Bye, bye business trips and congress tourism
Bright lights, roaring applause. Oh, the excitement and anticipation as we were coming on stage at an industry event in January 2020 to receive an award for the innovative Predictive NPS®. Still remember it like it was yesterday. Do you remember the last, old-fashioned in-person event you ever attended? Remember the people, the conversations, the hope? As the novel corona virus was quietly creeping towards Europe in early 2020, you probably didn’t suspect that this will be the last event you are setting your business-clad foot at for a long, long time.
In those early days of the pandemic the trillion-dollar global event industry took a hard and immediate blow from the suddenly closed borders, cancelled flights and healthcare system nearing a complete collapse. But most professional organizers of conferences, congresses and trade shows were able to rebound quickly. By the end of spring most of us started attending the virtual alternatives from the safety of our homes.
So what benefits besides safety did virtual formats offer in 2020? We talked to some of the biggest organizers of events in healthcare and telecommunications, as well as some of the vendors and exhibitors, to understand if the rapid digitization of the sector turned out for the better and what kind of events we can expect in the future.
The benefits of virtualization
Accessibility and scale. Most event organizers we talked to are unanimous that the biggest positive effect they have observed is the diversification of the audience. Not only did more people sign up for events and visited professional lectures, but they were also from a much more colourful background – in terms of geography, industry, job function and seniority.
“The chief advantage [of a digital RSNA Annual Meeting] was that attendees were provided opportunity and flexibility to access important educational, scientific and research content, some for the first time,” says Steve Drew, Assistant Executive Director: Scientific Assembly and Informatics, RSNA.
RSNA (The Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America) is the most popular event in the global radiology community and every year gathers hundreds of radiology equipment producers, medical professionals, scientists and healthcare experts. Mark Hamill, CEO and founder of ARCET Global, awards and conferences organizer, also confirms the benefits of diversity: “We have had people from many more countries and company sizes take part in the Awards due to the events being online. I believe that both the financial and time commitments play a big part in this.”
Time Management. Digital formats give participants plenty of possibilities to manage their time better – attend only the sessions they are interested in or watch recording after the live event has passed. “On-demand access allowed participants from around the world to log in on their own schedules from the convenience of their homes or offices,” confirms Steve Drew, Assistant Executive Director: Scientific Assembly and Informatics, RSNA.
Among product demos and scientific sessions, the rich agenda of the RSNA Annual Meeting offers continuing medical education (CME) courses and healthcare professionals definitely value the convenience to get additional credits from the comfort of their homes.
Measurable Data. One of the unique advantages of any digital environment is that it provides a wealthy pool of data about any aspect of an event – attendance, behaviour, visitors. Questions like “Was our keynote a success?” or “Exactly how many people did visit our virtual stand and talked to us?” get a very detailed answer. Organisers and sponsors gain valuable insights and improve their offering.
The downsides to going digital
Loss of depth of engagement. Virtual events may bring more attendees, but digital interactions are inevitably less engaging.
“People don’t have face time with each other and that means they lose on the depth of interaction they would have otherwise even if they are attending a big industry conference,” says Samuel Oakley, Senior Portfolio Director, InformaTech.
“We are witnessing the rise of smaller, close-knit roundtable gatherings, where buyer and seller are closer to each other and have a more genuine interaction which resembles an in-person meeting.”
InformaTech offers events, trainings and media solutions to an engaged community of technology professionals.
Not all formats are directly transferable to a virtual environment. This is especially true for events where the physical interaction with a product or person is central to generating business value, such as expos, trade shows and others. “Virtual platforms offer many incredible interactive features; but for attendees looking to network in-person with their colleagues or interact with technology on the exhibit floor, a physical meeting has advantages,” explains Steve Drew, Assistant Executive Director: Scientific Assembly and Informatics, RSNA. Although most virtual event platforms support some kind of “virtual booth” functionality, the digital twins to well-designed expo stands were a lukewarm success at best. Some of the vendors and exhibitors at big medicine congresses we spoke to reported a tenfold and higher decrease in attendance levels. Hardly a surprise, given the fact that instead of a fully immersive physical experience all the virtual booth allows vendors to do is replicate the best digital content they already have and hope somebody clicks through a long list of logos to come and visit. And why should attendees bother when they can visit the exhibitor’s website at any other time instead? Virtual event platforms and congress participants are yet to offer a meaningful alternative of how to showcase complex products/solutions in industries like medical equipment manufacturing.
Technology. Ah, where to start… I am a true believer of the power of digital technology to come bursting through the door of a well-established sector, entrenched in its stale practices, and turn it on its head. However, in the case of virtual event software vendors we are yet to get a Netflix-like disruptor.
“There is a huge chasm in terms of functionality and UX with the platforms out there too. I have seen some outrageously expensive ones which are simply too complex and not user friendly, and some that are very cost effective and ideal for certain events,” shares Mark Hamill, ARCET Global.
