Photo by Heshan Perera on Unsplash
This is the number one question asked in event industry forums and groups across all social media platforms. Someone asks it almost every day. I know because I check.
“This is it,” I said to my director.
She looked up. “This is what?”
It was March 6, 2020. I know the specific date because it is the day Emerald City Comic Con pulled the plug on their 2020 event. I know this because a) I’m a big geek/fan girl and b) I was obsessively following Seattle-based events because it was, at the time, the only known COVID-19 hotspot in the country.
We had yet to cancel anything locally. There were no known cases of COVID-19 in our state. Rumors were just beginning to swirl about a petition to cancel South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, TX.
The storm was coming. I just didn’t know when; however, I wasn’t referencing the oncoming storm that day. I was looking beyond it.
“This is the shift. This is the moment when conferences go digital — where a conference of 1,200 attendees last year morphs into 900 attendees this year. The other 300 will stay home and get their conference fix through streamed general sessions and recorded breakouts.”
She blinked. “You think?”
Large-scale international experiences, like SXSW, will eventually resume. There will be some modification along the way, but the crowds will return. It is the small- to mid-size meeting, convention, and trade show events that are evolving at a blindingly rapid pace. Lucky for them, the technology has been available for years. They just weren’t using it.
For the amount of effort convention planners put into coming up with new and better themes or general session interactivity, they have been remarkably resistant to utilize live streaming as a core conference element. Getting “butts in the seats” has always been the prevailing model.
Big tech has been utilizing streaming technology for years. Apple began livestreaming events (not just press conferences) with WWDC in 2012, albeit for a cost. How many Apple users attend a product launch in person? Not me, but I watched the September 2019 Apple Special Event when it went live on YouTube for the first time — along with 6+ million other people.
I am also one of the millions who obsessively follows any and all Comic Con content as it begins streaming, not always in real-time, out of San Diego. I did mention my overt geekiness. Due to my own event schedule, I will likely never attend Comic Con unless they hire me (OH! That’s an idea!) — once we all go back to work, of course.
There are now multiple webinars on how to take your event virtual. None of them existed four months ago. Platforms are being tweaked or built to accommodate this evolution as it is happening. For small organizations with no budget, it’s Facebook live to the rescue! Everyone wants to know what is working and what is not, but the short answer is this: It is working.
Over the last eight weeks, every organization has realized at least one regularly scheduled meeting could, indeed, be an email. This is the same concept. Do you really need to meet in person?
There will always be a networking element to conventions. It is, without doubt, the single most valuable portion of the on-site convention experience. Professional development and course content are needed and important, but peer networking is the lifeline. We learn so much more from those who are doing the same we work we do. Virtual attendance, however, will provide the same opportunity for professional development — at a lower cost and from wherever people want to attend. Pants optional.
Parents won’t have to skip a convention in order to attend a child’s graduation.
Organizations who just lost their non-essential travel budgets for the foreseeable future will consider “sending” employees virtually.
Teachers can attend leadership or hobby-focused conferences that take place in the middle of the school year.
I was at a university event one time where a student had tucked himself as far away from the masses as possible — absolutely terrified. The event was mandatory and this student with agoraphobia put himself in great mental anguish in order to attend. Crowds are not for everyone.
For meeting planners, this is a good trend. You better jump onboard. Virtual attendance is a secondary income stream. It can grow the overall size of your event without the need for a larger, more expensive venue. You may also find you can downsize the venue and begin exploring smaller cities that would love to host your attendees.
For venues and host cities, this is an uncomfortable shift simply because we don’t know how it will affect revenue. Will a conference of 1,200 attendees downsize to 900? Or will it swing the opposite direction — bringing the same anticipated 1,200 attendees into the city and adding 300 virtually? What venues can and should do, if we haven’t already, is develop the infrastructure and equipment to support live virtual seminars, trade show walkthroughs, and the recording of multiple breakout sessions simultaneously.
Our clients are going to need it.
Like Comic Con or SXSW, convention attendance will, one day, ease back to normal — but virtual is here to stay.
This article was originally published April 25, 2020 on Medium. In 2020, I migrated that writing content to my personal webpage.