Planning virtual events comes with significant problems, mainly because virtual event software is more in love with technology than people.
The first few months of COVID saw gatherings banned in an attempt to slow the spread. This isn’t news to anyone. But people who need people are the luckiest people so goes the song, and so alternatives were sought out. The buzz around virtual events began at the same time as live events were shut down, and it’s only been trending upward from there.
The Virtual Events Software Boom
And what a trend it’s been. Hopin is probably the most famous virtual event solution out there. They’re currently valued at $5.6 billion – not bad for a company less than 2 years old. Run The World, and Airmeet, both digital event platforms, have raised over $14 million each. Bizzabo recently closed a $138 million fundraising round to build out its hybrid and virtual event offerings.
So it’s easy to believe the media when they talk about virtual events eating up the live event industry. But I doubt that’s true.
Booth Setup Is A Nightmare
I recently planned a series of virtual expos on Hopin, and setting up over 50 booths was the worst. Hopin does allow the organizer (me) to invite exhibitors to set up their own booths. Still, because I wanted some uniformity and because most exhibitors expected it, I handled the booth setup.
I used ThymeBase event planning software to gather the business details, images, video files, slideshows, etc. And in most instances, that went quite smoothly. So when it came to building the booths, I thought I had it all organized. But I hadn’t counted on the rigidity of the booth requirements.
Depending on the size of the booth, each “hero image” had to be formatted to a specific size. All logos had to be square. Not everyone had a video, so I helped them craft slideshows. This took countless hours of work. And changes by the exhibitors meant even more time was put into the booths.
And adding tags like “photographer” to the booth meant I had to leave the booth, go to a different area to create the tag. Then I’d go back to the booth and assign it – same steps for adding moderators. The back-and-forth between exhibitors and the software was painful. I’m getting irritated just thinking about it.
Booth Design Was Limiting
Look, I get how difficult it is to design a virtual booth. I don’t believe I could do it better. And I certainly wouldn’t want to try. But the very fact that digital booth design is rigid by necessity means inherent problems with planning virtual events.
Most businesses didn’t have square logos. And while Hopin’s booths looked great with video, only a handful of our exhibitors had high-quality video on hand. Editing landscape pictures to a ratio of 4:1 is quite challenging while retaining the image’s subject, but that’s what Hopin required for some booth sizes. And on and on.
The booths are inflexible. Expressing each exhibitor’s individuality was a near impossibility. And, frankly, many exhibitors were frustrated by the limitations.
Related: Virtual Event Set Design
Confusion From Exhibitors
Learning new software sucks. When planning a virtual event, expect an entire “hall” of frustrated exhibitors learning new software right when they think they should be showcasing their services. It’ll happen. And it’ll be intense.
Hopin’s solution is to train the exhibitors by recording a video walk-through. I’m here to tell you that it isn’t a real solution. I recorded video after video, as well as one-on-one pre-event demos. Confusion still reigned. All software requires customer support. When planning virtual events, that customer support is you. You’ll be supporting someone else’s product while also being unempowered to solve any problems.
And when your speaker’s sound doesn’t work on the main stage, despite working 5 minutes earlier, and no one knows what to do. Well, it’s a new level of frustration. Yes, audio-visual glitches happen at live events too, but they’re easier to solve, and you can always speak up.
Attendees Are Confused Too
And did you imagine hordes of digital avatars wandering through your exhibit, chatting happily to vendors? HA! You’re providing customer support to attendees too. And, again, you’re expected to pre-train your guests on how to use someone else’s software and provide live support.
And no, attendees don’t instinctively know how to turn on their video, nor how to exit a one-on-one chat. Awkwardness levels are significant.
In the long run, this is the most solvable issue with planning virtual events. People will eventually become familiar with the software patterns, but in the short term, it’s a headache.
About Exploration And Energy
I don’t know about you, but I find wandering the halls of an exhibition to be a magical experience. I love the energy of a dynamic speaker and a receptive audience. Nope, not at a virtual event.
Browsing a virtual exhibit is more like using Google than experiencing an event. A digital conference is more a webinar than a party.
Live events hum with energy and atmosphere. Digital events are a way to spend some time. You can run polls, have Q&A sessions, and more, but it’s not the same. I don’t believe this is a technology or training issue. It’s a human issue. And technology isn’t going to solve that because it’s not a problem that ought to be solved.
And don’t get me started on networking. You can not network in a virtual event, despite some excellent technological substitutions. Humans are different in person than behind a screen, and bonds don’t form in the same way.
Are The Problems With Virtual Events Solvable?
Some are, some aren’t. And some might work themselves out. I don’t think we’ll ever solve the networking issue. Nor, frankly, do I think it’s a critical problem to solve. On the other hand, I’m wary of being a Luddite and making predictions, so I’ll assume that many virtual event problems will be worked out through code or culture.
As virtual event software evolves, the rigidity of the digital booth will give way to more flexible options. And exhibitors will get better at showcasing themselves within the constraints. Similarly, attendees will become more familiar.
But virtual events will never be more energizing, exciting, magical, and memorable as live events.
Is A Virtual Event Experience Better?
Uber is clearly a better experience than hailing a cab in the rain. Likewise, email is undeniably more efficient than the post office. So the question must be asked:
Is a virtual event experience better than a live event?
No. Clearly no.
But there are still some very important benefits to planning virtual events.
Of course, for some people, virtual events are better, but in the main, no. And that’s actually where planning virtual events become worthwhile. Enter the hybrid event.
Accessibility matters to people with disabilities, who can’t travel, and of course, who can’t afford the high costs of conferences. And so accessibility should matter to everyone. Virtual events are a massive opportunity to include more people. And that’s where they win.
New Revenue Streams
Live event organizers are naturally limited in their attendance. Venues can only fit so many people. But planning virtual events, or rather, going hybrid, means you can offer access to the event for those who can’t attend live. And this means new revenue streams.
So consider selling tickets to a live stream. Because that’s actually really, really cool.
Are Hybrid Events The Future?
Sort of. Maybe. I think live events are the future because nothing at all beats a fantastic live experience. Memories are made in-person together with others, not on screens.
Online is lovely for learning new things, and that’s where I think virtual and hybrid events will shine – conferences with fascinating speakers will be able to sell tickets to a digital audience. However, people will still prefer to experience events live, present, and in-person.
So yes, more and more events will add a virtual component to them, but in the meanwhile, those planning virtual events should know what they’re getting into. For some, it might be worth waiting a little longer and doing it live.