The huge diversity of functionalities and design in this case is a testimony to the immaturity of the sector – no one has cracked the formula of success, yet. And it’s not because nobody is trying. A recent VentureBeat article amounts the most notable VC investments in startups like Bizzabo, Hopin, Welcome and others to a whopping total of $350 million.
Some platforms rely on a showy display on the intro pages, trying to simulate the feel of a busy congress hall, but leave you at a loss when you are looking for even the simplest of things, such as a particular lecture you want to attend. Others are quick and easy to navigate, but perhaps too simple for the traditional congress goer. The general feeling you get when you have attended a few virtual events? That the sector is still in the phase of trial and error, groping in the dark and hoping for the best.
Virtual events are no fun. It’s a public secret that going to business events is also… quite the fun. Cocktail parties, dinners, meeting like-minded people – besides the inspiration and learning, sometimes you just enjoy yourself. And it’s hard to do that after a long day in front of the computer, when fun is also happening… in front of the computer and your family is waiting you for dinner or your kids want some attention.
Why isn’t the (near) future fully digital
There is only one factor for a successful professional event in every industry: Value.
- Value for the attendees – measured by the novelty or practicality of information shared
- Value for the sponsors or exhibitors – measured by the new business opportunities and the general brand benefits of getting in front of an engaged audience
- Value for the organisers – balancing the value for all other stakeholders in a sustainable business model
And while the value which attendees get can be replicated to some extent, especially at more educational-oriented events, there seems to be a key prerequisite for the success of traditional events which is not so easy to reproduce: Attention. During a year of working from home, when urgent e-mails are pouring into your inbox and a million other things require attention, setting aside a whole day or two to listen to keynotes and talk to new partners turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated. And just like that, the fight for attention doesn’t end with making people buy a ticket for your event, it’s merely the first skirmish of many to follow. In a sense, event organisers had to turn overnight from newspaper publishers who compete on sales to social media moguls who compete for precious minutes of visitors’ engagement. However, you can’t lead a digital attention warfare with the tools of a past era. Long lectures, branding-only sponsorship formats, even a lot of 2-day conferences are slowly, but surely to be replaced by other more interactive and valuable formats.
The rise of the hybrid event
So what’s the way forward in the next few years? Predictions when will business travel return to normal differ widely. The most optimistic forecasts bet on a full recovery by 2025, airlines executives remain more realistic and expect a permanent decline of business trips with 10-20% and some, like Bill Gates, for example, predict that in the future 50% of business travel will disappear for good.
In the current uncertain environment, event organisers will have to remain flexibility and innovate rapidly. “A good way for companies to decide would be to ask their customers what they want, then establish a clear set of objectives and plan the event around that,” suggests Mark Hamill of ARCET Global.
A possible hybrid solution that goes beyond one-off events comes from InformaTech. “We are launching soon a whole new community platform, exclusive for CxO/VP-level telecom and technology executives. It will be a format that offers various options for engagement in one place – exclusive content, ideation rooms, guest speakers from other industries, blogs, conversation channels dedicated to specific topics,” shares Samuel Oakley, Senior Portfolio Director, InformaTech. In his words InformaTech’s physical shows will also evolve to a hybrid model, including “providing recordings after the live event”, “small digital happenings or meeting surrounding the weeks before and after the in-person conference” and general transformation of the agendas to provide “shorter, snappier content”.
The Hybrid Event of the Future
Big healthcare congresses will be sure to look for ways to return to the benefits of physical experience, augmented with some digital functionalities. “With the growing availability of COVID-19 vaccines, we anticipate that physical events will return and are currently planning for RSNA 2021 to be held at McCormick Place in Chicago. RSNA has offered a hybrid experience with robust virtual meeting options for several years, and that will continue to be the case,” says Steve Drew, Assistant Executive Director: Scientific Assembly and Informatics, RSNA. Other congress organisers remain conservative in plans and are preparing for another at least 6 months of virtual events.
|Format in 2020||Announced format in 2021||Dates|
|European Congress of Radiology||Virtual||Virtual||March 3-7|
|SLEEP – the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS||Virtual||Virtual||June 10-13|
|European Society of Cardiology Congress||Virtual||Virtual||August 27-30|
|European Respiratory Society (ERS) International Congress||Virtual||Physical||September 4-8|
|RSNA Annual Meeting||Virtual||Physical + Virtual Elements||November 28 – December 2|
Even if we manage to cope with the pandemic in the next 12 months and the big trade shows and congresses return to a physical format, content-driven events will remain virtual for a lot longer, driven by the opportunity for larger scale. Also, if virtual event technology manages to overcome the main challenge of visitor engagement with novel formats or other solutions, the future that awaits us is more than exciting.