WHy we weren’t all about the VIRTUAL this summer!

Welcome back – how have you been? Seems a heck of a long time ago since we last wrote a blog, back in June in fact, and before that April. And how strange has the world become since then? Here in the UK our regulations have just changed again and as an industry we’re still working out quite what that means. However, what definitely hasn’t changed is that live events will come back, strongly and safely whenever it is they’re allowed.

With exhibition halls closed and client projects on ice we’ve taken a bit of time out of the business (Steve became a beard model and I trained as an Independent Celebrant!) but we were constantly asked ‘Aren’t you guys moving into virtual events?’ and whilst we did think about it for roughly 5 seconds, it has always been a pretty firm ‘No!‘. Now, I don’t want this blog to be all on-line event bashing and preaching about how superior face-to-face events are – it’s not as simple as one being better than the other. But we did want to explain why it wasn’t the right path for us, and why we can’t flipping wait to get back on the show floor.

We’ve both spent many years working in and around the live event arena, solving problems, meeting people, experiencing things together and making memories. We’ve watched as timid exhibitors have blossomed over the course of a few days, to confidently, articulately and passionately share how their product solves a visitor problem. We’ve listened to stories from the heart of inspiring and motivational speakers, the pain and the glory etched in the lines on their face as we journey with them. We’ve smelt the tantalising smokey BBQ of the latest new sauce on the rack, giggled as we were greeted by Smartbots who knew our name, felt the silky residue of the newest lubricant innovation in the after car market, and played with the latest SMART door locks that mean we’ll never lose our keys again. We’ve shared a beer with exhibitors and visitors in hotel bars, all mutually complaining about our aching feet, but equally aching to get back on the floor and do it all again tomorrow. None of that would we be able to do through a screen – we could have watched others doing it, but we wouldn’t have been able to touch, taste, see, smell and above all share an experience.

The boom in virtual events this summer came from necessity, not organic demand. With a world in lock-down, events postponed and businesses anxiously wondering what to do now, an obvious, and very helpful solution emerged in the format of virtual events. It seemed that almost daily something was shifting on-line, someone was launching a new virtual networking group and there had never been so much free content at the click of a button. All of the platforms that delivered these super new shiny experiences had largely existed before the world had suffered the very first Covid cough. The fact that they weren’t anywhere near as frequent or popular as they are now, tells you something. Some of the platforms out there are very, very good with intuitive and high quality user interface, compelling & relevant content, valuable networking opportunities which creates a bridge between very targeted audiences and exhibitors. Some of the platforms and events on-line are absolutely awful. But we could say exactly the same for face to face events, we’ve all experienced those on the scale between absolutely brilliant and terrible. Both on and off line can be found guilty of leaving exhibitors and visitors severely lacking. Hang on, am I arguing against myself now?

No, I’m arguing for a sensible evolution of face to face and virtual events going forward that takes the convenience and reach of digital, and combines it seamlessly with the passion and un-matchable experiences of face to face. For me, here are the three killer reasons why virtual alone will never be as powerful as face-to-face:

  1. Shake Your Money Maker…. ok, I am not suggesting we all go nightclubbing at the next event (but I will, if you will) but I do want to see more than just your face, or even at times, straight up your nostrils. There are SO many non-verbal signals and cues that you get from being face to face with someone that help you to understand them better, anticipate their response and gauge their true intentions. All of that helps to build mutual trust and solidifies relationships.
  2. Sorry, What Did You Say? – how hard is it to keep your concentration when the only sense you’re using is listening? How easy is it for your eyes to sneak over to Facebook, your hands to start doodling, to start chomping on your Monster Munch when there’s a screen between you and a speaker? It’s not their fault, it’s really hard to engage an audience when all you have is a tiny screen and your voice. In an exhibition hall, whether a conversation between visitor and exhibitor or listening to a keynote speaker, it is much, much easier to stay tuned in, be part of the conversation and engage.
  3. Who Said I Was Needy? – but I’ve learned I definitely need people this last 6 months. In fact, we all need people, humans are inherently social beings and crave the community of others to learn, share and feel valued. On-line communities have done a fantastic job of keeping us connected this year, but we’re seeing Zoom fatigue creeping in and people are realising they need more in order to live a rich and meaningful life.

Still not convinced?

”90% of respondents to a recent survey stated that virtual events were not as effective as face to face”

UFI / Explori Global Industry Survey, Aug 2020

” 77% of exhibitors & 83% of visitors stated that networking was better face to face”

UFI / Explori Global Industry Survey, Aug 2020

And that for me is the crux of the argument. Networking, learning, sharing can all happen on-line, it’s just not quite as effective. It’s a great way to get an introduction to something, to say a quick hello to someone, get a snapshot of a topic but to make it meaningful, sustainable and most importantly profitable there needs to be more substance. I’ve seen the argument reduced to ‘Either / Or’ in so many articles, read the headlines about virtual replacing live but I just can’t see it. What I would love to see, is a really strong digital platform that supports live events, connects audiences, adds value and gets everyone revved up for an amazing few days of business on the show floor. Now that is perhaps the real vision of exhibitions of the future.

So in answering the question why we didn’t jump into virtual when we saw exhibitions moving that way – it just didn’t seem authentic to us. It would just have been cynical to promote the glory of face to face for years, to them jump ship and extol the virtues of digital as soon as that seemed where the money was going. Oh, and having broken 2 vacuum cleaners, 3 irons and 4 pans during lock down, I’d probably have broken the internet had I tried!

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