Over the past two decades, changes in technology and its availability/cost have drastically changed the possibilities of hosting events. With video conferencing and livestreaming, some companies and event planners are reconsidering in-person or face-to-face events.
But is that wise?
What are we sacrificing when video takes the place of a firm handshake?
The Drivers Behind The Rise of Virtual Events
It’s easy to understand the draw behind the (potential) replacement of face-to-face events if you view virtual events as a cost-saving exercise. A reduction in travel costs, less time out of office, and therefore avoiding lost productivity as it relates to non-billable hours (as in the case of personal development, events that can’t be charged back to clients), are often considerations.
With a greater number of people using virtual event technology in their own personal lives, they’re becoming accustomed to connecting online.
However, for all the cost-savings, can a virtual event be comparable to an in-person event?
The reality is, face-to-face events still hold strong value on both the guests’ and organizers’ sides. In this post, we’ll take a look at how face-to-face events affect:
- Networking and team-building
- Branding and business reputation
- Hybrid opportunities
- Participants’ impressions
1. Face-to-Face Meetings Accelerate Networking and Team-building
If one of the goals of a business meeting is to offer networking or team-building. face-to-face events will produce this at a faster rate than a virtual meeting can. Conversations in person are supported with facial expressions, body language and indications that they are following the conversation. These social cues make people feel good and get their voices heard.
It’s also easier to keep track of who said what as the brain associates visual memories with what was said. In a virtual format, networking is done through text and the visual components of placing comments with faces doesn’t occur.
In a face-to-face situation, attendees often go off subject to learn more about one another. It’s more difficult to have off-subject conversations in the middle of a virtual meeting unless it’s done through private chat.
2. Increasing Engagement Improves Experience and Interest
While face-to-face meetings and events may require a higher level of planning to coordinate schedules, travel time and accommodations, there are also fewer distractions for participants in a face-to-face setting. Virtual events are lauded for their low-cost and lower life disruption factor for participants, but distraction when joining from a remote location is a potential issue. Under the cover of technology, virtual attendees can complete a myriad of other tasks. In most cases, they know the virtual event will be recorded and thus, have even less reason to give it their complete attention. This lack of focus and the lure of multitasking creates a passive attendee experience, which has a ripple effect on the virtual event.
The Downside of the Passive Attendee
When virtual event participants are passively “attending” a meeting, they are:
- Not contributing to the conversation
- Not creating an influential or contagious energy (as experienced in a face-to-face gathering)
- Not exhibiting measurable interest, which makes it difficult to interpret whether meeting KPIs are being met
The passive attendee effectively denies others of a memorable experience because of their lack of participation. Think of how infectious participants’ energy can be at an in-person meeting. When participants are merely present, and not engaged, that lack of energy does nothing to help attain business/meeting goals and creates an unrewarding environment.
Think of a passive virtual attendee in terms of a live event. It’s like someone registering and leaving an empty chair. They bring nothing to the crowd and create a dampening effect on the room.
The Ease of Measuring Engagement in Face-to-Face Meetings and Events
A face-to-face event provides the opportunity for contagious energy where guests are less likely to be distracted. It’s also much easier to assess engagement.
While event planners may use exit surveys or questionnaires to measure engagement, you can gain a world of learning by physically observing participants. There are visible indications such as body language and physical energy levels in conversations. You can listen for tone and interaction in session discussions. These are things that transcend electronic ratings.
Even with an online event portal that allows for interaction, commenting and emojis, sarcasm and enthusiasm may sound the same in an online event, and thus can be misinterpreted. “Best meeting ever” can be a compliment or a put down in text. And virtual attendees might be less inclined to give any feedback at all.
An engaged crowd is an interested one. In an online event, it’s difficult to tell whether a drop-off rate is due to unappealing content or, say, a fire drill in the participant’s building. Engagement is contagious for those physically present. It can be witnessed and mirrored by other attendees.
3. Face-to-Face Events Impact Branding for Greater Exposure and Conversions
It’s difficult to give someone a memorable experience online. Too few of the senses are involved and there is a general feeling of disconnection in most online interactions.
An in-person experience is more memorable because participants are:
- Located away from their office and desk.
- Actively participating in activities around them, not watching them unfold on a screen.
- Conversing, networking and interacting with other participants. Relationships are built through comradery.
- Using all five senses to enjoy the event.
- Potentially taking pictures, creating content surrounding the event, and sharing it with their peers.
All of these things translate into greater exposure and increased branding opportunities for the organization behind the event.
When it comes to converting leads into customers, companies are two-times more likely to close a sale at a face-to-face event than one conducted virtually or on a webinar. Execs agree. 93 percent of them say face-to-face meetings and events improve their ability to close deals.
Face-to-Face Events Positively Impact Business Reputation
Building trust is essential to a healthy business reputation. Providing event participants with an enjoyable and memorable experience works toward building that trust. But an enjoyable experience is only the beginning. In-person events build trust and positively impact business reputation by magnifying reach through:
- Providing an opportunity to give back in a visible way.
- Communicating company culture to a large group of people.
- Offering a unique opportunity to interact with the brand and business in an informal and enjoyable setting.
