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Why virtual meetings change everything – and nothing

The success of any emergent technology depends upon various things: usefulness, reliability, cost, and, crucially, whether you need a degree in computer science to make it work.

Until all these factors are in place, any technology introduced to the market is likely to stall. If the technology is disruptive, resistance from industry could be another hurdle to jump.

Congress organisers have not been the loudest cheerleaders for virtual meetings tech, even if they are amongst the least exposed to the ‘threat’ it poses to the business events industry.

A virtual meeting is still a meeting: programmes still need scheduling, speakers still need briefing, delegates still need enticing, exhibitors and sponsors still need satisfying. Sure, the toolkit looks a bit different, but maybe meeting virtually is not such a brave new world, after all?

The switch from physical to virtual has certainly pushed in-house organisers out of their comfort zones – but the feedback from those I have spoken to has ranged from ‘pleasantly surprised’ to ‘staggered’. From a delegate perspective the technology is remarkably simple to use. Without noticing it, we’ve reached a stage where links generally work, sound and vision is usually crisp and clear, and finding your way around a virtual conference is no more confusing than if the carpets, walls and staircases were real.

The technology is still not perfect, but depending on your needs, there’s probably a solution out there that’s good enough. And that’s the point. It is obvious that virtual meetings tech is now ‘good enough’ to serve its purpose – and it’s only going to get better as investors recognise its potential.

Now fear of the unknown has passed, virtual meetings will play a much more prominent role in international association meetings. Workshops, chapter meetings, satellite symposia will increasingly be held exclusively online, while flagship events will adopt hybrid or hub-and-spoke formats.

Time to think outside the box – literally

When a question is impossible to answer – or has no specific answer – people are often heard to ask: how long is a piece of string? Soon it might suit to replace ‘piece of string’ with ‘a meeting’.

Until now the answer to the question ‘how long is an association congress’ would have been ‘about two to five days’. To what extent were these time constraints necessitated by the logistics of gathering people together in one place? It’s an interesting question, and the rise of virtual meetings demands we ask it.

Obviously delegates have jobs to do, too, but without the overheads associated with physical meetings – venue hire, food and beverage etc – and the time spent (wasted?) sitting in airplanes and taxis, the entire concept of ‘a meeting’ is thrillingly up for grabs.

Associations were already starting to extend the life of their annual congresses by posting filmed content on-demand or holding preliminary or follow-up events online.  But as we get comfortable with meeting online, the opportunity to provide learning and networking in creative, fun and innovative ways is one that should not be ignored. To think of the virtual element of a meeting as a sort of adjunct to the physical event is surely to miss a trick. The best meetings will exploit the synergy between these alternative realities.

Even better than the real thing?

In-person meetings are not going anywhere so long as humans have poetry in their souls, love in their hearts and fire in their bellies. But the distinction between virtual and physical events is unhelpful. They are events. To be clear: Zoom is no more a threat to events than Napster was a threat to music. For venues and destinations scrambling for business, this might sound a little theoretical right now. But there’s another lesson to be learnt from Napster – and that’s not to be duped by binary thinking.

Streaming is how most people now listen to music, but vinyl hit a 25-year sales high in 2019 (!), as people recognised a different kind of value in traditional, physical formats. Tens of millions of people still bought CDs last year. The truth is different formats can co-exist and complement each other.

Video did not kill the radio star and looking at a picture of Van Gogh’s Starry Night on your phone will never be the same as seeing it in a gallery. The difference lies in the quality of experience – and what matters most in each instance. No format is necessarily better than the other, but so long as each provides something the other(s) cannot, they can all have a future.