Are virtual events the future of events?

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The Event Greening Forum (EGF) non-profit organisation promotes sustainable business practices for the events sector. Here the EGF explores the question of whether virtual events will be the sustainable solution for the future of the events industry.

At the time of writing this, South Africa is in lockdown. While many of us are focusing on its scheduled end date, others are asking what will happen once all restrictions are lifted. Speculation is rife that the world as we know it will have changed irreversibly, and how we live and do business will have too.

Our President Cyril Ramaphosa echoed this sentiment at a Presidential Coordinating Council held on 4 April 2020, where he urged government and society to rethink how governments, businesses and communities function and relate to each other; “The coronavirus changes everything,” he added. The business events industry has been especially devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a bid to stay operational, many event planners and production companies have been embracing virtual events to be able to continue working. Unsurprisingly, a common question now being asked is whether virtual events will remain a popular medium post the coronavirus pandemic?

Clean & green, on your screen?

Taking events online has long been promoted as a more sustainable way to bring people together. Immediately a vast proportion of the carbon footprint of an event is cut, as the travel, accommodation and event catering are eliminated.

Yet, virtual events never really took off. Greg McManus, chairperson of the Event Greening Forum (EGF), said: “I attended a GovTech event ten years ago, where the technology for virtual meetings and holograms was already available. But the uptake has been incredibly slow and limited to niche markets, such as the tech industry.”

If you have been having more Zoom and Team meetings recently, you’ll probably agree that going online comes with challenges. From technical hiccups, such as distorted audio and dropped calls, to the fact that even with video it is impossible to make eye contact and gauge body language or sentiment.

This can leave everyone feeling a little disconnected and even disengaged. Face-to-face is, unarguably, better.

Predicting the human response

An opinion piece by William Thomson for Meetings & Incentive Travel magazine* suggests that the coronavirus outbreak is a trial run of what climate change is heralding. Indeed, one of the effects of climate change that scientists have warned of is an increase in deadly pathogens and pandemics.

Hosting events online is not only an effective way to keep society safe from these threats, but they are a way to ensure we do not significantly contribute to global warming.

Mr Thomson added that after experiencing the convenience and cost-saving of not travelling for events, many people will think twice before attending an event on the other side of the world.

As a counter argument to that, we’d like to suggest it’s equally possible that after being in social isolation, many people will be craving company when the restrictions are lifted, and will want to attend more in-person events than before.

However, here cost as a prohibitive factor is likely to be more relevant, especially considering the economic damage that lockdown is causing. This could mean local events will gain in popularity, while international ones will have a slower uptake (at least initially).

Getting the balance right

Mr McManus said: “The EGF has always advocated holding events responsibly, where consideration needs to be given to the economic, social and environmental impact of your event. We still stand by that.

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have dramatically cut carbon emissions around the world by effectively halting whole industries. But this clearly isn’t the model of environmental reform that we would recommend.

We are acutely aware that the economic fallout of these actions will cause a huge amount of devastation, possibly more than the virus itself, and we are gravely concerned about the wellbeing of our industry and broader society.”

In order to get the balance right, it makes sense that all types of event formats will continue to be used in the future. The technology for virtual events will get better – and we will get better at it too.

We have had literally thousands of years refining how we hold face-to-face events, but only a few decades with the ability to hold them online. It’s going to take some trial and error to get it right, but lockdown has already forced us to start doing this.

Yet in-person events will also remain necessary. Mr McManus said: “We need to touch and feel products being exhibited, to reconnect with our colleagues in person, to meet new business partners face-to-face.

We are social beings, and we need inperson events. We also need to support the businesses that service this industry, and who create employment for our communities. “At the same time, we have to be more sustainable.

We have to be smart about how we work, and to build robust systems into our events that mitigate and slow climate change and promote everyone’s health and wellbeing. Now more than ever before.”

The good news is that we already know how to be more sustainable, and the coronavirus has shown us that, as a species and when we need to, we can pull together and act decisively. If we can do this, we can continue to operate and stop global warming.