Don Turner: Virtual insanity…

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Will virtual reality spell the end of an events era? Don Turner, managing director of Spinning Clock, asks the question…

The severity of public sector spending cuts has hit the events industry hard and the effects will continue to reverberate into the foreseeable future. Of course, this is bad news for event organisers, venues, and suppliers, who are already feeling the pinch to say the least. But is it the perfect time for virtual events to come into their own?

The past few years have been the hardest that the event industry has endured and we’re far from out of the woods. This year, the public sector spending cuts will really bite as exhibitor budgets further dwindle and delegate stocks continue to dry up, with organisers really scraping the barrel when it comes to attendees. This vicious cycle is having a long-term impact on the traditional events industry, as each interdependent element damages the potential of the next.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. The challenging economic circumstances have become the catalyst for innovation, with events companies of all kinds having to adapt to the rapidly changing events landscape. There have been some exciting and inspiring developments, offering us a glimpse at what the future might have in store for events professionals. None more so than the bourgeoning virtual events sector, which may just provide answers to some of the industry’s woes.

Perfect timing?

It seems the economy has provided the ideal environment for virtual events to emerge. Coupled with the ongoing advancements in technology, such as enhanced graphics and 3D capabilities, virtual events have been given the opportune moment to break into the market.

Virtual events utilise online platforms and software that is normally associated with the gaming world and offer delegates, organisers and exhibitors the sort of flexibility that live events can’t come close to. For instance, there are infinite possibilities when it comes to event and exhibition stand design. Users can also create avatars to navigate the virtual world, communicating in real-time with other event attendees and stand staff.

Not only are design boundaries broken, but delegate attendance can also be exceeded. Delegates from around the world can visit exhibition stands from the comfort of their office or home, at a time that suits them. Giving delegates such ease of access means there really is no excuse for not being able to attend too. By removing the expense of travelling, sustenance and time out of the office also means that organisations don’t need to justify the cost of sending delegates to events.

Instead of having just a few days to generate leads and hot business prospects, virtual events can go on for several months, giving exhibitors and delegates much longer to build quality contacts. Subsequently, exhibitors gain access to a broader range and higher volume of delegates, maximising potential ROI opportunities.

CrossheadMade to measure

Justifying event expenditure against return on investment is where virtual events really come into their own. Event organisers are increasingly coming under fire for not offering enough tangible measurement tools and by hiding behind ambiguous and often unsubstantiated claims of success defined by delegate numbers.

The data that is captured on exhibition stands sometimes doesn’t reflect accurately on the success of the event, because the quality of delegates is all too often not up to scratch. The only way for an exhibitor to measure the value of a particular event is by the quality of leads generated. But there are other areas that need to be taken into consideration, such as exhibition floor plan, the length of time delegates spend on stands and the performance of the sales team on the day.

By using an online portal, dwell time, delegate calibre, staff performance, stand design and branding effectiveness can all be measured accurately and analysed regularly so that improvements can be made. Being digitised means that data capture is naturally more accurate than would be available from the real-life predecessor. There are however technologies available to live event organisers which help exhibitors measure their success more thoroughly, and if they want to compete with the rising virtual events sector, is what they are compelled to provide.

Equally, devices such as Spot-Me and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) give organisers the chance to provide accurate and up to date measurement facilities to exhibitors. Access to information generated by RFID will enable exhibitors to examine event traffic, to see if their location turns out to be what was advertised; while Spot-Me can display details, including the job title and company name of people within a 10-metre radius, as well as allowing business cards to be exchanged digitally.

End of an era?

The stage looks thoroughly set for virtual events to pick up the slack from live ones. Breaking into the market now against the backdrop of future tighter budgets seems to be the ideal springboard for virtual events to really take off. So what’s next for the event industry as we know it?

It’s no surprise that many suppliers and organisers are now feeling doubly threatened, first by reduced spending and now by the virtual phenomena. But there are new opportunities for events agencies to get involved, with many already working with graphic design and hybrid events.

Increased competition is an inevitable off shoot of the emergence of virtual events, but that’s no bad thing. Embracing new technology is a key aspect of the event industry’s renewal and reinvention. Indeed, virtual worlds can be immersive and offer a multitude of benefits, but they should be seen as a different experience to the live event, and a complimentary one. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of an era for live events, while virtual events are attractive to organisers for measurability and flexibility, there is no greater engagement tool than face-to-face interaction.