Part one of a four-part series on the rise of virtual meetings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Coronavirus has turned the universe of business meetings upside down. Eventually, in-person events will return—most likely with a deluge of bookings in Q4 2020 and Q1 2021—but the overall meetings landscape might never be quite the same. The global pandemic crisis has forced the business world to take an unexpected primer on the possibilities of virtual meetings. But while this digital pivot was a necessity under unprecedented circumstances, the experience is likely to push many organizations to regularly evaluate how they conduct each event in their portfolio: Should it take place in person, online, or both?
This seismic shift is acknowledged even by the biggest champions of in-person meetings. “I agree that there’s the right mix of elements to make this a tipping point for digital assuming a place in the world of meetings,” says Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association. “We at PCMA are thinking that events will change; there will still be face-to-face events as well as virtual components of those events.” Lisa Block, executive vice president of conference strategy & design for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, adds that “this seems like the perfect storm for virtual meetings to become a stronger part of meetings portfolios for corporations and associations. Virtual is definitely here to stay for a wide segment of the business world, and the ways that organizations deliver experiences will change.”
“We understand the need and importance of virtual meetings, especially during this time, and we do believe the mix of virtual and face-to-face meetings will change moving forward,” says David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Global Events and a founding member of the Meetings Mean Business Coalition. “Virtual will occupy a greater part in the events mix than it has previously.” And Annette Gregg, CMM, senior vice president of experience for Meeting Professionals International, notes that “whenever you see a disruption like this and the revised practices that take place during the disruption, you tend to see a lot of those practices carry on as the new normal.”
Meetings-technology experts share those views. Tara Thomas, co-founder and editor of The Meeting Pool, a website focused on event technology, says that “we would be remiss if we didn’t say that this moment is going to change forever the state of the meetings industry. At the very least, there will be much more hybrid execution in the event space, but it’s not going to stop there. Fully virtual events are going to flourish.”
Longtime event-tech consultant Corbin Ball adds that “times of crisis lead to significant creativity and innovation, and I think we are in the middle of that right now. While face-to-face meetings will rebound after the present crisis and there are limitations with all of these tech platforms, a large segment of events will have moved to the virtual medium by the time things get back to normal. Once people get used to the experience and all the tech innovation that is happening now, it’s inevitable that there will be further expansion of virtual meetings.”
Factors Pushing Digital Events Forward
Four developments have shaped the rapidly broadening mindset about virtual events. First, the need for businesspeople to continue to interact during an international travel lockdown has resulted in greater understanding and comfort with virtual-meeting technologies such as Zoom, Skype, BlueJeans, Webex, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams, Adobe Connect, and other basic platforms that allow full-group video interaction, as opposed to typical one-way webinars and webcasts.
Second, increasingly robust technologies can now deliver at least some benefits that previously had been exclusive to in-person meetings, such as serendipitous learning from conversations between random individual attendees or between small attendee groups who share a common interest or issue. For instance, Hopin and Remo are among the platforms that offer one-to-one and “roundtable” video interaction among attendees during breaks between virtual education sessions. Another platform, Conference Scheduling Solutions, schedules attendees for individual video conversations with other attendees or exhibitors based on data collected ahead of an event, with those interactions happening on the planner’s preferred virtual-meeting product. Here’s a comprehensive list of collaborative meeting and event platforms.
Given that such networking and informal learning are among the strongest benefits cited by attendees of in-person meetings, the advancing technology brings a third factor into play: Cost versus benefit. When meetings return, planners and executive stakeholders will be more inclined to examine each event in their portfolio to see if the objectives require an in-person experience, or whether they can be achieved well enough via a virtual platform that would cost roughly 70 to 80 percent less than an in-person event.
“There’s now going to be greater recognition of what can go online somewhat easily and still be effective,” says Karamat. “Events like board meetings that people might normally have traveled for can be handled pretty well through technology, and you will see that experience amplified through the use of artificial intelligence and augmented reality to help participants be more engaged. Also, typical training events are being moved online more frequently, and seen as not being essential for attendees to travel to in order to obtain that type of learning.” This saves both hard costs and opportunity costs connected to attendees’ and executives’ time out of office.
“In-person is always going to be the most effective for bonding and relationship building,” notes Gregg. “But then you can layer on the virtual platform and add value without cannibalizing the in-person event. If your annual meeting has 3,000 attendees but now you have a high-touchpoint virtual experience that attracts 3,000 more people online who never would have traveled to the event, that’s a win.”
(For advice on managing a meetings portfolio comprised of both in-person and virtual events, read A Blueprint for the New Reality)
The fourth factor that will drive virtual events even after the worldwide travel lockdown ends also has global ramifications: Environmental sustainability.
“Given the reduction in air pollution during this shutdown—in cities across China and in Milan, New York, and Los Angeles—we see with certainty the environmental impact of not doing what we used to do,” Karamat says. “It shines a light on human behavior in the 21st century, and it will add to the tipping point for technology to be used to make sure our footprint is lighter. Our views are changing about the impact of travel associated with in-person meetings, and that we could save many lives in the future from less pollution in our environment. So, what are we going to do about it?”
Karamat is hardly alone in this line of thinking. “Cutting down on travel means a lot of time saved and a lot of emissions saved,” adds Block, while Gregg says that “the environmental argument is a compelling one. How can we use this opportunity to sustain our planet in more intentional ways?”
The Final Word: Perspective
Clearly, the landscape has shifted such that technology is challenging the status quo of in-person meetings. But despite the newest options offered by the virtual medium, industry leaders are unwavering in the belief that face-to-face will always be superior for connecting businesspeople in the deepest ways.
“The reality is that human behavior is different when people are face to face. We are hard-wired for in-person contact; it is in our DNA,” PCMA’s Karamat says. “As much as the technology companies might say something else, the opportunities for you and I to come together with others in our company or industry will still happen. Whatever delivers the most value for time spent face to face will still happen that way.”
“I don’t see the present disruption as a threat to our industry—it’s an opportunity,” MPI’s Gregg says. “The most critical delivery will always be done through the live experience. It’s about brain chemistry, and you can’t get all the way there by seeing each other on a screen. There is a reason why in the past several years we have seen such an upswing in experiential event design—why organizations spend a whole lot of money for an immersive setting where you will experience things across all your senses. It’s because neuroscience proves that those experiences are stickier.”
“Virtual will be a greater part of the event mix—but we don’t believe it will be the entire mix,” notes Maritz’s Peckinpaugh. “One thing we know from behavioral science is that people are social creatures, and we firmly believe in the future of face-to-face meetings and the desire for people to gather.”