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City of London Central London

Virtual events have changed the world and there’s no going back

15 Dec 2020

What a year it has been! What lasting cultural changes will the seismic lifestyle shifts we’ve all experienced in 2020 lead to? Will we ever shake hands again? Is the office dead?

Culture is hard to predict, but whilst so many of the lasting impacts will only become clear in later years, there is one thing I am entirely confident in sticking my neck out on:

Virtual professional events will now outnumber physical events, forever.

In March this year, the IoD London volunteer team were suddenly unable to engage with other members through our tried and tested physical events. Around the world countless organisations and individuals were feeling the same effects. Professional speakers and trainers woke up to find all their bookings for the year had been wiped out. Conference organisers found themselves staring listlessly at enormous refund calculations.

And then, as always happens when humans face adversity, we kicked into action and the mass migration to virtual events began.

If you’d told me at the start of the year that I’d be hosting fancy Award ceremonies for the Institute of Directors and The Planet Mark from my bedroom, I’d have said you were bonkers. Then, in a 9-month whirlwind, I went on to map the functionality of more than 40 different virtual event platforms to reach audiences all over the world. What I have seen leaves me in no doubt that we are on the crest of a wave that is far from reaching its peak.

All of us are familiar with the classic Zoom Meeting/Webinar, which are fantastic tools that went from ~10 million daily users in December 2019, to more than 300 million in April 2020 (how’s that for a hockey stick?). Other standard video conferencing platforms experienced similar insane growth because we all leapt to what was safe and familiar.

Then people started looking for ways to be different.

The advances we’ve made this year in being able to deliver beautifully branded, almost live TV-style events from the comfort of our own homes is astonishing. Numerous organisations have crossed that comfortability curve and now understand the opportunities that virtual events bring.

In a Business As Unusual blog I did for the IoD earlier this year, I shared how IoD London event attendance had rocketed by 1448% when you compared our April – June 2020 figures with the same months the previous year. Suddenly, we were reaching audiences we could never have imagined.

Over 8,000 people have signed up to IoD London webinars from 50+ countries so far this year. By the end of the year, we will have hosted 65 events (our usual 1-2 per month becoming more than 1 per week). Simply put - we’ve done more events, for more people, in more places, with a greater diversity of speakers and stellar feedback all round.

Virtual events undeniably have a number of advantages, including:

  • Your speakers (and audience) can be from anywhere in the world.
  • Expenses are incredibly low in comparison to physical events (travel, venues, food etc.)
  • They are easier to organise, take less time and can be squeezed into people’s diaries.
  • You have greater control over every element of the experience.
  • They use less energy and drastically reduce carbon emissions.

Okay, okay – so virtual events are good. But surely physical events will make a comeback when we finally get a vaccine, right?

To a certain extent, yes, but perhaps less than you think. Are big companies really going to pay thousands of pounds to fly their senior leaders around the world to sit in a conference hall packed to the brim with thousands of people in the next 2 years? An Outsell Inc survey of business leaders found that 52% were unsure whether they would attend an in-person event before 2023.  The vast majority said they felt face to face conferences and exhibitions in the next 2-3 years were either unimportant, or were neutral in their opinion, with the most negative group being 18-29 year olds.

Physical professional events may become a premium experience, but we have crossed a threshold now where countless organisations have discovered the virtues of a virtual realm that is only getting better by the day.

Those who say virtual events will never be as good as physical ones are playing against a law of diminishing returns. A few years ago, you’d have said “well you can’t collaborate effectively on live virtual documents or whiteboards”.

Now you can.

Then there’s the classic “well it just doesn’t feel like you’re in the same room”, which has to be from those who haven’t tried a Virtual / Augmented Reality headset recently (seriously, check out how Oculus Quest and Microsoft Hololens 2 make use of apps like Spatial).

I believe these technologies are going to change our working lives this decade with a pace of change that we haven’t seen since automobiles replaced horses as the primary mode of transportation in less than 13 years way back in the early 1900’s.

We will spend the next couple of years with our minds being blown by novel tools that disrupt the Zoom model, like Remo (which provides compelling flexible networking) and VirBELA (which allows meaningful collaboration without video). Then, as hardware continually becomes more affordable and effective at an exponential rate, Virtual Reality will provide us with a brief stepping-stone onto a world where Augmented Reality Headsets become our primary tool for virtual collaboration. By the end of this decade, we might even see PC’s and laptops go the way of the typewriter.

At this point I’ll leave you to sit back and choose your reaction to my outlandish claims. Hopefully you find it as exciting as I do, but you may disagree with me. Ultimately, only time will tell because, as always, innovation doesn’t care about you or I and the future is coming whether we like it or not.

Strap in, it’s going to be a hell of a ride!

Andrew Griffiths

Andrew Griffiths
IoD CLB Ambassador
Director of Digital & Community at The Planet Mark

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