Are Virtual Events Enough?

Competing for delegate attention has never been easy. Now, with the rise of virtual events, the power of connecting with audiences in-person is becoming clear. 

Author: Chantal Sturk-Nadeau       

virtual events

Ottawa, home of the Shaw Centre, is one of Canada’s main tech hubs. Delegates meeting there for live events can get first-hand exposure to developments in many industries, something not possible during a virtual event. (Courtesy Destination Canada)

Global Voices is a series of occasional editorials offering perspectives from international professionals in the business events, destination, and travel industries.

virtual events

After almost six months of webinars, conference calls, and online meetings, we recognize now — perhaps more than ever before — the important role business events play in facilitating and supporting the exchange of ideas, building networks, and fuelling innovation. Thanks to an endless stream events experienced from home, we know now more than ever that while it is possible to share knowledge across platforms and screens, when it comes to authentically engaging with audiences, there is no substitute for the creativity and energy that ignites when groups of like-minded people come together in the same place.

Once we can meet again safely with travel restrictions and gathering limitations lifted for in-person events, it will be more important than ever to consider the purpose of hosting live events and evaluate it against the organization’s mission to answer this question: Is the opportunity for learning, collaboration, and mission advancement best done online, or is it best done in person?

Like the technologies we have all become so accustomed to using in the absence of in-person meetings (and the ones we’ll soon become used to in the new era of hybrid conferences), business events have the power to accelerate progress, lead to innovation and reinvention, and are critical to economic recovery — not just for conference organizers, but for the event’s host communities as well.

International business events are magnets for content-hungry individuals and for those with investment resources. Our role within Destination Canada is to spotlight Canada’s innovation industries to connect event organizers with Canadian innovators to create the sort of events global audiences will travel to experience. We know from successful events such as the World Summit AI North America, the Collision Conference, and the VR/AR Summit, that business events spark new ideas, foster new relationships, and forge new collaborative networks. A resource for innovation and invention sharing, business events can help shape policy-making, create new opportunities for trade, investment, and business expansion — all of which will be critical for a robust economic recovery and future resilience of our industry.

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We know the value of tactile learning: touching, hearing, and otherwise interacting with innovation ecosystems and technologies to create engaging learning environments. Business events, whether they are trade shows, conventions, symposia, or corporate meetings, provide a unique opportunity for delegates and exhibitors to launch new technologies, connect with their target audience for real-time feedback on new products and services, and for delegates to safely sample a new culture through the organized social event program.

Business events have the power to progress change and transform societies. Consider CAV-Canada, the Connected Autonomous Vehicles — by choosing to host it in Ottawa, researchers and delegates alike get to experience L5, the first integrated CAV track of its kind in North America. The experiences had during this event inform the future development of next-gen networks and CAVs, and will impact the way driverless cars of the future are developed. You simply cannot replicate this gathering of knowledge with a virtual event.

Like many, our calendars used to be perpetually full of conferences, trade shows, and client events, many of which have been replaced by virtual experiences. And as interesting as the online events have been, we can’t help but miss the hallway conversations, the serendipitous moments of connection that aren’t scheduled into a program or agenda. The discussions aboard an event shuttle that can lead to a new way of thinking, or the fresh ideas sparked when listening together to local thought-leaders who know their industry’s ecosystem best. Remember the new connections you used to make when networking with strangers gathered together for a common purpose? Or the thrill of discovery that can only be had winding your way along a trade-show floor — touching, sampling, listening, and being one of the first to experience a new product just as it’s launched?

We will return to those days, when it is safe to do so. And when we do bring our industry, our experts, thought leaders, academia, and business leaders together to meet in person again, the end result will be a true meeting of the minds that generates conversation, connection and collaboration and a path forward for individuals seeking career advancement, for organizations seeking to expand their audience and imprint, and for host communities intent on creating economic resiliency.

Chantal Sturk-Nadeau is executive director, business events, for Destination Canada.

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