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COVID-19 Turns Virtual Tech Conferences into a New Reality

Since the time the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the coronavirus a pandemic, 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 section of the industry is seeking creative ways to keep the business going. As a result, a good number of meetings and conferences have been redesigned as virtual events.

The Rise of Virtual Tech Conferences

Conferences are a trillion-dollar industry and have been a critical way to exchange ideas and build professional relationships. Since the COVID-19 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.

Thereafter a number of high-profile tech events have been forced to become digital-only, and growing number of organizations started experimenting with virtual events. 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.

Read more: Tech Industry Feeling the Heat of Coronavirus

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.

While there are many aspects of in-person events that can’t be replicated in digital form, the virtual gathering also presents distinct opportunities that could prove beneficial for organizations over the long run.

On the benefits of virtual events, Congrex, a Switzerland-based events management company, mentioned in their official blog, “If adaptable, this meeting format is probably the best alternative in these challenging times. 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.”

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.

Pitfalls of going the all-virtual way

There are however certain downsides to virtual-only events. According to some, the alternate ideas such as webinars, panel live stream among others have been fairly uninspiring. There’s always a 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.”

Qu 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.

Read more: Coronavirus Fears Claims More Global Conferences

But Digital event strategist Jennifer Kingen Kush says in a recent 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.

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.”

In the post COVID-19 era, virtual conferences may well become the norm as long as they are strategically planned using the right technologies. 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. 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.

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