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Why virtual events shouldn't pretend to be in-person events

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Why virtual events shouldn't pretend to be in-person events

Now that every conference and event manager is trying belatedly to create virtual events, we are seeing the same tired ideas being dredged up. In their haste to apply what they know about physical B2B events to the virtual realm, event managers risk alienating their audiences.

All too often, event managers try to replicate the physical experience on a computer screen. It starts with "words of welcome" from the CEO or a sponsor, through to scripted and heavily edited recordings by presenters who are terrified of going live. What might have looked nice on the big screen of a conference centre is just wholly unsuited for a virtual event. It won't work. There's a good reason why we don't see 10 minutes of recorded fluff at the open of "Last Week Tonight" with John Oliver.

Another so-called innovation is virtual events that pretend to be in-person ones. Some platforms attempt to replicate the on-location experience with gimmicky virtual registration areas, networking areas, booths and even Mindcraft-like avatars. There's a lot of hype around these. But my view is once delegates are over the initial "ooh" and "aah", expectations of the two types of events are just too different to gain widespread user acceptance.

Cast your mind back when you used to attend conferences in person. You would wear your business attire, travel to the venue and register. After being handed your conference badge and information kit, you would swan around the networking area for 20 minutes, drinking the free coffee and meeting new contacts. Your day at the conference was a mix of presentations, panels, networking, refreshments, Q&A, and downtime responding to emails and messages back in the office. You usually met people in chance encounters at the lunch buffet, or through introductions by existing acquaintances. You would leave at the end of the day enriched with content and contacts. Unless you gave a keynote presentation, for delegates it was a largely lean-back experience.

But virtual events are entirely different. You can log in in your pyjamas moments before the first webcast presentation starts. No networking, no new contacts, no serendipitous encounters at a lunch buffet, no free coffee. You end the day rubbing your eyes from too much screen time, having leaned in all day. You got a firehose worth of content, but few if any new contacts.

This underscores why event managers really need to start from scratch when conceptualising virtual events. In-person conferences just don't translate into what in essence are television programs. Event managers would be better off creating a new format than trying to squeeze television onto a conference stage, or conference stages onto television.

One final thought: When Covid struck the phone rang off the hook with event management companies trying to get in on the virtual event space. They didn’t – and still don’t – have even the first clue about how to run a virtual event.

I’ve been preaching for more than a decade that event managers needed to webcast their events. We joined SACEOS, the Singapore Association of Conference and Event Organisers and Suppliers, to help bang the drum about the need for event managers to wake up out of their complacency and get with the program.

A few years ago, we let our SACEOS membership lapse. I just couldn't see any change in mindsets. Time and again event managers knocked us back, because they felt virtual events would cannibalise in-person audiences. They organised amateur camera crews to create those awful "happy faces" videos, but were just too comfortable to really innovate for the screen.

We're now seeing those chickens come home to roost.


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Mark Laudi

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