Are virtual events the next normal?
With the pandemic still raging in full force in many parts of the globe, the probability of holding large in-person events anytime soon seems dim. Organizations are still planning events for late spring 2021, but a growing number are pushing them out to the fall. Even drupa gave up the ghost.
But we still need to get together, share stories, and keep up with the technological advances and new application ideas that have not been slowed down by the pandemic.
To meet that need and keep top of mind, organizations turned to virtual events in 2020. These ranged from TexProcess/TechTextil’s and AATCC’s approach of spreading out one-hour educational webinars at the rate of two or so per month to help keep people engaged, all the way to PRINTING United Alliance’s 14-day mega journey into the virtual world. Even drupa has gone virtual this year, with a virtual event scheduled for April 20–23, 2021. And FESPA has again moved its (still hoping to be in-person) event to October 12–15 in Amsterdam. Other organizations, like WhatTheyThink, that normally attend physical events but don’t sponsor them, have continued with regular sponsored monthly educational webinars covering timely topics.
We wondered how these virtual events were actually going. Personally, after so many virtual events in October, I was burned out on them. The good news about virtual events, though, is that most were recorded and available to watch at your convenience, albeit without the benefit of asking questions in real time.
PRINTING United Alliance attracted 8,249 attendees from around the globe, according to Mark Subers, president events and PRINTING United, NAPCO Media. Unfortunately, he or the organization was unable or unwilling to provide a breakdown of the attendance. How many were exhibitors? Journalists? How many were people that were actually going to buy something?
Those metrics are important in assessing the value of the events. And clearly, it doesn’t compare with the 33,000-plus attendees expected to join an in-person event in Atlanta. Kudos to the organization for quickly pivoting to a virtual model when it became clear the in-person one was a no-go. It was a monumental effort that included 7,800 hours of video content. PRINTING United Alliance is planning, at this point, to hold an in-person event in Orlando, October 6–8, 2021, engaging about 1.2 million square feet of space. We’ll see. The availability of two vaccines with more coming may be the trigger that makes people more comfortable going to these large events again.
“Digital plays a role, but it’s a different animal,” said Subers. “We are more confident now than ever before that no matter how sophisticated the digital platforms get they will never displace in-person events.”
HHs point is well taken. One particular virtual conference in the spring had nearly 100 attendees over two days. But when you scrolled through the list, you saw few—very, very few—people representing companies other than those who were speaking.
For exhibitors and sponsors, these virtual events represent a mixed bag. Most agree that simply participating in the virtual exhibition hall does not deliver the best results. And organizers try to work with their sponsors and exhibitors to get them to adequately prepare and promote their participation. Some take the advice, and some don’t. One sponsor told me his group got zero benefit from participation when not on the presentation agenda. This is quite different from participation at an in-person event, where you can run into people in the hallways and aisles and wander the stands to meet up with old friends and see who and what is new. He did note that of the six or so virtual events he attended in 2020, one of the best for his group, which provides merger and acquisition services, was the FLAG event, which generated several good leads for them that are likely to turn into transactions. He also noted that the Envelope Manufacturers Association (EMA) also did an excellent job with its virtual event.
Admittedly, FLAG is a small group serving label producers and with 106 label-printing member companies. More than three-quarters of those members participated in their event, with at least 70 to 80 attendees for each session, not including the fact that multiple attendees could have been sharing a single login.
“This allowed us to engage members more deeply than usual by reaching deeper into the organization,” explained FLAG’s JC McKay. “And there were well over 700 views of the exhibit hall landing page, with some exhibitors amassing more than 90 views.”
Personally, I thought FLAG did one of the best jobs I have seen on the virtual booths. It was structured to set up appointments, download brochures, watch videos, and if someone was “manning the booth,” there was a live-chat window available. McKay reported that he received overall good feedback from all participants, members, and sponsors.
That said, he added, “Virtual events won’t replace in-person events, assuming travel gets back to some level of normalcy. Our in-person events include a tour of a member facility, and we would love to be able to get back to that, bringing everyone into one space. That will be our goal. But so far, we are not planning an annual in-person event for 2021.”
Angela Jabara, education director for AATCC (America Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists) stated that the association is making sure it is running as many different relevant topics virtually as it can. “Communication is really important during this time, and the only way to connect with people is through marketing, social media, and these virtual events.”
Ali Rosenberger, senior marketing and conference manager of TexProcess/TechTextil North America, echoed similar sentiments, saying, “I think the biggest thing we were working through was considering what everyone is going through—people working from home, especially those with kids—how can they stay focused on something on-screen for several hours a day. Virtual event fatigue kicks in.”
She said that by spreading the content out over several months in shorter segments, the organization had high engagement, plenty of questions, and numerous inquiries about getting in touch with the speakers.
“We believe this model has been successful overall,” she added. “Of course, educational pieces work well virtually, but there is no substitute for an in-person event. People want to see the machinery up close and test and touch materials. I don’t think a virtual model will stick after this is over, although we will likely explore continuing to deliver some virtual education.”
TechTextil 2021 is currently scheduled for August 21–25 in Raleigh, North Carolina, including a TexProcess pavilion.
Prior to the pandemic, APTech had already abandoned large in-person events and had planned to partner with Labelexpo as well as carry out smaller regional events. That plan continues, and its recent partnership with Innovatis Group, an association management group with experience with both virtual and in-person events, will likely give them a greater chance of succeeding with this model.
XPlor plans to hold an in-person event in September and is considering a smaller virtual event in the April/May timeframe. The organization held its virtual event in September, and Chief Executive Officer Skip Henk reported that 572 people registered and 435 attended. They have chosen to make the virtual content accessible for six months. Like everyone else, Xplor learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t that can be transferred to making future virtual events more successful—such as alerting a vendor/sponsor when someone visits the booth to enable more meaningful interaction, something FLAG did well.
“Recording the sessions was the best thing we did,” he said. “It was a little extra expense, but we got some great content.”
Pretty much everyone agreed that virtual events were the best they could do during this awful pandemic, but all are anxious to get back to in-person events. Of course, for event organizers and associations, these events comprise a significant portion of their revenues, and many were hit hard by having to cancel or postpone the in-person events. Xplor’s Henk, in particular, was grateful to his loyal sponsors for continuing their support during this period, without which they would have been in dire straits.
But another learning experience from 2020 is that virtual events have a place, and many organizations are looking at how to conduct hybrid events to engage larger audiences and make valuable content available to more people, especially those who can’t or don’t want to travel. The key will be balancing the financial model to incent in-person attendance yet still generating value and revenue from the virtual assets that can be made available as a result of—or in addition to—in-person events. The increased quality and availability of live-streaming will aid in these efforts. For example, keynotes could be live streamed, while session content might be available virtually at a later date.
The year 2021 will be an interesting one. While the pandemic continues, we are likely to see smaller in-person events combined with virtual events in a hybrid model for the balance of 2021. And personally, I don’t look for in-person events to kick back in until the fall, if then.
Let’s all do our part to get to the next normal. Observe the three Ws: wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance. If we all do our part, we’ll get through this a lot faster and get back to those great in-person events! Here’s to a happier, healthier 2021.