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  • By Jay Shedd

Virtual events: coming to a computer near you

The internet has irrevocably changed the world. Education, shopping and business have all moved online. Now, so have our events.

Virtual events are part of our new normal, partly due to the pervasiveness of internet and technology, and partly due to recent social distancing and stay-at-home policy. Either way, as they become more commonplace, it’s important that we adapt, as is often required when it comes to technology.

A typical virtual conference features panels or presentations that are streamed live online social media or a web platform. Audience engagement is encouraged through scheduled Q&A sessions or round table discussions.

Other than conferences, virtual events include concerts, sports and even virtual dance parties in which participants dress up at home and go online at the same time as hundreds or thousands of other people to listen to music and dance together.

Virtual marathons are being held in which participants run a predetermined distance, keep track using GPS and share their results online.

While live streaming is the backbone of many virtual events, not all events are live-streamed. Adobe Summit, a conference focused on the digital customer experience, was moved entirely online in March with pre-recorded presentations and keynote speeches that are available for free. The pre-recorded content enabled viewers to watch at their own pace and personalize their own experience.

Virtual events are not a new thing. The gaming industry has leveraged the power of virtual events for years with live-streamed tournaments and panels that attract millions of participants worldwide. Some platforms are offering content not directly related to gaming.

In February 2019, it was reported that more than 10 million people “attended” Fortnite’s online concert by electronic dance music DJ Marshmello, while more than 12 million people attended the first of a series of online concerts by rapper Travis Scott on Fortnite in April 2020. Travis Scott even debuted a new track featuring Kid Cudi on the platform, which led to millions of plays of the song on Spotify within the first 24 hours after the debut.

Other organizations and industries are new to the virtual event arena, as many turned to virtual events during the pandemic.

Mobile World Congress canceled its in-person tech expo in Barcelona in February due to health concerns and instead hosted a virtual conference called Tech Spirit Barcelona, featuring online keynote speeches, panels and meet-up style networking events for startups and entrepreneurs.

South By South West (SXSW) Conferences and Festivals, an annual conglomeration of parallel film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences in Austin, Texas was canceled in March. Later, event organizers announced an online film festival from April 27 to May 6 on Amazon Prime Video. Film entries to the SXSW film festival were available on Amazon Prime during this time for free.

These events were produced by multi-million-dollar companies that were able to build their own online platforms and attract well-known partners, but that doesn’t mean their success cannot be replicated on a smaller, more manageable scale.

The best virtual events mirror in-person ones in many ways. Virtual events that provide networking opportunities for attendees, feature great speakers or performers and personalize the attendee experience will continue to be a success.

There are many benefits of hosting a virtual event. They are convenient for participants in different time zones and schedules and can be accessed by any device. This especially beneficial for those of us living on islands in the Pacific, where airfare is costly and travel time is long.

For presenters, it’s easier to attend multiple conference or events, since there’s no travel time or cost.

A virtual event also does not have to be free. Many event organizers offer gated access to presentations and content. Virtual events have a potential to raise money for organizations through registration fees and the sale of all-access passes to exclusive content or to content long after the live event is over.

There are, as with most things, challenges to overcome. People who don’t have reliable access to the internet would miss out. To make an event more inclusive to those with limited internet access, event hosts could ensure the content is downloadable and that the event platform is functional on mobile platforms. Attendees could take advantage of prepaid options, such as daily unlimited data plans for under $3.

A virtual event may not offer the same networking opportunities that can be gained from an in-person event. Not everyone is satisfied with email, direct message, live chat and social media. Some people will miss the human connection, the chance meetings in the lobby and the bonding over drinks that can be found at conferences. It can be hard to gauge a person’s personality or interest in your product, offer or pitch over text or video.

Pitching sponsorship could pose a challenge as many businesses still do not see the value of virtual events. There’s a misconception that a logo on a digital advertisement, website or digital program is not as valuable than a logo on print ads, banners, table tents and other marketing materials.

Another challenge to securing sponsorship is the lack of attendance data since many will be hosting virtual events for the first time and event organizers won’t be able to provide the number of expected participants based on previous years.

Event hosts will have to be creative in their offerings to sponsors and replicate the benefits of an in-person event in a virtual landscape, such as prominent logo placement, exclusive sponsorship to an online networking event or content and frequent promotion between presentations.

There will be a learning curve because organizations may not have the technical know-how of streaming technology.

For those who are not confident in their technical skills, there are agencies that can be hired to create, market and facilitate the event. For those on a budget, there easy-to-use platforms available, like Zoom, YouTube Live, Google Hangouts and all social media platforms that have a live video feature.

The other option is bringing on tech-savvy staff or volunteers. If you think about it, an in-person event requires bodies to man the registration table and serve guests, so this would be a shift in investment. Virtual events will certainly not replace in-person events. For gatherings that rely heavily on experience, such as food and drink festivals, virtual events are obviously not a good fit. However, considering the high costs involved for attending conferences and events, and the low cost of replicating a conference using great online tools, I wouldn’t be surprised if the virtual world will become a viable venue option for events.

— Jay R. Shedd is senior director of Sales, Marketing and Customer Service at IT&E, the largest wireless service and sales provider in Guam and the Marianas. He has more than 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry.

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