Virtual Events VS In-Person Events

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Categories: Trade Show Industry News

During Covid-19, Virtual Events are having a moment, but will it last? Their time to shine is here. Will it be a shift in how events are conducted from here or will it have been their proverbial 15 minutes of fame only to switch back to in-person events?

There is a lot to discuss here and so my focus for this article is to talk about trade shows events specifically (both virtual and in-person). I will let the experts debate the other large gathering spaces like concerts, festivals, etc.

I’m mostly interested in how the B2B trade shows move forward now with 2 options for planners to choose from.

But I want to first tell a short story that started with my start in the trade show industry. In 2007 I left my career as a pharmaceutical sales rep for a large drug manufacturer. I started in the trade show business in sales and things were going great but then 2008 and the Great Recession hit. Shows went through a major disruption period.

Around this time I spoke with an industry veteran who mentioned something interesting that I never forgot. He said trade shows are always the first to get hit, but the first to recover in a recession. This makes sense, a company doesn’t ‘have to’ go to a trade show and they can be expensive so it is an easy target to cut costs especially during difficult times when you aren’t guaranteed a return on investment.

The Covid-19 recession is somewhat different however. This time around, trade shows were the first to get hit (hurt) and will be the last to recover due to the nature of large gatherings being out-of-step with the nature of the virus and reducing transmission.

When the crash of ’08 happened the effect on shows was immediate. There was a reduction in exhibitors and attendees almost across the board. Sure there were differences where some industries were impacted more than others, but for the most part they all suffered.

This was the start of popularity for social media like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace (who remembers Myspace?). I wondered for a long time if the internet which was already changing so many other industries would also alter the course of in-person events. I mean in a lot of ways trade shows are the ‘old economy’. Sure the scale and splendor of the big fancy events in Las Vegas and elsewhere have evolved over time, but what about video conferencing and being able to reach hundreds, thousands or even millions all without a single person traveling?

No brainer right?

As the months and years following the Great Recession ‘dragged on’, trade shows started to rebuild and come back in greater numbers. Within a couple years the numbers were back to pre-recession levels and in some cases were exceeding them.

Then something strange started to happen…

Those social media companies and cloud computing businesses started creating their very own in-person events. From Salesforce (Dreamforce) to Facebook (F8) all started holding their own events. I thought to myself, ‘well if the very companies that run online communications for friends, family and business are holding in-person events, then I guess our industry is in pretty good shape!’.

And that was true…

Until 2020 with the arrival of Covid-19 in mid-March.

This wasn’t a garden variety recession. This time it was a public health crisis and trade shows stood in the way of civic responsibility to social distance and businesses still being able to connect with their vendors, suppliers, customers and industry peers.

So here we are in December of 2020.

What do YOU think will happen? (comments below please 🙂

We are on the verge of having a couple vaccines approved within days of this post, and just a few months away from millions of fellow Americans receiving doses.

Who will prevail? Convention Centers in Las Vegas, Orlando, NYC and beyond or new technology by the dozens to deliver the industry shows?

So here’s my take with full disclosure that while I was wrong in my ’08 prediction I may very well be wrong in my ’20 prediction, lol!

However, I have learned A LOT from 12 years ago, so here is my best guess:

Answer: It’s not going to be one or the other.

Let me explain. Now that I have a lot of feedback from people on both sides from the content delivery to the attendees, I can tell you one thing that really stands out:

People are doing it because they have to do it… for now.

I hear that a lot (especially exhibitors) and I’ll explain more in just a minutes.

Right now, In-Person Trade Shows are playing with both it’s hands tied behind it’s back. If it were a competition, one side (Virtual Events) currently have an unfair advantage so it will be interesting to see once they can both run side-by-side what the outcome will be.

Big Advantages to Virtual Events

There is no question Virtual Events are having a moment right now.

Technology has come a long way from bandwidth for better quality video, to better platforms that is being improved daily to the way that content is produced and delivered to it’s viewers with fun new ways to keep people engaged.

It also has SCALE on it’s side. Nothing can scale better than Virtual Events being able to deliver messages in real-time to people on all corners of the Earth where they can absorb all the information in the comfort of their own home.

You can fit it into your own schedule. If you missed a session, you can go back and watch it as a recording later on (like DVR for Events!).

I suppose the 2 questions we have to ask ourselves are:

#1- Is this a replacement of in-person events?

#2- Is this what everybody wants?

Therein lies the problem. I think there is a lot of gray area here and the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for both of those in 2020.

Terrible answer right? As non-definitive as it gets.

You see Virtual Events have their super powers in the 1-to-Many communication. The speaking engagements really shine in this department. Imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger (yes I had to look up the spelling) giving a speech at a Virtual Event. It would be really cool and would no-doubt attract a lot of attendees, but at the end of the day, did you really see him speak? Were you really there?

