At a glance
By Emma Foster
Often touted as a silver lining of the pandemic, attending business events virtually has become easier than ever.
The early days of awkward tech mishaps are mostly a thing of the past, prompting many to predict the convenience of meeting virtually would make it a permanent fixture on the global event scene.
Indeed, “hybrid” events – offering both physical and virtual attendance options – took off as soon as social restrictions eased and remain popular.
Although “in-person only” events have made a stunning comeback this year, returning more rapidly than expected by many event professionals, virtual events aren’t going away.
One research firm forecasts the value of the global virtual events market will top a staggering US$1 trillion (A$1.52 trillion) by 2032, up from almost US$200 billion (A$304 billion) last year.
This leaves many would-be business event-goers often facing a dilemma – is it better to show up face-to-face or log in?
The answer? It depends, says Dr Amantha Imber, founder of behavioural change consultancy Inventium.
“If the primary objective of an event is purely information sharing, that can be done adequately in the virtual environment. This saves time and money,” says Imber, who also hosts the How I Work podcast.
Building better relationships in person
For Imber, there is “something magical” about being in a face-to-face environment that can’t be ignored or replicated online.
“You can have much richer, deeper interactions in person and, regardless of your personality type, it’s easier to engage and be engaged face-to-face,” she explains.
“You’re also competing less against the inevitable distractions that typically exist in a virtual environment.”
Although it may seem easier not to show up physically, organisational psychologist Dr Amanda Ferguson urges attendees to push themselves to do it or risk “atrophy of your social skills”.
“Our brains have evolved for socialising in-person, not on-screen,” Ferguson says.
“Face-to-face, you gain so much more than you’re ever going to pick up on the screen, remembering that 70 to 90 per cent of communication is non-verbal.”
Face-to-face offers a chance to network
Professional opportunities can also pop up through organic conversations with other participants at events that don’t happen online, she adds.
“If you’re not there in person, you won’t have the chance to compare notes or deepen your relationships.”
On the flip side, Imber notes that virtual events sometimes trump face-to-face, because they can act as an “equaliser” when it comes to participant interaction.
“The chat feature is wonderful for people who are more introverted or feel less confident putting forward their view or asking a question in the face-to-face environment. This can be very intimidating, particularly at large events,” she says.
Simone Seiler, general manager of conference specialist FCM Meetings & Events, expects this year to feature significantly more events and conferences held in Australia than in 2019, the year before in-person events disappeared. Seiler believes that preferences have swayed back toward face-to-face attendance.
“We’re finding that attendees want to be with each other, that virtual fatigue is real, and companies with hybrid work patterns want to bring their teams together to bond,” Seiler says.
“The true value of in-person interaction is coming back into focus and we’re seeing delegates getting the benefit of that, as organisers go to great lengths to ensure the experience is valuable.
“That means better ways of integrating technology and engaging with audiences through options like on-demand content contribution.”
Regardless of how participants choose to attend, Imber’s tip is to “be intentional” about why they are participating to ensure the effort pays off.
“When I’m attending a face-to-face event, I like to think about what will make this day into time well spent. This helps me make really good decisions during the event, as opposed to just being at the mercy of whatever the organiser has planned.
“If I’m going to the event to broaden my networks or deepen existing connections, as an introvert, that’s generally going to be pushing me outside of my comfort zone.
“However, if I’m intentional about it, that’s OK. To make it easier, I’ll perhaps ask for a delegate list before the event and connect with some people on LinkedIn to arrange to meet up on the day,” Imber explains.
As for virtual events, Imber’s top tip is to make a choice – be fully present, or don’t go.
“Having one foot in the event camp and one in your inbox, you’re not going to be doing either thing properly. If you decide to go, be all in, as opposed to ‘sitting on the fence’.”
For Ferguson, the key to attending virtually is to engage proactively and use the technology to its full advantage.
“If there’s an option to turn your camera on, do that and make the most of the screen. Add more body language and cues that others can see, like hand gestures,” Ferguson says.
“Try to engage as much as you can by adding to the chat polls, use the emoji reactions and breakout rooms.”