Challenge or opportunity?

Face to face versus virtual

There’s an almost palpable tension in the conference and events industry between face to face events and the ‘virtual’ or ‘online’ experience.

There seems to be a certain reticence from some traditional conference production companies, experiential agencies, PCOs and event owners with an established and vested interest in face to face events.. a feeling of “hang on, if we put all this on the web, if we make it available online, if we go down the route of virtual events, people are not going to come to our events anymore. Isn’t it going to kill our industry doing that?”

But actually the reverse is true because the whole principle of virtual, or on line events, web casting or web broadcasting (choose your appropriate terminology), is that it actually enhances face to face events.

People will always come to face to face events because they want to meet people, they want to bump into old friends and make new ones in the bar afterwards. People who want to attend are always going to attend and the idea that putting the conference content online will cannibalise physical attendance is quite simply misguided.

The flip side is that a significant percentage of people will never go to a particular event; people who just don’t want to turn up for whatever reason.
Isn’t it great that you could actually open up and engage with these people by putting your conference content online?

Of course the arguments are different for different types of organisation;

  • For the corporate event organiser, as well as efficiency and speed of communication – particularly for those operating internationally –  it’s about reducing cost and environmental impact.
    Isn’t it great that actually you don’t need to get every person travelling every time,  to every event; you can pick and choose. Let individuals go to the events where it is vital for them to be there in person, but if its not crucial they attend you can save money, be more sustainable.
  • For the trade association, the sector-specific body or other membership based organisation a similar argument applies. Most of these organisations only attract a small percentage of their total membership to their events. Those that do attend are not just there for the conference sessions; the reasons they attend are multiple. Similarly to their corporate counterparts this audience craves human interaction and relishes those chance conversations that open doors. But there are other drivers such as kudos, self-esteem and sometimes it is as prosaic as getting those extra air miles or hotel group loyalty points. So you will not ‘put-off’ people who have strong personal reasons for attending; what you can do is open up new wide or targeted audiences who cannot or will not attend. You can also enhance the experience of those physically attending by giving them the added value of being able to access, revisit and share sessions after the event. If this is included as an extra benefit within their registration fee, it’s a sure fire method of increasing rather than depleting physical attendance at future events!

Companies and organisations that run conferences and congresses need to face up to this current challenge and see it for the opportunity it represents. They have to adapt to benefit from the new order of things enabled by web broadcasting.

It is my belief that adaptation is not an option if an organisation intends to be around for the long term. Michael Anderson, the President and CEO of the Canadian Society of Association Executives put the situation for associations very succinctly in a speech at Association Congress 2011, when he said,

Michael Anderson

“An Association has to remain relevant; if you aren’t adapting to your member needs, if you are not looking down the road in terms of what is going to impact them, and preparing them, the organisation is going to become irrelevant fairly quickly.”

Virtual and online events are already impacting companies and organisations in the conference world because people are starting to expect that the content will be published on the web. The organisations that embrace this development as a positive force are the ones that will remain relevant and prosper.