Virtual events are here to stay

“Seems like Anthony Fauci was a headline speaker at just about every major (and even) minor event in 2020. That never would have happened if the events were in person.”

For many media companies, some of the earliest and most significant Covid-19 disruptions related to the events that had become an editorial mainstay — and a reliable revenue stream. Early in the pandemic, some events were postponed; in other cases, event planners tried to come up with “hybrid” meetings that were part live and part virtual. But it didn’t take long for many events to be made wholly virtual.

As we enter 2021, the era of virtual events — even in a post-pandemic world — is here to stay, at least as one way for news organizations to hold these gatherings.

That’s not altogether a bad thing. While we all suffer from Zoom fatigue, consider the virtues of virtual events:

  • It’s much easier to lure household names if they don’t have to give up a day or two of travel. Seems like Anthony Fauci was a headline speaker at just about every major (and even) minor event in 2020. That never would have happened if the events were in person.
  • Events are far cheaper to put on. No travel costs. No catering. No cocktails. No venue. No production costs. No swag to give out (though some organizations are smartly shipping swag to participants to stir up interest/excitement in advance of events).
  • It’s easier to lure (often paying) attendees when they don’t have to travel. So there’s an opportunity for scale, even if you can’t charge as much for a virtual event as you can an in-person one.
  • It’s possible to have high-level private break-out sessions that might have been harder to pull off in person. At the STAT Summit in November, we had small, invite-only virtual roundtables with leaders in health and science that we never could have physically managed in person. Ticket holders paid a premium to be invited to those sessions.
  • Sessions lend themselves to interactivity, like polls or the opportunity for participants and audience members to vote up (or down) questions. You can do those things at a live event, of course, but they work better when everyone is on their computer already.

There are downsides to virtual events, beyond the lost revenue of in-person events. The appeal of a conference is often not the programming itself but the chance to mingle over drinks or dinner — or just to get away from the office. Even the most sophisticated Zoom conference can’t replicate the feel or the mood of an in-person event. When a sponsor underwrites a “coffee break,” it just doesn’t seem right when that means leaving your computer for 10 minutes to make your own Nespresso.

I’m not trying to paint an overly rosy picture. Many media companies won’t easily recover from the revenue hit of losing live events. And many of us miss the spontaneity of gathering in person. But it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that virtual events bring some advantages.

Rick Berke is co-founder and executive editor of Stat.

For many media companies, some of the earliest and most significant Covid-19 disruptions related to the events that had become an editorial mainstay — and a reliable revenue stream. Early in the pandemic, some events were postponed; in other cases, event planners tried to come up with “hybrid” meetings that were part live and part virtual. But it didn’t take long for many events to be made wholly virtual.

As we enter 2021, the era of virtual events — even in a post-pandemic world — is here to stay, at least as one way for news organizations to hold these gatherings.

That’s not altogether a bad thing. While we all suffer from Zoom fatigue, consider the virtues of virtual events:

  • It’s much easier to lure household names if they don’t have to give up a day or two of travel. Seems like Anthony Fauci was a headline speaker at just about every major (and even) minor event in 2020. That never would have happened if the events were in person.
  • Events are far cheaper to put on. No travel costs. No catering. No cocktails. No venue. No production costs. No swag to give out (though some organizations are smartly shipping swag to participants to stir up interest/excitement in advance of events).
  • It’s easier to lure (often paying) attendees when they don’t have to travel. So there’s an opportunity for scale, even if you can’t charge as much for a virtual event as you can an in-person one.
  • It’s possible to have high-level private break-out sessions that might have been harder to pull off in person. At the STAT Summit in November, we had small, invite-only virtual roundtables with leaders in health and science that we never could have physically managed in person. Ticket holders paid a premium to be invited to those sessions.
  • Sessions lend themselves to interactivity, like polls or the opportunity for participants and audience members to vote up (or down) questions. You can do those things at a live event, of course, but they work better when everyone is on their computer already.

There are downsides to virtual events, beyond the lost revenue of in-person events. The appeal of a conference is often not the programming itself but the chance to mingle over drinks or dinner — or just to get away from the office. Even the most sophisticated Zoom conference can’t replicate the feel or the mood of an in-person event. When a sponsor underwrites a “coffee break,” it just doesn’t seem right when that means leaving your computer for 10 minutes to make your own Nespresso.

I’m not trying to paint an overly rosy picture. Many media companies won’t easily recover from the revenue hit of losing live events. And many of us miss the spontaneity of gathering in person. But it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that virtual events bring some advantages.

Rick Berke is co-founder and executive editor of Stat.

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