Coronavirus Takes Out Spring Conference Season – Will Virtual Conferences Be The Cure?

Melody Wolff, Chief Everything Officer, Briz Media Group

Every industry is facing an uphill battle to fight the economic fallout from COVID-19 but those rooted in face to face connection will be hit the hardest. We all saw it coming but the cancellation of South by Southwest (SXSW), one of the most iconic conferences of the year, makes our current health crisis very real. This follows the cancellation of Mobile World Congress, Facebook’s F8 and other spring tech events which is having an economic impact of over $1 billion

According to Bizzabo, 55% of B2B organizations spend over 21% of their marketing budgets on events. Event sponsorship is a tried and true marketing tactic, in fact, 41% of marketers believe that events are the single-most effective marketing channel over digital advertising, email marketing and content marketing. There is a reason why people travel thousands of miles and invest thousands of dollars to be physically present at an event. Not to mention the millions of dollars companies spend on sponsorships. 

With Brands invested millions of dollars every year to in-person events, they are now forced  to create online and offline experiences to support conference marketing efforts. Now all of their efforts need to be focused online. 

Conferences including Shopify Unite, Google I/O, Collision and others have moved online rather than outright canceling. Platforms for hosting events have seen an overwhelming number of inquiries as conference organizers scramble to bring people together all over the globe. Online conferences also forges the perfect opportunity for virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and even video production companies that typically service other industries such as real estate or entertainment to flex some digital muscle to create experiences that stand out, help brands differentiate, and speakers resonate. In a reality that is as scary and unpredictable as the one we currently live in, virtual reality can come to center stage to create fun, memorable experiences. 

COVID-19 might have just kicked off a paradigm shift in how companies and consumers interact, and virtual conferences could be the perfect solution to bridge that gap. Let’s face it, attending an industry conference is old school. Between flying thousands of miles, staying in overpriced hotel rooms and sitting in stuffy auditoriums, attending conferences is not always a great experience. Why not experience the conference virtually? Imagine Facebook VR Goggles, Meets Zoom Video, LinkedIn to connect with people and Live Nation Ticketing and Grub Hub to serve the food and of course branded VR goggles being delivered to your house that help to recreate the conference experience in a virtual setting.

As an online conference “attendee” how you present yourself online becomes ever more important. You’re not just participating in a conference for education, there are still plenty of opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals and you’ll want to make a good first impression. Take some time to focus on your personal brand. An About.me page is a great place to show personality, professional and personal interests that could lead to more authentic and lasting relationships. But how will they not only target the right attendees online, but also engage with them to create the same experience? How can people participate in an online event while still walking away with the same learning experience, networking opportunities, and even swag? Companies including theTUNDRA are finding ways to bring special interest groups together by creating networking opportunities and finding new ways to create authentic connections online with other event “attendees.”

Moving conferences online will also help global issues that we’re all facing such as pollution, toxic emissions, affordability and access. One study estimated that air travel by nearly 7,000 attendees to and from a single conference in Seattle produced about 16,000 metric tons of global warming pollution, equivalent to the amount that 53,500 people living in Haiti generate during an entire year. 

In times like these, marketers need to be creative and see the potential of the situation we are now forced with. Although Cannes Lions organizers are working on a contingency plan, it remains to be seen whether the Festival of Creativity will follow suit with other industry events canceling or postponing perhaps VR goggles and a branded bottle of Rose will just have to do the trick this year. 

New and interesting ways of engaging with attendees online will emerge and become case studies for the future. We may even see more online or hybrid events to come as a result – because let’s face it, it’s much cheaper to log into a Zoom then fly across the country or world for a conference. Also, it might be easier for the average person to attend given the cost savings and flexibility it provides. 

As COVID-19 continues to spread, our society and industries will have to adjust and find a way forward. Taking traditional networking into a virtual world will require some extra creativity…but far less logistics! 


About the Author: At Briz Media Group, Melody works with businesses to develop and manage strategic communication programs that use publicity as a catalyst for conversation. She helps companies achieve tangible results by telling their stories in a way that differentiates them from competitors and resonates with investors, current and potential clients, and the media.  
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