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Dusty passports, smart tops and tracksuit bottoms: Are virtual events better or worse than the real thing?

Event sponsors: 'They got rinsed' in 2020, says analyst

Feature Virtual events are cheaper and more accessible, but fall short in interactivity and networking opportunities, and have limited scope for sponsors to reach their audience. Content can be duller and shallower too - but virtual is here to stay, even when some face-to-face activity returns.

The forced move to holding virtual online events in place of face to face – or run no events at all – began in early 2020, and will end in a ragged and uncertain fashion as conditions allow. This meant devastation for the events industry, but has not been without benefits for others.

Throwing a virtual bash

Attendees not only save on travel and subsistence expenses – often the largest part of the cost – but also many events that used to command an attendance fee became free, particularly vendor-specific conferences that are more about marketing than training (which is most of them).

The cost of running a virtual event is much lower, and limits on the number of attendees are largely lifted. “At Build, we grew from 6,000 attendees in 2019 to nearly 200k in 2020. At Ignite, we grew from ~30k to 266k attendees,” Microsoft’s corporate VP of global events Bob Bejan told The Reg.

Build is the key developer event for the company, while Ignite is aimed at IT administrators. There has also been more diversity, Bejan said. “At Build in 2019, 20 per cent of attendees were from outside the US. This grew to 68 per cent in 2020. From Africa, we had 24 attendees in 2019 that grew to 6,104.”

AWS told us that 500,000 attendees registered for virtual re:Invent in 2020, versus 65,000 for the 2019 Las Vegas shindig.

OpenStack co-founder Mark Collier said: "The experience is worse in a lot of ways, but far more inclusive. At our recent OpenInfra Summit we had participants from 127 countries. At past summits we'd see about 60 countries represented."

And attending one...

The dip-in, dip-out nature of virtual events makes them more relaxed for some attendees. Stephen Latta, a Microsoft Principal Software Engineer, said that "Virtual is so less emotionally and mentally taxing for me. ADHD makes it super hard to focus. I've avoided most events because they overwhelm me and I only attend every other day, which is not really understood by other attendees."

Making these comparisons is not straightforward though. Events like Build and Ignite have always been somewhat hybrid, with many more tuning in to live streams or catching up on session recordings later, than those who turned up in person.

The experience for attendees is also different. Journalists have been among those impacted by the move to virtual, so we have plenty of first-hand experience.

In theory there are advantages to virtual attendance, including avoidance of physically exhausting and globally polluting travel, ease of cherry-picking which sessions to attend, and home comforts in place of queues for typically indifferent conference food.

The amount of time wasted on travel and logistics for a physical event is remarkable, and often the signal-to-noise ratio makes one question its value.

That said, virtual events have not been good for news gathering. In-person events offer multiple opportunities that the virtual equivalents lack, including hands-on with physical products, networking with speakers, executives and other attendees and getting a sense of the mood, approaching speakers after sessions, and more chances to put someone on the spot with the right question at the right moment. Face-to-face events are also immersive in ways that virtual cannot replicate.

Freelance technical journalist Mary Branscombe told us that "more people get access but the level of access is far shallower for me; can't have the conversations I rely on."

Licensing specialist Wes Miller said that "We're hosting our licensing trainings online now since travel and gatherings are a [nope]. It's working, but the sociological limitations of any online platform are really obvious. People less engaged and less interactive than we'd ever see in the past."

Microsoft's Bejan said: "We have not tried to replicate in-person experiences but instead have gone the other direction by leveraging the strengths of our tools and platforms to deliver valuable content and connection opportunities. We have room to improve here but attendee feedback from our Ignite event in July is promising."

Shallower content and trouble for sponsors

There is also the matter of the content itself. A virtual session may be live-streamed, or it may be pre-recorded: and guess what, most event organisers opt for the safety and predictability of pre-recording. The question though: is it really an event, or just the coordinated release of a bunch of videos?

We have found that sessions run by those presenters brave enough to risk live-streaming have been in general more dynamic and compelling than those recorded and edited in advance – though still not the same as a physical event where the speakers interact with the enthusiasm (or its lack) in their audience. It also seems that some organisers adapted to their enlarged but perhaps less committed audience by running shorter sessions with less depth of technical content.

One group of event stakeholders that has been badly impacted is sponsors and exhibitors. Real-world conferences are designed so that attendees spend time with sponsors. There is scheduled exhibition time, routes to sessions or meals take attendees past the stands, and sponsors can make a splash with swag, competitions and mini-sessions of their own. "Vendors have got rinsed this year when it comes to sponsorships of tech events," Redmonk analyst James Governor told us on Twitter.

Group of young people yawning/looking bored. Photo by shutterstock

Hands up who wants to listen to Google blather on about cloud stuff? OK, a few of you. How about for nine weeks?


Virtual attendees, on the other hand, come for the main event and then leave. "Overall virtual events are yet to crack the sponsor experience but we are working on new ideas for our next conference," said Tracy Miranda, Executive Director of the Continuous Delivery Foundation.

Steven Leon runs ShowStoppers, which tags onto bigger shows like CES and Mobile World Congress with multi-vendor press events. "Virtual is a challenge. Obvious. The world shut down," he told us. "We pivoted in April to stream press conferences, live, online – testing every step of the way; we're back to being a startup, leveraging what we know, trying to solve a problem that did not exist until the pandemic hit us all over the head with a two by four."

ShowStoppers transitioned to running smaller but more frequent virtual events, no longer tied so tightly to other shows. "We believe we are approaching critical mass with streaming events – five press conferences scheduled for January, so far; more to come," he told us.

The future is hybrid

What is the future for virtual conferences? "I believe the likelihood of returning to large scale events over the next 18-24 months is low," said Microsoft’s Bejan.

"What is much more likely is the proliferation of events that take place locally and regionally in much more intimate settings that are sub-500 attendees."

He anticipates running more hybrid events with strong digital elements. "Virtual events are much more than a stopgap until life goes back to 'normal' and we continue to learn a lot from every one of our events," he told us.

The tools to run virtual events have, of necessity, improved, and the advantages of lower costs and higher attendance mean that even when global travel is fully available again, the event schedule will not be the same as it was. "Never spent a lot of time meeting real people at in person meetings anyway so I'll take the savings and time savings over attending in person. Might go to the occasional in person one in 2022 but the switch is made for me," one attendee told us.

The question though is whether the learning experience of 2020 will mean better virtual conferences in future. Posting a bunch of videos and calling it an event does not work. Running an event over nine weeks is not really an event.

In the end it is all about interaction, and the events that worked best for us were those where speakers engaged with attendees in live online Q&A, capturing at least a little of the face-to-face dynamic. That is hard to scale though, and we feel the industry still has a lot to learn about getting this right. ®

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