Reminds me of the ‘Good Will Hunting’ movie quote:

“I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”

I think this is problem #1 with Virtual Trade Shows- You weren’t actually there. You didn’t fly to a fun new city and rendezvous with industry peers and re-establish those long-standing connections with them and go out for drinks because after all you did send them a few million in business last year and the least they could do was buy you a few drinks!

No, you sat their on your couch as the kids screamed and made noise while you were trying focus on 2020 industry trends during a live chat session. When will the kids go back to school anyway?

Problem #2 is the 1-to-1 conversations. Yes you can broadcast a speaker to thousands of industry professionals at once, but what about all those micro 1-to-1 conversations where actual business takes place thousands of times per minute on a busy in-person trade show floor? I’m talking about the trade show floor where you meet all the exhibiting companies.

Nothing makes you feel like a rockstar than cruising down the aisle at a trade show and literally all of them want to talk to you. Some you know and many you don’t, but a place where future connections and business happen.

This leads me to Problem #3 as I mentioned in an earlier post called ‘Why Trade Shows Will Never Die‘. The physical world where you can touch, smell and hear new products and actually get real-world experience with them. You can get a sense of how well made a suitcase is or hear new audio equipment or see a beautiful custom built car at SEMA Show.

Just not the same on your RGB screen is it no matter how many pixels you have?

The Trade Show Business is a Real Estate Business

But I have one more thing I wanted to touch on that nobody really talks about. B2B Trade Shows is a Real Estate business. Yes, you heard me right, it is all about Real Estate.

The people who pay for the very existence of a trade show are the companies who pay big money to exhibit at the show. These are the people that make it all happen. Without them and their money, nothing else matters.

The #1 problem that Virtual Events have that there is no easy solution for is that the Exhibitors aren’t getting the same quality and interaction that they would have in-person. At the end of the day exhibitors who are paying the big bucks want quality over quantity.

I see it every day with new Virtual Events touting how many ‘registered’ attendees they have but this is pretty meaningless. Nobody wants a bunch of lookyloos. They want to get more business and make new connections. Nothing more/ Nothing less.

A recent article talked about how challenging virtual events have been at attracting and keeping attention at shows when people just use it as background content while they go about their busy work. Should this really count as an attendee if that person(s) weren’t even paying attention?

The real estate model is exhibitors reserve a booth space based on the size of the booth with smaller booths costing less and larger booths costing more.

The show rents the space from the convention venue and sells as much booth space as possible. The more exhibitors = the more money.

There are lots of other smaller revenue sources, but those are the main ones. Want the exhibitors to return next year and spend the big bucks again? Make sure they get quality foot traffic on the show floor and deliver as much value as possible. It’s location, location, location.

So what’s a show to do?

If you create an in-person event, but make it hybrid and add a virtual component to it, won’t you just be cannibalizing your own show if that almighty attendee views from afar online instead of going there in-person to speak with exhibitors who paid the big bucks to be there?

That surely won’t make exhibitors happy and feel like their money is well-spent.

Will it ultimately come down to industry? Like a medical software industry may be more geared towards a Virtual Event with lower overall cost and overhead and still able to deliver content to it’s attendees on every corner of the planet in an industry where touch, taste, smell isn’t as important?

I guess we’ll all find out, but here is my prediction:

The more digital takes over our lives, the more we will crave in-person.

In my industry I know every single company and have long-standing relationships with all of them but I still go every year unless there is a giant snowstorm that cancels my flight (2017 has entered the chat).

So why do I go?

#1- I go because I want my free drinks for sending business all year long that would practically pay for the entire bar.

#2- I go to see people that I haven’t seen since last year’s show because they are located across the country.

#3- I go to get out of town for a company paid retreat to a cool new city and gain more perspective than the day-to-day grind.

#4- I go to see what else is out there, to possibly see something new or meet a new person that could alter the course of my business. To explore if you will.

#5- I go to stay ahead of the curve in my industry by being a good professional and learning what is new and exciting in an ever-changing world.

and #6- I go because I am stuck in front of a computer everyday for my daily routine and I just want to walk around and do something different.

In-Person Live Trade Shows, Concerts, Auto Shows and all the rest aren’t going anywhere.

They are just on pause.

…for now.

I see Virtual Events being great for all the employees who you want to receive continuing education, accreditation and exposure to without having to put their travel expenses on the corporate credit card, but that’s ok because they may not be the decision makers that exhibitors are paying to see.

Virtual Events will be great for corporate offices to hold meeting especially inbetween their big annual get-togethers. They are complimentary to In-Person Events.

I also see virtual events being more ‘distribution’ than it’s own alternative to in-person. Meaning, virtual is a tool to pump more content and value to your audience with much of that content originating from the in-person events where the action takes place and the energy flows.

But I don’t see them being direct competition because…

Humans need to see other Humans….. In-Person.

If I had to guess, the future will be a hybrid for many shows, in-person only for other shows and virtual-only for some.

Each industry will decide what works best for them, but the future remains that light at the end of the tunnel.

The light may be small right now, but it’s bright and only getting brighter 🙂

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