They saved the day during the pandemic, but are they still relevant?

Is there still a place for virtual events?

COVID19 lockdowns forced businesses to embrace the concept of a virtual event. Whether that was an annual awards celebration, a conference, a farewell or a largescale training session, for example, the only way to deliver was online, and many companies took up the challenge and fashioned events that were inclusive, engaging affairs.

Now that a vaccine is rolling out and Australia is operating in COVID Normal, should the concept of a virtual event be shelved in favour of face-to-face gatherings, or can we take the lessons we learned from our period of forced online events and incorporate them into our schedules?

The advantages:

  • Less or no travel time for participants. This is a big one because people are more prepared to commit to an event if it doesn’t entail a long commute – whether that’s driving to the venue or catching a plane. For online awards celebrations, people may elect to gather in small groups in someone’s home, or for training in their office – but other than that, it’s just a short stroll to the study.
  • Less expense all round. For the organiser, there’s no venue hire, no food and alcohol costs. You might want to hire a small studio if it’s an event to impress and still provide entertainment (but that will be cheaper if they don’t have to travel.) For the attendee, there’s no ticket cost, no travel costs or parking fees
  • There’s no limit on numbers. But if you are going big – as in thousands, best ensure your technology is up to it.
  • More flexibility on timing. If you aren’t competing for venues, you can set the date and time that suits.  Also, you can record the event and people who were unable to attend can watch it at a later date.
  • Access to the world’s best. The money you are saving on venue and catering can be used to access a higher level of guest speaker or entertainment. It doesn’t matter where they are in the world, as they can join your virtual event at the click of a button and you don’t have to pay for their airfares and accommodation. Win-win!

The challenges:

It’s one dimensional. Meeting people face-to-face and being immersed in the atmosphere isn’t something that can be duplicated online.

Lack of networking opportunities. Large online events don’t deliver those priceless opportunities to network when you are physically present at an event.

No accountability. While people may log in to an online event, you have no guarantee that they are actually watching it – especially if they turn off their camera, and sometimes limited bandwidth, this will mean they have to.

No live audience for presenters to bounce off. A lot of guest speakers base their presentation around interaction with the audience. Whether that’s getting people up on stage; asking for a show of hands to hammer home a point; or asking for life examples from the audience. While the past year has forced them to re-think their approach – it’s often less dynamic.

I believe there’s definitely an ongoing place in the business calendar for virtual events. The benefits are significant – not the least of which are on the bottom line – and the challenges are real, but manageable.

  •  Develop protocols and behaviour standards around online events – e.g., dress code, cameras on, mute on, using the chat function etc.
  •  Experiment with allowing people to talk and interact rather than muting everyone; or, if that’s not possible because of the number of attendees, word up some participants beforehand to provide feedback to those presenters who need it – and allow them to manage their own mute button.