Last night my mother-in-law was chatting to me about her recent experience of an online astrology conference. This is something she usually attends in person, enjoying both the variety of speakers and the opportunity to chat about a topic she enjoys with like-minded folk from all over the world. 

The prospect of an online conference was a new thing, but like many older people she has already embraced the new video call technologies like WhatsApp, Zoom and even Teams (thanks to lockdown family calls).

Her assessment of the experience was similar to many I’ve heard recently within the exhibition industry. She was glad the event went ahead and that she could continue the opportunity to learn and listen to different topics around the subject. She liked that she could ask questions to speakers and even engage in group chats, but lamented the fact that it didn’t feel the same as being in an audience with people around her, sensing reactions and having the opportunity to feel included. 

The thing she missed most of course was the ability to mingle and have chance conversations. To chat over coffee, and fill those spaces between talks with shared views and common interests.

On the other hand, she was very animated about was the reaction of many participants who had been previously unable to attend the physical event that were overjoyed that at last they could take part in the online event. She said that even though the online conference couldn’t offer the experience of being at the live event that it was really great that those that wanted to be part of that community could now join digitally and get a flavour of the content and the community.

I think my mother-in-law’s experience is common to a lot of people in both B2C and B2B settings. Firstly, that due to the global lockdown she has had the opportunity to use digital tools that she hadn’t used before, or at least used in new ways. Secondly the face-to-face events she is used to attending have gone digital in the absence of public gatherings. Her experience has been mixed. Some aspects are clearly beneficial, such as the greater reach, and the ability to continue to benefit from watching the content she would have seen; however the ability to immerse herself in being there, learning and interacting doesn’t translate into a digital event.

I think we can all relate to this sentiment; the difficult part for organisers is how to interpret these mixed feelings. Will audiences translate the benefits into demand for hybrid events going forward? Will some be satisfied with digital-only events? Or will the need for immersion and experience drive people to use digital only when they have no other choice? 

During the pandemic, event organisers have been busy channelling efforts into delivering value to their industries by bringing people together digitally, and the question obviously arises about whether online will cannibalise live events when the pandemic subsides.

I strongly believe that this is an opportunity to improve and expand events. By moving beyond the physical event we can serve our industries better, extend our audience reach and make far more connections than ever before. The current climate is daunting, and the recent pivot to digital and then hybrid is stretching our event and digital teams to the limit. However this change is long overdue, and I believe that in the long term we will forge a superior business model that will make our business better defended from disruption.

This isn’t going to be easy – we need to rise to the challenge of better live digital production. We need to increase our digital and content resources as well as the level of digital knowledge across our event teams, whilst accepting the additional costs of developing new platforms and processes. In the long term the organisers that get this right will create more revenue from the additional customer value and business connections they drive.

Exhibitors and the industries they serve will be better connected throughout the year, with multiple opportunities to connect and engage with audiences to do business. Each event brand will need to find the right balance between digital and physical events depending on the type of event and the needs of the audience.

No doubt we will see new entrants offering online-only events. But can these survive if they are competing against brands offering digital and physical events at different points throughout the year, offering hybrid access for those that can’t be present physically? If exhibitors want to place a bet on the brand that will get them the most business, the difference will be clear. And yes some businesses will choose the cheaper online-only option, as we all do from time to time. But if you want to see the product, meet the expert and get to have that casual conversation that turns into a long term connection, you are going to pay the premium and make the effort to be there in person.

My mother-in-law will definitely be back at the astrology conference next year, and is hoping that the benefits of this year’s digital conference will live on. If so she knows it will be a richer, more inclusive and dynamic experience than it was before.

Ade Allenby is Global Head of Data and Digital Innovation at RX Global.