Digital Enterprise

Is the Future of Global Tech Events ‘Virtual’?

The tech industry is finding new and innovative ways to bring compelling experience into the virtual world through online events.

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. With countries and companies issuing travel bans, and the world fearing a second wave of the pandemic, the trillion-dollar industry is shifting to a virtual format. Opinions are divided on whether the future of tech events industry rely solely on virtual events or it will bounce back with some new alternatives.

A trek to the virtual world

Ever since the corona outbreak came to the fore, 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. In recent months, tech industry leaders 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. 

Parag Naik, Co-Founder and CEO, Saankhya Labs says, “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.”

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 that has built a virtual meeting app called GoToMeeting. “Virtual events can perhaps help organizations to forge relationships that even last beyond the pandemic,” he says.

Based on projections from Grand View Research, virtual events will grow nearly ten-fold over the next decade from $78 billion to $774 billion. In 2020 alone, virtual events software companies such as Eventbrite, EasyWebinar, GoToWebiner and Demio are seeing a huge traction on their platforms.

Read more: Businesses Need Events to Stay Relevant: Experts

But all’s not well in the virtual land

But 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 come off more promotional.

Roy’s experience is common and problems continue 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 cofounder of a virtual conference startup, Run the World mentions in an article with Wired, “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 an interview, “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.”

Using the best practices

In fact, 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 may work 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 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.”

Read more: CES 2021 to be a Virtual Event – Organizers do a Volte Face

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?

The short answer may be no. 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. 

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.

However, virtual tech events are here to stay. With more technology companies joining hands with tech-events startups, building immersive online event experiences, we might as well be looking at a future where the trillion-dollar event industry goes ‘virtual’ for a long haul.

Leave a Response

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