Shifting from Physical to Online Events: Is it the Right Move?

The meetings and events industry has been hit hard by COVID-19 and the social distancing measures aimed at reducing its spread. Companies and organizations have made changes to adapt during this unprecedented period, postponing, rescheduling or moving events online.

But are all events suited to a virtual audience?

Event coordinator Martha Feenstra says surprisingly yes. She even expects some may remain completely online on the other side of the pandemic.

“I never thought I would enjoy a virtual music concert (but) it was incredible,” says Feenstra of Toronto-based Managing Matters, a full-service association and event management company with clients worldwide. “(While) concerts will definitely move quickly back to in-person whenever possible because people crave the ambience of them, conferences suit an online audience very well, especially those with an international audience.”

Web conferences are more economical for both organizers and attendees, she explains. Money is saved on overhead costs (venue, vendors, on-site personnel), flights, hotels and other travel expenses at a time when budgets are already stretched.

But businesses shouldn’t expect to pocket the additional profits from these cost savings. As expenses change so, too, do revenue sources from sponsors and exhibitors. Attendees will also expect pricing to reflect the change in event location from a physical address to a virtual one, and associated value or experience.

In addition to the financial upside is the time savings. Online events cut down on set-up and planning, as well as the voyage to and from the conference across possibly multiple time zones; with just a click of a button, everyone can be instantly connected. What’s more, they reduce the impact on the environment.

There’s also the potential to expand an event’s attendee base and increase brand awareness, says Managing Matters event coordinator Lorien McMahon. All that’s required is a computer, laptop or mobile device and Internet connection, so it’s open to nearly everyone.

“We’ve found our educational panel events are just as successful online as they are in-person,” she says. “For one of our clients, in the past, we would often run five-speaker panel discussion events and get around 40 to 50 attendees. Recently, the same style event has been run online in a webinar format and we have been getting an audience of over 200 guests.”

Although in-person events are largely transferrable online, this doesn’t mean businesses are guaranteed success. The CEO of a millennial-owned event and association management firm based in Toronto cautions making the switch without any forethought.

“It’s important to evaluate your resources and expertise before making the transition,” says Redstone Agency’s Carly Silberstein, who is considered an industry authority on live streaming, digital and hybrid events. “You may have an internal events team or be working with an event planning professional, but you don’t have the necessary digital event experience or expertise.”

In this case, she recommends consulting a digital event specialist to bridge that gap.

Silberstein adds it’s wise to consult stakeholders to determine their appetite for a digital event before adopting the new alternative. This includes past attendees, exhibitors, speakers, sponsors and anyone else who’s had personal involvement in the event.

“You might be surprised how much valuable information and insight can be derived by asking what they want and need.”

While the answers may impact the content and digital delivery format (single speaker webinar, interactive Q&A session, large virtual summit), the event’s primary goals and objectives should remain the same.

“Ask yourself, ‘Is the purpose to educate, facilitate networking, or showcase or launch a new product?’ This should be consistent and at the forefront of your decision-making as you move online for it to be worthwhile,” says Silberstein.


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