The problem with most virtual conferences is the inability to meet other people.”

She believes that the best event moments often weren’t the keynote speeches, but the breakout sessions or coffee breaks when conference attendees could bump into one another. “When people met someone at a conference whose work was relevant to them, it made the $1,000 ticket worth it. When they didn’t, conferences sometimes felt like a waste of time,” she says.

But Digital event strategist Jennifer Kingen argues in her latest blog, “The thing with remote attendees is that after they engage online with you, when they later show up at a face-to-face event, that relationship has already been established and it makes the in-person experience even richer. It’s like having a pen pal, then meeting them face-to-face. It can be really powerful and creates more of a feeling of connection.

Making online events work

Experts believe, in the post COVID-19 era, virtual conferences may well become the norm as long as they are strategically planned using the right technologies. So while challenges exist, with the help of sound online facilitators, minimizing technical error, circulating the right information, collecting feedback from participants and providing a space for professionals to network (interact), companies can turn virtual events into a new reality.

Presentation design is the key here, believes Sharma. He says, “What works in-person from a stage may not translate well to the small screen. A great rule of thumb is to have a small audience engagement activity every 10 minutes. Another piece of advice is to always have a moderator or host who can interact with the speaker and draw the audience into the session through conversation and Q&A.”

Laura Ramos, Vice President, Principal Analyst , Forrester
Laura Ramos, Vice President, Principal Analyst , Forrester

Laura Ramos, Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, believes engagement is the key measurement in determining a conference’s success. She says, “Given the current situation, planners must consider how best to achieve that goal. Moreover, when you’re challenged, you have to explore new options and look differently at things. And hence, Rather than cannibalizing live events, digital events can actually enhance them.”

Sharma too emphasizes on creating an engaging experience for all participants with in-depth insights and videos, polls, and sharing functionalities for attendees. He believes follow-up emails help in driving higher traction.

As with live events, technology is one of the most important aspects of a virtual event. You’ll want to make sure to have a technical resource available on-hand for the duration of your event. As Kingen opines, the worst thing that can happen is attendees having technical issues and not knowing who to ask for help.

Will virtual events replace in-person gatherings?

While there are many aspects of in-person events that cannot be replicated in the digital form, the virtual gathering also presents distinct opportunities that could prove beneficial for organizations in the long run. However, for some, in the long run, virtual conferencing might not be able to replace the relationship-building that takes place over cocktail and dinners, as Roy believes, humans are naturally tribal creatures, and nothing in the virtual world will replace the face to face greetings, shaking hands, chatting to a speaker after a session, or even that late night bar conversation that opens windows to new ideas.

Whether the future of tech events industry relies solely on virtual events or it will bounce back with some new alternatives is a space to watch out. After all, it is still early days for online events.

But there is potential. And many believe, virtual tech events are here to stay. With more IT companies joining hands with tech-events startups, building immersive online event experiences, we might as well be looking at a future where the tech event industry goes ‘virtual’ at least for some time now. A lot will also depend on the attitude at large when people can meet in person again. Would people be tired of quarantine and get ready to network? Or will they be cautious about gathering in large groups and hesitant to want to get back into the old way of doing things? Only time can answer.

Some global tech conferences may eventually become hybrid in nature, combining the best of in-person and virtual strategies that may reach a wider audience than traditional live events. This can create the ultimate win-win situation.

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Sohini Bagchi
Sohini Bagchi is Editor at CXOToday, a published author and a storyteller. She can be reached at sohini.bagchi@trivone.com