If you think the pivot to digital is over, think again.
By Bruce Rose, Head of Audience. This article was originally published by Exhibition News on 11 May 2023.
What do you do after the sky fails to fall? For many in the conference and exhibition industry, it’s a question that’s probably front of mind.
The industry did not collapse. Business travel did vanish. Zoom, as of writing, has not taken over the world. We have, despite the predictions of many, survived. Audiences are flooding back to venues, keen to see each other again, not having to combat the home internet connection or the microphone that never seems to work. The pandemic exerted a heavy toll on many organisations, it decimated our talent but, bit by bit, we’re returning to normal.
But are we really returning to normal? I mean, it’s a comforting thought. But also – in my opinion – entirely wrong and simply representative of the same thinking that led the industry so blindly into the pandemic, unprepared for the horrific year that lay ahead. This thinking also pits digital and physical events in opposition, an unnecessary view that more often than not originates from agencies and venues that can only serve one type of approach. At Live Group, we organise digital and in-person events for clients all over the world, so while I’m here to argue the case for digital, it’s certainly not because I’m anti in-person.
The pandemic exerted a heavy toll on many organisations, it decimated our talent but, bit by bit, we’re returning to normal.”
Five key environmental considerations
The terror-laden months and horrific losses endured within the pandemic are mercifully over. However, those that say the digital pivot has failed are ignorant of the things that remain on our horizon: changes in audience demographics, the urgency of the climate crisis, economic uncertainties, the march of Artificial Intelligence, and the need for greater diversity, accessibility and inclusion will all contribute to future pathways of the industry.
Digital events are undoubtedly on a downward trend, but those who think that trend will remain fixed are as misguided as those that predicted we’d all be lost in the metaverse by now. Why? Because…
- As younger generations become increasingly involved in the workforce, their preferences and expectations will shape how businesses operate, including the events industry. Deloitte has predicted that millennials will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025, and the World Economic Forum believes Gen Z will account for 27%. Millennials and Gen Z, who have grown up in the digital age, are more comfortable with technology and are more likely to embrace digital events. The convenience, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness of attending digital events will appeal to these digital natives, leading to a resurgence in demand for digital events.
- The ongoing climate crisis and the growing awareness of our environmental responsibilities have also led to a shift in priorities for many individuals and organisations. Digital events offer a more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional in-person events, as they significantly reduce the carbon footprint associated with travel and resource consumption. As more people and companies prioritise sustainability, the demand for digital events will increase.
- Global economic headwinds, such as inflation, supply chain disruptions, and potential recessions, may make organisations more cautious with their budgets. Digital events, which are generally less expensive to produce and attend than their in-person counterparts, will become an attractive option for cost-conscious companies. In addition, virtual events can allow businesses to reach a broader audience without incurring the high costs associated with traditional events.
- In today’s increasingly interconnected world, promoting diversity and inclusion has become a top priority for many organisations. Digital events can help level the playing field by providing greater access to people who may face barriers to attending in-person events, such as individuals with disabilities, remote workers, or those with limited financial means. By making events more accessible, digital platforms can foster a more inclusive environment and attract a broader range of participants.
- Then there is artificial intelligence, a field that is now surging forward at an exponential rate. As AI technologies continue to advance, they have the potential to greatly enhance the online event experience, making virtual gatherings more interactive, engaging, and personalised. AI-driven tools can facilitate better networking and matchmaking, using algorithms to identify and connect like-minded individuals or those with complementary interests.
Virtual event platforms can leverage AI to provide real-time language translation and transcription services, breaking down language barriers and making events more accessible to a global audience. Furthermore, AI-powered analytics can help event organisers better understand attendees’ behaviour and preferences, enabling them to tailor content and experiences to better meet the needs of their audience. By harnessing the power of AI, digital events can overcome some of the limitations that have previously held them back, becoming even more attractive and valuable for both organisers and attendees.
While the current dip in the number of digital events may suggest they are losing ground, it’s essential to consider the broader context and historical precedent. Just as other technologies have overcome initial scepticism to become dominant forces, digital events have the potential to rebound and thrive. While we may not have reached the event horizon of digital just yet, there is a strong indication that we are moving steadily in that direction. The driving force of this movement is not just technological but societal, sociological and even economic. There is no doubt that the exact shape of our industry past this point is hazy. But change is coming and those who preach a return to normal will be, well, simply consigned to history.