You've heard these sentiments a million times already. I know I have, and the most prevalent feeling that I have on that topic is frustration. Sure, there's no going back to how it was, because that's how life is. Time goes by; things change and evolve. Water is wet.
Yes, online events are now the new normal, because we can't meet in person, but we still need to get business done. Does it mean that there will only be online events from now on? No.
There's no doubt that online events and tracks will play an important role in events going forward. But will they replace live events? Again, no.
I've been an event professional for 10 years now and when I joined the industry, the chatter was already that hybrid and online events were taking over. There were all sorts of reports and opinions that face to face wouldn’t make it—yet a decade later (before the current crisis), the live event industry was thriving. Online events served as addition and expansion to those experiences; they've earned their place. But they have not taken over, and they won’t, at least until there's a way to cover the following three areas.
I've attended webinars, online events and Teams calls, and many have had great content and speakers. I can't really say having felt truly engaged. So far, the engagement has been mostly word clouds, polls and Q&As. These aren’t bad tools, but I’m still home, in my space, with familiar stimulus around me. The comforts of home don’t make me feel engaged. That's just me being at home, on my computer, doing something. And there are few to no social cues from others about how they are perceiving what's happening. How do they feel about the topic, speaker or environment? Is it like I do? Engagement is so much more than just asking something from the participants or making them discuss in groups.
Excitement and Experience
My favorite events are full experiences from start to end and beyond. As I pack my suitcase (which I detest and always do at the last minute), I begin to think about the different aspects of the event—what do I need to bring to make it through the days and the unique experiences they bring. It continues to travel day—usually waking up far too early, arriving at the airport and being in a zombie-like state for most of the day. But it gives me time to get into the right mindset. I'm going somewhere—what is it, what do I expect, what I want to achieve, who am I going to see? I need to find my way to the venue, which quite often is an experience itself. Am I at the right entrance, where do I get my badge and are all these people here for the same thing?
I have no idea who I'm going to bump into on the elevator to breakfast, who will turn to chat with me in the queue for coffee or who will comment on the speaker’s message. Spontaneous encounters lead to friendships and business relationships. I miss the feeling of sneaking up on your industry friends before they've spotted you, saying hi and giving them hugs. I miss saying goodbye and going home, when I’m exhausted and just want to get into my own bed. I miss resting my head on the wall of the window seat and reflecting on everything that happened.
Online events don't give you these feelings—at least I haven't gotten them. Once they’re finished, you jump on another call/meeting or head to the grocery store. Something else occupies your mind with other things. I’ve never thought, "I can't wait to get on that webinar" with anywhere near the same excitement of going to an in-person event.
When you meet new people, you try to present yourself in the best possible way. That's natural. When this happens in person, and you get to know others better and start to pick up hints on how they react to different things. You build an actual connection. When you meet someone online, you dictate and decide what the other person gets to see. It’s easier to keep up a façade, especially when you constantly see your own face (and every little detail in your facial expressions). I wear the same permanent half-smile—we’re just way more conscious about how we look and act when we’re on camera.
Ultimately, I’m just frustrated that many people seem to have forgotten what we enjoy (and the joy) in meeting in person. Yes, the event industry needed a wake-up call. We weren’t prepared for this crisis. We need to address the sustainability of the event industry. Yes, online events will continue to be an important part of business going forward. And yes, there are many cases where a webinar, a call or a video is sufficient delivering a message.
But as long as we as people are doing business, there will also be a need to meet in person. Because when we meet, we change the world.
What are your thoughts? What do you miss from live events? What are the strengths of online events? How do you combine these to create maximum impact?
P.S. I do love being online most of the time; I engage on YouTube, listen to audio books and podcasts and play VR games with colleagues and friends. I’m thrilled to see what can already be done with augmented reality, and I’m so proud of what my colleagues created for the virtual May Day concert in Helsinki. Despite all that, I'm a firm believer that face to face stays.