Vicki Lepore-Saavedra is an Account Executive at SmartSource, where she has worked since 2013. Her primary focus is presenting the company’s broad offerings to and working with associations, show organizers and event owners to continue building SmartSource’s trade show business. Vicki is a 26-year trade show and meeting industry sales veteran with extensive knowledge of the meeting industry’s technology and logistical needs, as well as having in-depth strategic planning, organization, design and project management experience.
How Virtual Event Learnings Can Improve In-Person Conferences and Exhibitions
When the pandemic required that business-to-business event organizers switch to virtual events overnight, it was nerve-wracking for many. Besides being unfamiliar with an entirely new event model, planners struggled with the technology, learning curve, and design philosophy. While challenging, good came from it. A year later, some learnings from virtual events are poised to change the way organizers run in-person events. Technology will play a significant role.
What stakeholders love about virtual events
Apart from the casual dress code and a short commute, there's a lot to love about digital events:
- Centralized access to information—Speakers and attendees can give and get hours of education through one software platform.
- Archiving—Being able to revisit or watch presentations missed during the live event is no small advantage for time-strapped attendees.
- Tech support—The ability to call for help in a chat or click on a tech support button flattens the platform learning curve and brings immediate relief to attendees who prefer to learn and not troubleshoot.
- Navigation—Clicking around to access presentations, chat, breakouts, and networking is so much easier to do digitally.
- Data—Exhibitors, sponsors, and organizers love the analytics of digital events. Exhibitors can see who engaged with their virtual booths, sponsors can gather lead data from their activations, and organizers can track attendee engagement and collect participant feedback automatically.
- On-demand engagement—Attendees can easily communicate with presenters and peers by typing questions into a chatbox.
The advantages for organizers and participants that digital events have over in-person events—better conservation of resources (time and money), increased access to information and people, and the centralization and organization of data—could put pressure on in-person events to behave similarly. Face-to-face event organizers may have to step up.
Likely, digital events will always be able to hang time-and-money savings over the head of in-person events. In-person event attendees have to travel, eat, sleep, and meet outside their homes and offices, and physical infrastructure is required to transport, feed, house, and organize them. It's time-consuming and expensive for everyone.
But that doesn't mean live events should throw in the towel. Rather than compete, they can compensate with greater efficiency. For example:
- Meeting scheduling, matchmaking, and lead capture software, mobile apps, and smart badges can help reduce the time it takes for attendees to find people, network, build relationships, and accelerate sales.
- Remote check-in kiosks, wireless badge printing, digital signage, wayfinding displays, and chatbots are just some of the tools that can help attendees navigate live events more efficiently and get help when they need it fast.
Archiving and always-on platforms
Virtual events can give participants better access to information and people than live events. They have more capacity for both. And now that attendees are accustomed to learning and networking using a browser rather than a trip, they have greater expectations about access to live-event content and contacts.
To meet the demands of digital event participants, in-person event organizers need to capture all the live content they can (which means more cameras and equipment or fewer presentation rooms) and make it available post-event in an online library. They also need to extend matchmaking and meeting scheduling beyond the live event, which 365 platforms could accomplish.
More beacons, fewer silos
One thing that digital events can do exceptionally well is collect and organize data. Every touchpoint in the virtual attendee journey can be digitized and centralized. However, in-person event planners, especially those using multiple third-party vendors, sometimes struggle to obtain, standardize, consolidate, and activate event data.
To come anywhere near the level of data collection that virtual events are capable of, face-to-face organizers have to increase the number of data collection points through beacons and RFID, for example. And they have to work more closely with vendors (mobile app, proximity beacon, RFID solution, and registration providers) to consolidate data.
Many organizations chose early on to emulate in-person experiences with their digital events. But more than a year into the forced virtual-event experiment, the industry has learned a lot about the value of digital events, and attendees, especially, may not want to leave home without receiving the same value.