Event Management

Is Virtual a Wake-Up Call For The Event Industry?

Skift Take

Virtual events are currently the only way to meet in groups larger than 10 across the world. While despised as the unlucky sibling of live events for over a decade, they are offering business continuity, substantial savings, and increasingly high revenue. And event owners are starting to notice.


“There is nothing like face-to-face.” This is the motto the event industry lives by. Live events had never been more popular when January 2020 hit.

The industry was at an all-time high. We were living the age of live experiences.

Then the coronavirus shut down a 1 trillion dollar industry in two weeks.

In the first weeks of February, I was among the first to push the virtual envelope. After an initial reluctance, the industry joined. With many event professionals being furloughed or laid off, virtual was the new opportunity to keep business going or get a new job.

The world of event owners, mostly companies running events as a source of revenue, started to adapt. We saw the first zoombombs, virtual backgrounds and attempts to pivot to virtual.

Very few expected virtual events to deliver. It was a last ‘I have nothing to lose’ resort.

Those of us running virtual events such as webinars for over a decade knew that this was not the case. We knew we were in for quite a few surprises and potential paradigm shifts, some of which will change the event industry forever.


Virtual Events are Here to Stay

I miss conferences, trade shows, and concerts very badly. This does not prevent me from looking at facts. Facts, as of today, say that we are not going back to meetings with more than 50 individuals for quite some time.

That could all change. You can’t even imagine how I want to trash the post linked above, the most popular we’ve ever run on this website. While NIAID director Anthony Fauci expresses optimism about several treatment and vaccination prospects in the next 12 to 18 months, this would be the first time a vaccination has been fast-tracked within that time-frame, and it’s possible it would take much longer for it to be scaled broadly enough to be accessible the world over. However, a breakthrough event like a vaccine or herd immunity may speed things up. The likelihood of an event like that happening is very low at the time of writing.

Virtual events are not a one- or two-month thing. We will deal with them for the remainder of the year and potentially into 2021.

As companies such as Facebook and Microsoft announced that they will hold no in-person events with more than 50 attendees until June/July 2021, virtual events remain the only viable strategy to keep the event industry together.


Event Owners Are Learning The Benefits of Running Virtual Events

Meeting face to face has been the most important brand touchpoint for many companies. For some companies they were sacred.

Virtual events are nowhere comparable to live interactions. Yet event owners around the world started to try things out, to experiment. They started to gather insights, look at performance, and analyze cost/benefits.

I think this thread by our CEO sums it up:

Virtual events are not only providing business continuity, they are also pushing those that pay the bills to re-evaluate some of the practices of the event industry.

I would commit editorial harakiri if, for one second, I leaned toward a preference for virtual over face to face. That is never going to happen.

However, if you’ve been reading EventMB for a few years, you likely know that there are some things neither of us liked about our industry. Some things we all wanted to change, but never quite managed to. To be completely honest, we weren’t able to do so because of those who were actually good with them.

Well, this incredible sh*%storm that is the coronavirus, combined with the rise of virtual and the economic downturn, will force change in the industry.

Let’s see what that looks like.


Transparency or Nothing

Forget about cutting corners to make the extra buck. In a post-coronavirus world, event owners will have to think long and hard about it before going live. Virtual will be the benchmark to evaluate whether a live event needs to happen or not.

As soon as one of the actors in the event pipeline fails to be transparent, the whole event is jeopardized.

This could be the planner, the venue, the catering, the decor, the event technology company, the AV, the DMC, or even the entertainer. No finger-pointing here.

Sensitivity and lack of budget will combine into the motto: ‘You know what? I’ll do this event online and save me some budget.’



Despite the many attempts from event technology companies to make things more tangible, a sizable portion of the industry relies on feedback such as ‘it was a great event!’ to decide whether a project was successful or not.

This strategy may work in times of prosperity, such as until January 2020. Those times are now gone.

Virtual is ironically creating an incredible layer of tangibility to event accountability. You can count on analytics for everything. They are built-in by default.

Event owners are starting to realize the power of virtual events because, in some cases for the first time, they’ll know what the heck is happening during the event.

It will be tough to justify those amazing mini-burgers or the converted espresso truck if you are not able to show how many leads they bring in or how they impact the overall experience of the attendees, and in turn, how that improved experience contributes to the bottom line.

Once things go back to normal, expect many, many questions about how you’re substantiating your investments to come your way — and not necessarily for a lack of budget, but rather for the willingness to compare apples with apples.

Virtual events will be compared to live events.



One benefit of virtual events is accessibility at scale. Never in the history of the world have so many people been able to attend so many events. Travel barriers have been slashed.

Events have had the biggest opportunity to showcase their value. Whether it is the content of a conference or the drinks of a digital happy hour, everybody is appreciating how impactful events can be.

Events have never been so inclusive, and smart event owners understand the power it brings.

There is no way we are going to an event industry that is 100% offline. The event of the future will be hybrid by definition. Face-to-face events will have a virtual component.

The power of inclusion is one of revenue. Event owners will require a virtual addition to the event because they will appreciate the revenue potential after running virtual events for many months.


What About Trade Shows?

There is a valid argument right now that some types of events, such as trade shows are underserved by virtual events.

There are two ways to view this issue:

  • Pessimistically: the coronavirus jeopardizes the very existence of trade shows. (Frankly, this seems too far out and unrealistic.)
  • Optimistically: trade shows will soon be served by better virtual tools. Once we enter the realm of good virtual trade shows, the same pattern will apply to the future of exhibitions.

Trade show owners will be under increased pressure to deliver value to exhibitors. Transparency, accountability, and inclusion will be sought after like never before. It will be the most significant challenge this sector will ever have to face.



Virtual events, combined with some of the worst economic indicators in the past hundred years will transform the way companies look at events.

Efficiency, transparency, accountability, inclusion. Event owners in a post-Coronavirus world, will approach live meetings with a new set of tools and experience.

The change in the industry won’t be down to its players anymore. The change is happening before our eyes. Some event professionals will thrive in it, some won’t be able to deal with it.

Exciting? Scary? That’s for you to decide.