There’s Nothing Normal About a Virtual Future

1 month ago
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The pandemic has been hard on just about everyone. While many an industry has been impacted, Natalka Antoniuk argues that the business events industry in particular is not having its voice heard. And she believes there’s absolutely nothing normal about a virtual future. Over to Natalka…

At the time of writing this, I have two problems. Firstly, there appears to be a huge backlog in deliveries and I have no idea if my Christmas presents will arrive on time. Secondly, my company hasn’t raised an invoice since March because our government won’t allow us to do our job.

Don’t worry though – this is the new normal. We’ve all got to get used to it.

The business I work for designs and builds exhibition stands. The events industry has taken a beating this year. National lockdowns, travel restrictions and social distancing mean that it’s neither safe nor practical to host mass gatherings.

And yes, it’s a shame for the sports fans, theatre-lovers and festival-goers. But the very little media coverage my industry has been given has been devoted to these niches. We’ve all seen Amazon’s Christmas advert.

Nobody has mentioned business events.

I won’t bore you with numbers and statistics. But you should know that the exhibition industry contributes a lot to the UK. Our key venues contribute billions to their local economies. They also create hundreds of thousands of jobs. And currently, they’re operating as NHS Nightingale Hospitals.

Whether you believe that to be an elaborate game of “anything you can do I can do better” between Boris Johnson and China is irrelevant. We gave up our venues to help our country deal with a global pandemic.

More importantly, the businesses who have chosen to include trade shows in their marketing strategy rely on the leads that they generate to grow. Trade shows are a massive form of income for start-ups, SMEs and global brands. So what are we all supposed to do?

The future is virtual apparently.

We’ve all had the invite. Virtual events are cropping up in the most unlikely of places. From live gigs to pantomimes and international exhibitions to webinars. They’ve been rubbed into our faces so much that you’d be forgiven for believing that this was actually the future of my industry.

But if 2020 has proven anything, it’s that nothing can replace in-person events. I don’t care how interactive the latest technology is. Frantically waving at someone through a webcam to tell them that they’re on mute is not the future.

I’m so bored of listening to people tell me otherwise.

Let’s forget that I have anything to do with the exhibition industry for a minute. I would probably have been excited about the idea of a virtual event. Actually, I know that I would have been excited because I went to a virtual event in 2019.

It was a sustainability event. The idea of hosting it virtually was meant to be a push on the sustainability front (no travel, no paper, etc.). I only attended this show because I wanted to experience a virtual event – whilst there I spoke to several others who felt the same.

It was underwhelming. Do you remember in school when the teacher couldn’t be bothered so they just put David Attenborough clips on the big screen? It was just like that. With a live chat.

I’m all for sustainability. And I do think virtual events have a place in the world. Webinars work because they don’t rely on back and forth communication. Is live music live when it’s coming through your laptop speakers?

And how does the screen barrier effect business relationships?

After years of studying advertising, I’m sure that it isn’t possible to build the same level of relationship online. Communication isn’t just the verbal cues that we give each other. We rely on body language to understand what is going on.

Not just whether your legs are crossed and palms are open, micro-expressions give a lot of clues about what a person thinks or feels.

Micro-expressions are the tiny inferences in your facial expressions. So tiny that you wouldn’t notice unless you were paying close attention.  And you definitely wouldn’t notice them through a screen.

Body language, facial and micro-expressions are key to communicating. It helps you establish context without dialogue. Have you ever noticed that video calls require lengthy introductions? That’s because we can’t establish authority through our screens – even with the best teleconferencing software.

The thing that gets to me is that we knew this. Video meetings, webinars and digital conferences were low-cost solutions that were easy to throw together. This year, we’ve had to make use of the technology.

And it’s been great this year.

We know virtual events aren’t the first choice, but as the only choice, they’re not bad. Virtual was the saving grace when it came to the 2020 lockdown. But that’s all they were. Virtual solutions may be a step towards the future, but in the events industry, it is not the ‘new normal’.

People are desperate to get back to live events. Virtual events will have to remain part of the package to combat travel restrictions. But in-person events will quickly skyrocket back to their previous glory.

But people need to stop telling me that virtual events are the future. They’re not. This year has provided enough evidence to show us that there is no replacement for in-person events.

I understand why businesses are pushing this idea as the ‘new normal’. Everyone is doing what they have to do to keep their business running. Virtual events have been the only source of income for many which explains why they’ve been promoted so heavily.

But when you say something enough times, you start to believe it. Not only that, but your audience believe it. And now we’re facing a situation that nobody could have predicted a year ago. The live events industry is on red alert.

When the population is told that virtual events are the future, where does that leave those of us involved in in-person events? Festivals, exhibitions, theatre, sports… Hundreds of thousands of jobs are at risk because organisers want us to believe that the future is virtual.

Now, we all know that that is not the case. But tell me, once everyone has received the vaccine and the events industry can reopen… will there be any events?

Planning an event takes time and resources. Our clients start making arrangements for their modular exhibition stands up to 12 months before their show. The event has been organized long before that. This process requires teams of people, from venues, suppliers, organisers, entertainers, caterers and more. Post-pandemic, this talent pool will have dwindled.

Now, we know that it is not safe to host events. Mass gatherings increase the risk of infection and the last thing anybody wants is a third wave. We also know that virtual is the only option when it comes to hosting events and meetings with other people.

For that, we’re grateful. Many businesses would have had no source of income if it wasn’t for the virtual pivot.

But many businesses haven’t profited from the virtual event market.

For the sake of all those businesses, some of which have already closed their door permanently, we need to stop pretending virtual events are the future. They’re not. And when you compare them directly with in-person events it’s hard to imagine them ever being anything more than a secondary choice.

I’m happy to be the person with the unpopular opinion on this subject. In fact, I’m happy to be the only person talking about it at all. Virtual events do nothing for the audience. They do nothing for the businesses that get involved. And they will never beat the experience that you get from attending a live, in-person event.

About Natalka

Natalka Antoniuk is an SEO Content Writer working with Quadrant2Design and Black Robin Exhibits. She has written for sites like G2, MarTech Series and BizCommunity. Her insight into the live and virtual event industry teaches small business owners how to utilize new platforms and push their business forward.

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Our guest contributions are written by various authors, whose opinions and thoughts are their own and don't necessarily reflect that of our staff writers.