Do people still want virtual conferences after Covid-19?

Roy Ying, senior lecturer marketing department, at Hang Seng University of Hong Kong, shares his thoughts on why virtual conferences would have risen in popularity even without Covid-19, and what the industry needs to evolve to cater to this format of business events

The business model for virtual conferences can take many different shapes and forms

The popular answer must be “no” because they are all very anxious to be able to travel to attend face-to-face conferences.

However, some people may give you a different answer when the question is asked under a different context. For example, a busy accounting professional may prefer to attend a virtual seminar on the latest ESG updates just to satisfy the Continuous Professional Development requirements from the governing body.

The business model for virtual conferences can take many different shapes and forms

Conference organisers need to recognise the fact that virtual events are here to stay because they satisfy the needs of a segment of the conference market. In fact, even before Covid-19, the demand for virtual events was already picking up.

A survey conducted a few years ago (Digitell 2016) asked professionals such as lawyers, accountants and engineers as to why they would prefer to attend a virtual conference instead of attending the event in person, where 72 per cent indicated money was the main reason. It is not cheap to attend a conference, especially if the venue is away from your hometown. Even if you choose to stay in budget hotels or Airbnbs, the expenses can easily be in the thousands (US$).

On the other hand, 60 per cent indicated that taking time away from their busy work schedule was a challenge. Once again, the motivation to attend a conference would be significantly less if the venue is outside of your hometown.

According to a study by Global Business Travel Association, 2020 saw a 290 per cent spike in hosting virtual events as compared to 2019. Some attribute this to the social distancing measures and the travel restrictions.

However, as a member of academia and a former PCO, I am of the view that even without the Covid factor, there would still be handsome growth in the demand for virtual conferences.

Here, I elaborate by using the PESTLE model. PESTLE refers to external factors (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and or Environmental) influencing the industry landscape.

Let’s start with environmental factors. Earlier in November, the UK delivered a carbon-neutral COP26 in Glasgow with a certification from the International Standard for Sustainable Events (ISO20121), which encourages a reduction in carbon emission via minimisation of air transport. The Millennials and Gen Z are strong supporters of climate actions. They are also becoming the decision-makers in many organisations. It is not difficult to imagine that they will prefer to organise and attend virtual events over physical ones in the years to come.

Also at COP26, many business leaders and heads of states were criticised for not taking public transportation to Scotland. A total of 670 private jets were flown to Glasgow and nearby airports, including one from the host, UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson, which collectively emitted over 102,500 tons of CO2.

Many countries have pledged to lower carbon emissions, and government agencies around the world are expected to lead by example. They are also one of the biggest clients of event management services. Hence it is not difficult to predict that more and more government-led conferences will take place in a virtual or hybrid format.

Although there is no legal provision that directly restricts how conference organisers must or must not plan their conferences. Environmental NGOs around the world have published green-event guidebooks which are widely endorsed by the relevant government agencies. The cost of complying with the new regulations on waste management is also becoming more and more expensive. They are new considerations for conference organisers when deciding whether they should plan more physical or virtual conferences in the future.

Over the past two years, people had no choice but to get used to the online mode of working, socialising and conferencing. While some still prefer face-to-face activities, others may have changed their preference.

According to a survey by Zoom Video Communications earlier this year, only 38 per cent of conference attendees in Singapore will only meet in person (if they were given a choice), 55 per cent will choose both options, and six per cent will only meet virtually. Although more research data is needed to identify whether there is an upward trend on this six per cent, my view is that this number will grow over the next few years.

Video conferencing is not rocket science. The technology is already there. Prior to Covid-19, organisers did not feel the pressure to fully utilise current technology in managing conferences. After all, it was much easier to make money off the commission and rebates from hotels, MICE facilities and in some cases local tourism bureau.

Since 2020, organisers had no choice but to turn to virtual conferences, hence the spike in demand for new features. According to Fortune Global Insight, the global video conferencing market is projected to grow from US$6.3 billion in 2021 to US$13 billion in 2028 at a CAGR of 10.9 per cent during forecast period.

Zoom alone released over 400 updates in 2020, with new offerings including Zoom App, OnZoom and Zoom for Home. With overwhelming demand for online meeting technologies, the share price of Zoom spiked from January 2020 at US$73 to over US$500 in October 2020.

Conference producers who are among the Baby Boomers and Gen X were so used to the traditional business model whereby revenue could only come from selling sponsorship packages and admission tickets. Most “traditional” PCOs are of the view that it is very difficult to commercialise online events because sponsors and attendees are generally not willing to pay the same amount of money for events with no human interactions. However, we are living in a digital world. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves this question, “Can online events offer more revenue options?”

While face-to-face conferences are good opportunities to bring people together, online events can, with the right business model, bring in alternative revenue streams. For example, Insider Inc. has been using on-demand content to bring in revenue since moving its events online in 2020.

Although its online events are free, and its virtual sponsorships cost less than its physical ones, the company has generated eight times more revenue than 2019. It has done so by putting on more events, and by implementing on-demand programmes that can be accessed after the events are streamed. This has led to increased ROI for sponsors since this type of content can still generate awareness and engagement long after the event has ended.

The business model for virtual conferences can take many different shapes and forms. Some organisers are frustrated because they feel like they are sitting on a gold mine but unable to come up with the best formula in reaping the best return on their investments.

However, with more and more online events being held, it can be envisaged that newer ways to commercialise online events will emerge in the not-so-distant future. After all, face-to-face events are just not scalable, yet the possibility for online events is yet to be fully exploited.

Virtual and hybrid events are here to stay. In fact, they are expected to grow handsomely in the coming years, but the industry will need to learn how to deliver value to attendees and ROI to organisers.

If anything, the Covid-19 factor only acted as a catalyst in accelerating the growth of this industry over the past 18 months.

With over 25 years of Marcom experience, Roy Ying has managed hundreds of events and conferences globally in his capacities as a trade promotion manager for the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, head of communications for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and senior corporate communications manager for MTR Corporation.

In his current role as senior lecturer for the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong, Ying not only devotes his time as the module coordinator for Global Marketing, but also contributes articles and content to various industry publications.

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