Why Some Will Always Favor Virtual Events

Skift Take

During the lockdown, necessity became the mother of invention. Virtual replaced in-person events and in some cases, it is here to stay.

Technology rode to the rescue during the pandemic. As in-person gatherings proliferate, are virtual events a thing of the past? Absolutely not, according to industry experts.

Specific Use Cases

Interestingly, after two years of virtual meetings, the 138-year-old British retail giant Marks & Spencer announced they have no plans to return to in-person shareholder meetings. Meeting restrictions may have been lifted, but M&S told Reuters their virtual annual general meetings (AGMs) were better attended than pre-pandemic in-person meetings. For example, 561 people attended its 2019 shareholder meeting, while 1,664 shareholders attended its 2021 virtual AGM. 

M&S takes the position that “a digitally-enabled AGM is far more accessible, engaging, and democratic” than its traditional in-person event.

However, there are impediments to going all virtual. Associations and corporations have to see if their bylaws provide for implementation of alternatives to traditional in-person events. Then there are requirements of national regulators. For example, the Canadian Securities Administrators, the umbrella group of provincial and territorial regulators, is studying the experience of virtual shareholder meetings, their technical challenges, and how well companies responded to those challenges — were they fixed or repeated?

Another obstacle, more public relations than legal, is the complaint about the ease with which virtual meetings can shield directors and executives from proper scrutiny. Hitting the mute button is much easier than yanking a microphone from an angry shareholder. 

Using data from Computershare, Reuters found that from January to July of 2021, 40 percent of AGMs globally were fully virtual, compared with 27 percent in the whole of 2020. For that same period in the U.S., around half of 2021 meetings were virtual.

Significant Gains

According to Brandon Wernli, founder and CEO of Georgia-based BW Events, the embrace of virtual meetings and events is not some post-pandemic hangover but a solid movement. “For a majority of our clients, we are seeing that Covid forced them into a virtual event experience where shareholder meetings and other engagements that don’t absolutely require in-person attendance are leveraging virtual technologies at a fraction of their cost and are hoping to do so going forward.”

To illustrate the potential of virtual, Wernli quotes research that states, “The global virtual events market size was $78 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to $414 billion by 2028, representing a compound annual growth rate of 23.2 percent.”

While the pandemic hurt many individuals and economies, it also acted as a business accelerator for the virtual world, showing how easy it is to scale up an event. “What they found during Covid is a seven times multiplier in some verticals. Essentially, if an in-person event experienced 1,000 people onsite, the virtual version of that event during Covid might have around 7,000 registrants. Marketing teams loved this multiplier for various reasons, including the expansion of their reach. Now, a hybrid event can tap into the perks of both,” said Wernli.

In-person events have not reached the audience sizes of 2019. “The audience size isn’t as high as it was pre-pandemic, but we project it will eventually get there. For example, Google’s Next event had over 30,000 in-person attendees prior to the pandemic. This year they plan for 5,000 in-person. On the other hand, the virtual component of this same event expects to have over 250,000 registrants.”

Return on Investment

Scaling up can stress budgets, but again Wernli contends, “Virtual events can be budget-friendly compared to in-person events assuming that the automation that today’s technology can provide are leveraged. … Other businesses are building an always-on environment to streamline their digital event strategy and thus save hundreds of thousands of dollars while achieving the KPIs they desire.”

The efficiencies also enhance ROI. “We have case studies that show that our ability to streamline the tech stack has led to over $1 million in savings for clients like Google and Intuit. For other clients, they may have goals or KPIs around generating more leads from their event – we have case studies showing increases of 100 to 400 percent in lead generation as a result of implementing the right technology stack and strategy,” said Wernli.

If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, but BWEvents has doubled in growth in each of the last four years as a consultant heavily-weighted in the tech sector. Wernli explains their mix, “The technology required to put on an event requires a unique level of expertise that often an engineer at Google or Adobe, for example, doesn’t offer. Most technology-minded resources have a very specific specialty within their field that often does not overlap with event technology. As a result, the demand for event tech experts at these highly technical organizations is very high. The word-of-mouth growth attests to that.”