The cases for and against virtual business events

by Editorial Team
4 minutes read

One of the silver linings of the advent of the coronavirus pandemic is the way that it has accelerated the adoption of event-related technology to facilitate the holding of meetings online using applications such as Zoom or Google Meetings.

The conferences, meeting have given way to virtual events such as webinars, Zoom meetings and other forms of virtual meetings. While some organisers of business meetings have moved to virtual events, the situation is different in the exhibitions sector. Exhibitions remain in abeyance until a vaccine has been found and lockdown are relaxed.  This has raised the question of whether or not virtual events spell the future of the industry or are just a passing coronavirus-related passing fad which will give way back to in-person events again once the pandemic is contained.

Business Events spoke with some players in the local business events industry who held varying opinions on the matter.

For example Sunshine Corporate Communications Managing Consultant, Lenox Mhlanga described virtual events as the new normal which stakeholders needed to embrace. He attributed the resistance to the adoption of virtual business events by some players to the human tendency to resist change.

“When there is a revolution there is fear, resistance, loss of jobs and disruption. The fourth industrial revolution has ‘saved’ the business world because as it is in lockdown, those that have adjusted have managed to continue (holding events),” he said.

Mhlanga expressed the opinion that it would take time before entities involved in business events adopted the technology.

“Businesses will take some time to warm up to virtual events,  but with the inception of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and other digital tools, the move should be to invest on and adopt these in order to be competitive in a rapidly changing world,” he said.

Mhlanga counselled businesses in the events sector to take time to understand virtual events first before marketing them to their customers.

“Let’s begin by understanding virtual events, then through training make our clients know the advantages and disadvantages while stocking up on the skills and tools that will give us a competitive advantage. That will buy us time until a vaccine is found and made available,” Mhlanga said.

Corporate communications expert and business events organiser, Chipo Mapungwana held a different view.

“We don’t like online meetings. Once we have learnt to live with the virus or there is a vaccine we will revert to face to face meetings.

Mapungwana also revealed that another reason why in-person events remained more popular was the fact that business events are way much more than merely sitting through conference presentations or manning or visiting exhibition stands. They are also about related experiences such as travel.

“They are more personal and fun to attend and people get to travel,” she said.

Mapungwana also highlighted that even business events sponsors were not keen to partner organisers on virtual events.

“Face to face meetings, conferences and exhibitions are also great for marketers. I have found that corporate sponsors don’t like spending on online events,” she said.

“The only way that sponsors get publicity for online events is online. And many don’t think this is enough.  With face to face events, sponsors logos are online, in event brochures, on T-shirts, they get thanked by organisers, (and) CEOs make speeches etc,” Mapungwana explained.

Mapungwana highlighted that one needed to put in quite some work to organise online business events.

“Doing an online event with such intricate details is possible but (but means) very hard work for the organisers. And (online events applications) the likes of Zoom don’t have a marketing platform for such. Last year I used WHOVA for our annual conference and the marketing went great. But this was alongside the face to face meeting/conference,” she said.

ZITF Company Marketing and Public Relations Manager, Stella Nkomo in an engagement with Business Events back in May, explained that players in the exhibitions sector were not persuaded to adopt virtual events as they had always traditionally made their money mainly from the in-person event format.

“The exhibition industry was never keen to go this (virtual) route because our money comes from the face-to-face,”

Priscilla Mabhena of Cillas Conferences was of the opinion that virtual events lacked the face-to-face advantage of enabling one to readily get feedback.

“With face to face body language can actually tell you if someone agrees or disagrees with your opinion during the meeting. You just can’t get that feedback online. Technology still completely has its limits so let’s not rule out face to face conference meetings,” she said.

Although some business events players favour the good old in-person format, they are agreed with the proponents of virtual events that going forward, the two formats could be used together so that they complement each other. The organisers of the Intra-Africa Trade Fair (the IATF), which debuted in Cairo, Egypt in 2018, complemented in-person with a virtual fair which those who could not participate in person could take part in virtually.

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