From the Editor: Virtual vs Live Events
How you can make your face-to-face experiences more compelling through virtual eventsby Rachel Globus | Published in August 2009 From the Editor | Departments
Consider this: Recently, I left the office in the middle of the day, spent 45 minutes driving up to Santa Monica before the traffic crunch, searched for a place where I could plug in for a few hours, and finished up my day working from a tiny table in a library courtyard where I could only speak in a whisper. All this for an event where the proffered cuisine was pizza, the panelists only had one mic to share and we had to put away our own folding chairs. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
I learned how the Los Angeles Times views citizen journalism (dimly!), got to chat one-on-one with the VP of strategic marketing for one of the most forward-thinking media companies in the country, reconnected with the SAG Awards’ special event coordinator and met a fascinating online video expert.
I could have sat at home and followed along on Twitter through the event’s hashtag, or watched the TechZulu video stream posted subsequently. And I would have gotten something out of it, but none of the things that were most important: the new conversations, new connections and new ideas sparked during informal mingling and discussion. Attending the Social Media Club Los Angeles’ panel on citizen journalism was more than worth the investment of time and money.
Blogger and association planner Jeff Hurt recently touched off a debate about this very topic: What place does virtual attendance have in the conference, meeting and event world?
Many conference organizers are leery of adding a virtual component, such as live-streaming keynotes and educational sessions. Won’t it cannibalize my on-site attendance?, they ask.
My answer is, if you’re focusing on the cannibalism argument, you’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking how to prevent virtual from compromising live attendance, ask: How can I make my face-to-face experience more compelling? How can I bring into my circle of influence those who would be interested in what I’m offering but may not be able to make it in person? How can I evolve my business model to support a conference accessible in live and virtual formats?
It may seem like there are more questions than answers at this point, but events all over the country are trying and finding solutions that work.
This year, Cisco Live, an annual education and training conference for IT and communications professionals, headed off a major dip in attendance (on which its revenue model is based) by offering paid and free virtual attendance (for the full case study, see pg. 10). The Houston-based Digital Energy Conference expanded its reach internationally by broadcasting to groups who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to come; organizers soon expect to have a sponsor underwriting the virtual conference technology.
This year’s MERLOT International Conference, on information technology in higher education, is allowing speakers who couldn’t make it because of reduced funding to present their papers from home, Sorel Reisman, managing director of MERLOT.org, told me. Anyone will be able to watch conference keynotes and participate in discussions online.
“I think what’s going to cannibalize attendance are the budgets in education, not the virtual component,” Reisman added. In other words, people who can attend — time, money and schedule permitting — will. (Even if it means driving in L.A.)
Virtual will never replace the live experience, although it can augment it. That’s one thing you can — and should — plan on.