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How COVID-19 Is Changing the Future of Virtual Events

March 30, 2020

When I got my start in event management, I learned pretty quickly that there’s an event for everything. No matter what industry or business you work in, there’s an event for that.

In-person events are incredibly beneficial opportunities to share industry knowledge, meet with customers face-to-face, engage with prospects, and generate new leads. As a result, businesses are willing to spend a lot of money on events. In 2017, the global B2B event industry generated more than $1 trillion in direct spending. Events generate revenue for many other industries as well, including advertising, hospitality, and travel.

This year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way the world works, and the events industry is no exception. In response to widespread travel bans and advice from medical experts to practice social distancing, many businesses are making tough decisions about the events they’ve been planning for months or even years.

Mobile World Congress, the largest mobile communications trade show in the world, became one of the first conferences to be canceled due to the outbreak. A wave of cancelations and postponements followed, including South by Southwest, Facebook F8, and E3 Expo. However, a curious new trend started emerging: Instead of outright canceling or postponing their events, many tech companies were announcing their in-person conferences would be reformatted as “digital-first” events.

Adobe Summit, originally scheduled to take place in Las Vegas during the last week of March, will now be an online event. Okta, DocuSign, Cisco, Domo, and other software vendors followed suit, converting in-person events to virtual ones. Google and Oracle announced similar initiatives for Google Cloud Next ‘20 and Oracle Modern Business Experience. (These events have since been postponed or canceled after new federal guidelines limiting meetings to 10 people or fewer. Although attendees will experience digital events from the safety of their own homes, virtual events may still require production teams and speakers to gather in the same space.)

Ten years ago, it’s very likely that all these events would have simply been rescheduled or canceled. But new technologies and products are making it easier than ever for organizations to transition their events to digital spaces. This transformation signals an important opportunity for people to participate in events they may have otherwise been unable to attend for financial or accessibility reasons.

Finding the right technology for a virtual event

Companies that already host another type of virtual event, webinars, are intimately familiar with webinar software. Webinar software makes it possible to broadcast audiovisual content from one presenter, or conductor, to large audiences. Typically used for online events such as trainings, briefings, and product demonstrations across multiple different industries, webinar software is an immensely important tool for bringing a key component of events online. 

Webinar software can be used to broadcast keynotes, breakout sessions, panels, and any other type of one-to-many presentation planned for an event. With careful agenda planning and the right setup, event organizers can use webinar software to ensure attendees have the opportunity to attend multiple keynotes, sessions, breakouts, and panels, as well as ask questions, just as they would at an in-person event.

There are many different types of webinar solutions available, so event organizers should try to take advantage of the free trials offered by many of the top webinar products to find out which tool will work best for their event. Some vendors, such as Adobe and LogMeIn, are temporarily offering free access to their webinar platforms for health care providers, educational institutions, and nonprofits. On G2, the webinar software category has seen a huge spike in traffic as companies seek out technology that will enable them to continue working and collaborating effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Online event tech rises to the challenge

While webinar software can help companies broadcast events that would normally take place on stages, conferences are about more than keynotes and breakouts. For many attendees, the most valuable aspect of a conference is networking. Conferences are a rare opportunity to meet customers and prospects face to face.

Traditionally, event technology has struggled to capture this unique aspect of in-person events. At conferences, new partnerships and business deals can happen spontaneously and organically while attendees are walking through exhibit halls, attending sessions, or even standing in line for lunch. It is possible to recreate some of these meetings through video conferencing and conference intelligence software, which help facilitate communication between conference attendees. However, integrating a separate product and experience with the rest of a virtual conference’s content can prove challenging.

As companies continue to navigate the shift to virtual events in response to the COVID-19 crisis, a new generation of online event tech is beginning to emerge. Some event software vendors are adding new features to their platforms to aid businesses and event organizers impacted by the crisis.

Creators of the event matchmaking solution Grip have released Grip Virtual to help event attendees conduct 1:1 virtual meetings. Pathable, a Seattle-based provider of mobile event technology, has seen a huge influx of inquiries from event planners looking to pivot to online events. Pathable integrates live webinars and Zoom meeting rooms with the company’s own cross-device experiences for real-time chat, 1:1 video calls, and gamification. 

Hopin, an online event platform currently in early access, has also seen an increase in interest from event organizers. Hopin’s waiting list jumped from 10,000 to 18,000 event organizers in just a few weeks, CEO Johnny Boufarhat told Crunchbase News. Combining special events, booths, and networking opportunities all available online, Hopin’s mission is twofold: make events environmentally sustainable and accessible to all.

Run the World, an event tech startup, is currently waiving all setup fees for organizers that need to shift their in-person events to the online platform due to the coronavirus. Founder and CEO Xiaoyin Qu said she was inspired to build Run the World after her mother attended an international pediatrics conference for the first time—though she found the trip invaluable, she told Qu she couldn’t see herself attending again due to the expenses and time off from work.

O’Reilly Media, a learning company known for its tech conferences, recently announced it had made the difficult decision to close the in-person events division of the business. In a letter on the O’Reilly website, President Laura Baldwin wrote that the business would be exploring innovations in the digital event space: “With large technology vendors moving their events completely online, we believe the stage is set for a new normal moving forward when it comes to in-person events.”

Virtual events beyond the COVID-19 crisis

In-person events are undeniably valuable. While virtual events may be unable to fully replace that value, they are an increasingly viable option for businesses to supplement their existing conference programs. By hosting or attending a virtual event, organizations are able to save the costs of venue rentals, lodging, food, tickets, logistics, and travel. At the same time, online events lessen the environmental impact of in-person events and ensure that attendees can participate regardless of their physical, geographical, or financial circumstances. With benefits like those, virtual events aren’t going anywhere.

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