Why Virtual Meetings Are Not the Future of Conferencing

While the past year and a half has certainly taught the meetings industry the benefits of virtual meeting technologies, there is no replacement for in-person conferencing. In fact, in a recent survey of over 1,000 people, 70% said they preferred face-to-face meetings over virtual ones

There are several possible reasons for this, and we can personally attest that our clients prefer to have the option for virtual conferencing but without the limitations of virtual conferencing being their only option. With in-person meetings ramping back up, it’s important to understand their value to your organization. 

Virtual Meetings Have Lower Engagement

According to an EventMB survey, over 40% of event planners reported they were unsuccessful in planning online events due to low engagement. Their findings concluded that virtual platform engagement features “are not particularly forward-thinking” and rely “mostly on existent staples like live polling and surveys,” which don’t meet “planners’ and audiences’ needs.”

When people are participating, listening, and collaborating online, it is much easier for the people who are not speaking to tune out, get distracted, or disengage entirely from the virtual event. Also, the length of time people are mentally and physically able to sit at a computer is much lower than the amount of time they can withstand attending an event in-person.

Since the pandemic, there have been numerous studies about the effects of virtually meeting and learning online. Earlier this year, Stanford published a study that correlated “frequency, duration, and burstiness” in online meetings with higher levels of fatigue and lower engagement. 

The researchers also created a ZEF (Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue) scale to qualitatively measure the emotional, visual, motivational, social, and overall exhaustion people experience over the course of a day of virtual meetings. Overall, they found the higher the fatigue levels, the higher the “negative attitudes” towards meeting online. 

Online Events Limit Networking Opportunities

Another common gripe about virtual conferencing is the lack of opportunities to meet peers. At an in-person event, a casual conversation during a coffee break could lead to a job offer or a project collaboration. In virtual spaces, this organic socializing environment is much harder to create. 

Breakout rooms and similar technology features are aimed at remedying this problem. Nevertheless, in-person networking is the main reason over 50% of people choose to attend a conference. From trivia games to online lounges, meeting planners have to work twice as hard to create spaces for virtual attendees to socialize–and the results often don’t measure up.

At the end of last year, The Wall Street Journal reported on the limitations of networking online during virtual conferences by saying it “comes with challenges and awkwardness.” These challenges come at a time when more than a third of working adults reported networking as a top priority for their careers.

Reduced Incentivization With No Travel

Let’s face it–one of the main perks of attending a conference is the mental break that traveling to a new city affords. Away from your desk and surrounded by colleagues, conference attendees easily feel inspired and re-energized. Take the fun and excitement of that away, and it can be hard to attract top speakers and attendees. 

There is actually scientific evidence for this phenomenon. For one, meeting virtually at your desk or in your home does not afford you the mental and physical breaks you need for the intensity of conferencing all day. In a new city, you can easily take a walk through a nearby museum or relax by the pool of your hotel during a break. At home or work, the best you can do is walk the dog around the block or walk to a nearby deli for lunch. 

Increased creativity is also a key reason why travel to a new place is so effective for large meetings and events. Several studies have shown that travel has an inspirational effect that pushes people to be the better, more open, and more engaged versions of themselves. As Forbes notes, travel allows you to also “reinvent yourself” in ways that allow you to display your strengths. 

This transformative power of travel could be the partial explanation for why in-person meetings are 34 times more effective than emails or why face-to-face communication is more effective at building trust and understanding between individuals. 

Fewer Sponsorships and Monetization Opportunities at Virtual Conferences

For many organizations, annual conferences and meetings are one of the main ways they generate revenue. Vendors, sponsors, advertising, and more are all monetizing activities that events use as opportunities for attendees to engage on-site. In virtual conference spaces, there are ways to create similar online spaces, but the effectiveness of them is significantly reduced. 

One of the most common ways to make money is ticket sales. However, charging the same amount of money for a virtual conference as an in-person one is a hard sell for many would-be attendees. Virtual booths have also become a popular way to generate revenue during online events. However, the complexity and coordination to do so is why 43% of meeting planners who have participated in a virtual trade show say they would not do so again

PCMA reports the challenge of virtual boothing has been recorded by many groups over the course of the past year. According to their reporting, “Research conducted by Freeman indicates that 69 percent of exhibitors rate virtual events as only fair or poor.” In fact, 63% of meeting planners said that virtual showcases did not meet their needs.

Virtual Event Features Are Here to Stay But Choose Wisely

Ultimately, virtual events are here to stay but that does not mean that going all-virtual is the best way to host a conference. Choose certain elements, such as less expensive ticket prices for virtual events, to optimize your events but be sure to keep the best of conferencing, such as live breakouts and dynamic locations to ensure that engagement is high.


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