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Virtual – the ‘fast food’ event solution?

I love live events. After months (ok, weeks) of planning, you inevitably find yourself at that starting line. The familiar knot of anticipation, adrenaline, and overwhelming satisfaction that you made it here. It’s what makes the long days, sleepless nights and thirty versions of a revised agenda worth it. So what happens when your audience are no longer in the room with you? When your speakers are dotted around the globe? When your meeting is virtual? Does that knot cease to exist? In short – no! And is the journey you take to get there different? Probably not. Here’s why.

Being part of a creative agency I spend a lot of my time looking for new innovation to take to my clients. I am all about the newest gadget, learning technique, and pushing the current technology. New and exciting ways that help enhance the attendee experience and create an emotional connection to the meeting content. It’s the challenge I set myself at the start of every project so that I, in turn, can selfishly obtain my next fix at the starting line. But up until last year all these innovations still involved everyone being together in the same room.

Then one of my clients asked me for a virtual conference.

It took me more than a little by surprise. My first reaction? Panic. How on earth do I take one of our flagship meetings for creative engagement, where attendee satisfaction sits at 99%, and re-create this virtually? But then, my inner geek kicked in. And I got excited…

It is not the first time that ‘virtual’ has entered the events arena (in fact it hasn’t ever really left). As technology developments provided us with social media, skype, webcams and camera phones, we had the opportunity to connect with our peers across the globe without travel. It promised us some formidable benefits – reduced costs, travel and planning whilst extending our audience reach. But we were soon left disappointed. Why? Because the technology itself had clearly progressed, but the infrastructure that connected them had not.

Over the year’s technology has flourished, and so too has the availability and reliability of the virtual platform. Changing focus from whether or not the connection is going to work has meant the promised benefits of virtual meetings are shining through, and fast making this a preferred method of communication for our clients. But with these increasingly being treated with no more thought than a conference call, are we in danger of sacrificing the quality of meeting content and delivery?

Having attended many virtual events, I have experienced firsthand the variability in the attendee experience. With some the experience starts when you register, others when you attend the actual session itself. Some allow you to ask written questions and participate in polls, whereas others expect you to watch as quietly as you would your latest box set. Each of these experiences was a disappointment. The content was flat and unrehearsed, the polls failing to enhance my learning or the message.

When we traditionally plan face to face sessions we spend a solid portion of time developing ways in which to engage and include the audience in the story; to connect them emotionally to the message. So why in virtual meetings are we seeing content go backwards whilst our delivery mechanisms move forwards?

Could it be that we are seeing virtual meetings being treated – by some organisers and attendees – as a fast-food equivalent of a ‘real’ meeting? With the prevalence and new normality of the modern age, are virtual meetings in danger of be being seen as not important by those who plan and attend? Why are we skimping on thinking? And, is the challenge for agencies to ensure that virtual meetings are seen as no less important as those that might involve a flight and an overnight hotel stay?

 These are exciting times to be working in events with new levels of immersive content, gamification and hologram technology at our finger tips. Can you ever deliver the same experience virtually as you can in person? No. But agencies and clients alike must make sure that the content for and delivery of any virtual meeting isn’t inferior. It’s time to accept and embrace challenges head on. How can we fuse tried and tested traditional approaches with new communication channels? We must also accept that the audience are the same but the journey they’re taking and the tool you are using to project your message is different. The audience will need to be engaged in a different way. 

 If you believe the industry reports, you will know the number of virtual meetings are set to rise. This time virtual is not going to just silently fade into the background. It would be a shame if it did. But the danger of it becoming a ‘fast food’ solution is real if we continue in this manner. If approached correctly, and with some careful consideration, this medium can be engaging, personal and highly impactful. It just takes a bit of creativity and thought – much like it always has!