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The Pitfalls of the Virtual Event Industry
Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11 when they heard the news that the Twin Towers were gone, and America was at war. I was running a conferencing company in 2001 and was invited to a church event that started at 9:00 that morning. My business partner and I turned off our cell phones and waited for the guest speaker to start, only to be surprised and frankly annoyed at how many other people had not silenced their cell phones. When the speaker announced what was really going on, we turned our phones on, left immediately and got back to the office.
For the first week after 9/11 everyone was in shock and our phones were silent as people processed then unthinkable. Then all of a sudden, our phones began to ring off the hook as many of our customers set up accounts for employees who were on a travel pause for at least 30 days after 9/11. People who had never held a conference call before were holding meetings with their remote teams, conducting virtual sales calls, and doing business on audio conferencing. But then air travel resumed, people relaxed a little and business started to get back to normal. Unexpectedly, our conferencing revenue not only held steady, but continued to grow.
So, what does the business behavior surrounding 9/11 say about the event industry? I thought about this recently when I read a post on an event industry discussion forum where the question was asked, “Will the event industry return to the way it was once the Pandemic is behind us. Or is the media hype and fear-mongering that surrounds the Delta Variant be enough to scare people away permanently from the Vegas Strip or the Magic Kingdom in Orlando?”
What happened after 9/11 gives us a clue as to what will likely happen to the event industry. Even though live events are returning, the industry will likely not go back to a time where there are little to no technology options to participate virtually.
Attendees have gotten used to the convenience of going online. They can be in their pajamas and still attend workshops and sessions. Professionals can get the required certifications to maintain their licensure or professional credentials without having to leave home. If they miss the live session, no problem. It will go online in a matter of hours to watch when their schedule permits.
Companies have discovered the efficiency of being a virtual exhibitor. They can still get sales leads, but not have to pay for staff to travel, be away from their job, or ship a booth. The ROI may not be as significant as a live event, but the cost is way less and the convenience factor is high.
Organizations have found alternate ways to connect people. Attendees can socialize and start conversations without having to sit in a crowded bar. They can browse directories to see who is attending and connect with more people than they might have by wandering the exhibit hall.
And there’s little to no risk. Events won’t cancel because of travel issues. People can still attend even if they are scared of being in close quarters. Organizers don’t have to worry about any restrictions imposed by the venue or that there won’t be enough staff in the hotels and restaurants or enough Uber drivers.
9/11 taught us that once technology innovations make doing business more convenient, quicker and more cost effective, it’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle. Events like 9/11 and the Pandemic, as painful as they are, accelerate innovation, streamline processes, and cause us to evolve in ways we never expected.
Virtual and hybrid events are not only not going away but are now part of the fabric of how we conduct a tradeshow, manage an association annual conference, or deliver a sales kickoff. Will the live event industry return to the way it was before the Pandemic? Has the media scared us enough to stay away from live venues? The answer is that the events industry has evolved into a new model, not driven by fear tactics, but rather by the opportunities and convenience of having technology connect us in a way we never expected.