Virtual corporate events during the pandemic have mainly fallen into two categories: informational/educational and those that tried to replicate a tradeshow floor with virtual exhibitors. Educational programming gets higher marks from virtual event attendees than virtual trade show productions. When trade show sponsors talk about a hybrid approach to future events, they mostly mention the speakers and educational component that will be beamed to attendees who aren’t there in person.
Paul Bowers, publisher of Airport Improvement magazine, a trade publication for airport managers and the consultants that serve them, said his experience with both virtual exhibit halls and virtual conferences during the pandemic have left him convinced that the former doesn’t work and the latter is a worthwhile substitute for learning in person.
“Virtual trade show substitutes weren’t a complete waste, but I’d be hard-pressed to ever exhibit at one again,” Bowers said. “There is no return on my investment. On one I participated in, I paid the same amount that I pay for the in-person conference, and it was a waste of money. The seminar part can be done well virtually. I’ll spend money to send our editor to attend a virtual conference, but I won’t spend to exhibit virtually.”
There is some sentiment among program sponsors and attendees that hybrid events are actually two separate events — one for the audience on site and one for those attending virtually. Those at the forefront of staging hybrid events say a more seamless connection between the virtual side and the in-person audience must become a priority for companies as they produce more hybrid events. Doing so creates a better value proposition for both audiences, said Kathryn Frankson, director of event marketing for Informa, a British publishing, business intelligence and exhibitions group.
“If they realize, ‘I can get a level of education I was receiving online,’ then you have to think about what you are offering for more immersive experiences for networking and education that isn’t just speakers talking to audiences,” Frankson told David Bain, host of Digital Marketing Radio. “You have to find a new story to tell because it’s harder to get audiences to book travel, justify the budget…It starts with defining what that new product is and then you start to work backwards from there with your messaging.”