As the COVID pandemic continues, everyone is wondering when – or even if – people will be able to gather, safely, in person. The news is full of stories about towns, schools and businesses re-opening, only to have to re-close shortly afterward after a spike in new cases.
Large events, in particular, have taken a hit. Conferences, summits and other gatherings scheduled for 2020 were moved to remote platforms or cancelled altogether. Meanwhile, meeting attendees had to learn how to rub elbows virtually instead of meeting their colleagues at receptions and happy hours.
Some attendees adjusted well to the move – others took longer to adapt. They saw the benefits of reduced travel time and costs, but they also cited technical issues and feeling less connected as reasons they would have preferred meeting in person.
It may be a while before we can safely gather in large crowds. When it does, what will be the future of remote meetings? Analysis from experts before the pandemic struck may provide a clue.
Although everyone started meeting remotely during as COVID spread, the concept was far from unusual. In fact, even before we had to quarantine ourselves, experts predicted the rise of virtual meetings.
In 2018, event managers talked about the growth of remote participation. They mentioned livestreaming, chatbots and VR as ways to make the remote experience as interactive and immersive as the physical one, thanks to increasingly sophisticated technology and event planners’ desires to reach a global audience.
Of course, all of that happened in the wake of the pandemic. It had to, since meeting in person was no longer a safe option. Even those who typically did not participate in virtual events found they had no other choice. Although it became far more widespread at a faster pace than anyone could have imagined, the move to virtual events was hardly a surprise – nor is the possibility that they’ll continue as the world returns to normal.
What to Expect in the Near Term
For now, people have adjusted to working and meeting remotely, although a recent article about UN interpreters outlines all the potential pitfalls of doing so. Still, there have been some attempts to reopen, with less than desirable results. This is one reason why virtual events will continue to be the standard for the foreseeable future.
Here are a few others:
Safety Requirements: Even where in-person meetings are allowed, event planners have to allocate time and resources to keep everyone safe. They need to require masks and constant hand washing, and then provide masks and hand sanitizers to enforce these rules. To keep people 6 feet apart would require signage and sacrificing valuable floor space that is typically occupied by exhibits and attendees. These measures add significant costs and become much harder to enforce as crowds grow larger.
Attendee Concerns: In a recent survey by MarTech, 66% of marketers said they were unlikely to attend an in-person event until a vaccine was available. Public polls show a similar lack of appetite to reopen right away. In other words, event planners could assemble a terrific physical event, but not attract the same crowds their events used to attract.
Advances in Meeting Technology: Although technology isn’t a perfect replacement for physical proximity, it’s getting better. Virtual event platforms quickly grew more sophisticated to accommodate the needs of event attendees. They were already set up for online registration and livestreaming. Over time, they became more interactive – and a little closer to replacing the benefit of in-person attendance – with additional features that enabled virtual happy hours and remote simultaneous interpretation.
Increased Virtual Attendance: The appeal for gathering in person may have faded, but some events actually became MORE popular in virtual settings. In particular, tech events, which would typically draw a more tech-savvy crowd, saw a significant increase in attendance compared to their in-person counterparts. Now that most people are familiar with virtual platforms, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this uptick continue.
Ultimately, the future of remote meetings looks bright. They can’t completely replicate the in-person experience, but people are more comfortable with them than they were a few years ago. In-person events will eventually come back, but it is safe to assume they will include some of the virtual capabilities we now depend on to stay connected.
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