Virtual Events Will Grow, But in a Supporting Role to Live Events: New Research

“The future is hybrid.” It has become a common reprise as event planners invest more in learning how to operate virtually during the pandemic, but is that what people really want?

Virtual engagement is proving itself to be a robust alternative for some content-driven programs where the ROI is based primarily on reach and education. Events that rely heavily on networking and closing deals, however, have been less adaptable to online platforms.

How do the stakeholders of these events view virtual engagement, and have their opinions shifted at all after seeing virtual adoption levels reach all-time highs? Conversely, will online platforms continue to hold value once they’re no longer the only option?

A recent report titled COVID-19 and How it’s Changing the Event Industry provides key insights on the industry’s reception to and expectations of virtual. The data comes from Reed Exhibitions’ COVID-19 Customer Needs & Mindset Barometer — a survey of almost 3,000 exhibitors and over 9,000 attendees spanning 201 events.

Reed has been able to gauge trends across the course of the pandemic by repeating the survey on a monthly and then bi-monthly basis, and the results send a clear signal: Enthusiasm remains high for an eventual return to in-person events, but both exhibitors and visitors are becoming increasingly receptive to digital options.

What will these shifting attitudes mean for the event industry in the longer term?


Digital Wins Converts, But as Value-Added for In-Person Events

Unsurprisingly, the majority of exhibitors have consistently indicated that they plan to spend less on events as long as the pandemic continues to loom large. Looking ahead, however, approximately two-thirds expect that they will return to normal budget levels (or higher) after vaccine programs have been fully implemented. These results not only reflect an acknowledgement that live events are more costly than digital alternatives, but that they’re worth the extra investment.

Still, a confidence vote in the value of in-person events is not the same as a rejection of virtual options. When the survey was first conducted in June, 91 percent of visitors indicated that they would like to carry out one or more event activities virtually as long as in-person attendance is not an option. While this figure is impressive in its own right, the number rose even higher to 94 percent in September.



Of course, it is one thing to accept virtual events when they are the only option, and another to rank them competitively with in-person alternatives. Do attendees want to see more digital components incorporated into live events once they come back in full force?

If the attendees of a major gaming event are any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. 2020’s PAX Online x EGX Digital event drew over 13 million unique visitors, 77 percent of whom indicated that they would like digital features included in future live events.

While the gaming community is arguably one of the most tech-fluent groups around, Reed’s survey shows similar trends among the general audience. When asked, 65 percent of visitors and 57 percent of exhibitors said that they expect digital event technology will still have utility after the pandemic ends. Admittedly, the top-ranked features were in-person add-ons like contactless entry services and digital badges, but there are many signs that virtual engagement formats are also gaining a foothold.



Some of the questions on the Reed barometer asked visitors and exhibitors to evaluate the ROI of virtual platforms relative to in-person events, and the results reflect growing comfort with technology. For example, even though trade shows are supposed to be among the most difficult events to deliver virtually, 57 percent of visitors believe that they can conduct the majority of their event objectives online (an increase of 5 percent from June’s results).

Interestingly, exhibitors lag behind with only 43 percent feeling confident in being able to meet most of their event objectives digitally. And according to Reed’s research, their biggest concern is that virtual visitors are less likely to engage with their booths. Notably, however, virtual stands were the top-rated feature at online events, with 58 percent of visitors expressing interest. Digital talks, long seen as the event component that’s most suited to virtual delivery, fell 2 points behind with 56 percent of visitors indicating interest.



When it comes to technology comfort levels, familiarity is a key factor. Most people have watched TED Talks or other educational content online, but few have experience with navigating through a virtual trade show floor — and this may account for exhibitors’ misgivings about visitor interest. As Reed’s report states, “Our research shows that those customers who have experience of digital tools are more likely to have a positive attitude towards them.”

While there may still be some resistance, the pandemic has forced most people to become more familiar with a variety of tech services. 84 percent of Reed’s respondents had tried at least one new digital service in their day-to-day lives since the pandemic began, with an average of about 3 new services adopted by both visitors and exhibitors. This growing familiarity could help to explain why event tech approval ratings are rising.

Even when it comes to webinars, which are very similar to many popular streaming entertainment options, people seem more likely to embrace them after some direct exposure. As mentioned earlier, 56 percent of visitors cited digital talks as one of the top features attracting them to virtual events, but 80 percent of those who attended Reed’s webinars said they were satisfied with the experience — and 90 percent said they would be likely to re-attend.



The pandemic has forced both visitors and exhibitors to try virtual event platforms, and if Reed’s research is any indication, the experience has made them more receptive to its potential advantages. With that said, the in-person experience is still seen as primary. If anything, the pressures created by the pandemic may accelerate innovations that will eventually help to optimize integrations between the in-person experience and virtual engagement features.