- Receiving “insider” company information at events (such as plans and future rollouts) to make attendees feel part of a special group.
- Increasing social media buzz. Employees who share public details about company events can serve as inadvertent ambassadors for HR by creating interest in the company.
A positive event experience, one that solves a problem for attendees or offers them something of value, reflects positively on the hosting organization. With the law of reciprocity in effect, participants tend to transfer the positive emotions behind a beneficial event to the hosting entity and this may make them more productive in the long run.
4. Face-to-Face Events Make Learning and Collaboration Easier
Even though virtual meetings have been a business reality for over two decades now, they are not providing the collaboration cure-all many originally envisioned. In fact, 85 percent of corporate executives perceive web meetings and teleconferences to be less effective than in-person options. Part of that is due to the physical disconnect of a screen. Face-to-face learning and collaboration are also much easier when physical cues are available.
Conversation Flow = Better Collaboration
Participants on conference calls, webinars and virtual meetings often have difficulty with the natural flow of conversation. That’s due in part because of lags that occur in the technology and lack of physical cues that are present in person. This creates disjointed communication as interruptions occur, people talk over one another and participants jump in to plug silences.
Connections to Presenters and the Hallway Track
It’s easier to connect with a presenter and follow the session more closely with in-person event participants. Even in the case of corporate meetings, attendees may have easier access to and be able to connect with other department heads, managers, or higher-ups that they wouldn’t be able to get to know as quickly online.
Face-to-face events may also allow participants additional exposure to the session leader at lunch, in the hallway or after the session has ended. In fact, the hallway track can be one of the most valuable exchanges in a meeting or event because attendees can discuss what they’ve learned and the application it has to their lives. It affords face-to-face attendees with the applicable value that is so critical to learning and retention.
Hands-on and Personalized Learning
In-person events allow for extra opportunities for attendees. In an in-person session, a participant can stop the learning session and ask for clarification. In a virtual event, questions are often held until the end and they may not always get to the question posed, or may address a generic version of the question asked in order to accommodate a larger number of participants.
5. Meeting the Needs of a Larger Audience Through Hybrid Events
It’s difficult to meet the needs and preferences of every one of your potential participants. Some can travel, others can’t spare the time. Some have the budget, other departments are on travel restrictions. Some people love an in-person experience, others just want the education and would be happy to absorb a video presentation.
In-person events aren’t going anywhere, for the benefits mentioned above, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t evolving. Meeting and event planners have lots of options to meet the demands of their audience. They don’t need to choose between one or the other. It’s possible in a face-to-face event to incorporate some of the benefits of an online event to create a hybrid event for those who are unable to attend. Organizations can:
- Stream live from the in-person event
- Record videos of the in-person event sessions to be made available after the event occurs (some conferences are able to use this as a revenue source)
- Broadcast live from the event for interactive virtual audience opportunities
Can Livestreaming Negatively Impact Attendance in a Hybrid Event?
This is a common concern for face-to-face event planners who want to offer a virtual component. But it shouldn’t be. Think of virtual offerings in two ways, neither of which should affect your in-person audience. Livestreaming can help organizations:
- Cultivate desire in future attendees. Greg Bogue, who leads the experience design team experts here at Maritz Global Events, suggests planners think of a virtual event component as a preview or taste of what the event offers. It can whet potential attendees’ appetites for an in-person experience, not fulfill it. Instead of negating virtual events as competition, see the virtual event as a way to woo potential attendees to a future face-to-face event. It may be the first step to nurturing a valuable long-term relationship.
- Give glimpses into the real value. No matter how dynamic the stream/video is, it will only give glimpses into the comradery and the experience of attending. The real value is in the on-floor experience, the relationships made or solidified, and the collaboration. Livestreaming is merely the teaser to the event, like a movie preview, and needs to be marketed that way to hint at the value. Always leave something to be desired.
6. People Benefit from Social Experiences
As mentioned earlier, it is challenging to create a memorable experience with a virtual event. It lacks the depth and connection to the senses and others that an in-person event possesses. It is also difficult to make someone feel valued with a quick “thank you for attending” at the end of the broadcast. Creating memories, building relationships, and making attendees feel like they are a part of a group makes face-to-face events extraordinarily valuable to organizations.
Another bonus of an in-person experience centers around productivity. Enjoying social time with peers can provide new energy to a team or company. 73 percent of executives believe meetings and events have a significant impact on employee performance.
Those little moments that mean so much to attendees like swag bags, extra treats in the hotel room, in-person thank you’s, handshakes and hugs—all missing from a virtual event. At Maritz Global Events, we constantly work with clients looking to create an effective in-person event experience and find ways to make attendees feel valued. To give an example of a concept which was simple but effective, at one meeting, the c-level management team woke up early and met the attendees at the airport as they were leaving. They personally thanked each guest.
This simple action, which costs nothing to orchestrate, had a profound effect on participants. They talked about how this little gesture meant so much to them for weeks after the conference ended.
When was the last time a webinar or virtual event made participants feel anything weeks later?
While face-to-face events may not offer the same flexibility of their online counterparts, they shouldn’t be replaced by them. They both meet very different needs, one economic, one experiential.