In-Person vs. Virtual Events

By Madison Taylor
August 12, 2021
Business meeting with woman presenting

The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on every aspect of the global economy, from manufacturing to retail to transportation. One of the biggest impacts was a result of the steps people took to avoid spreading the virus — namely, a widespread ban on big gatherings.

For much of the world, the widespread distribution of vaccines for the coronavirus has led to a mass reopening of the kinds of conferences and events that we’ve been missing for the last 15 months. At the same time, many companies are embracing the wider audiences and lower costs of virtual events and have no intention of switching back to the old ways.

If you’re thinking of running an event, seminar, conference, trade show, or something similar, you’ll have to make decisions about whether your event can be conducted virtually or whether you want everyone there in person. How do you decide?

Advantages of In-Person Events

A significant chunk of human communication happens non-verbally, through facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. Some of that comes through on a video call, but it’s just not the same as being in a room with someone.

If your event aims to be interactive and collaborative, you can’t beat an in-person event. Trade shows, for example, often involve hands-on demonstrations or physical products that simply don’t come across well on a screen. The same is true for discussion groups — many virtual events in 2020 used Zoom to break into smaller groups, but it’s not as useful as sitting around a table with those people.

You should also insist on in-person events for meeting new people. Attempting to pitch to and onboard clients or hire new people during the pandemic, without so much as a handshake, was a surreal experience and left us with the impression that we weren’t really getting to know them to the degree that we wanted. If your event is designed to foster new connections, it should be in person.

Advantages of Virtual Events

On the flip side, virtual events offer unparalleled convenience. Many companies don’t have the time or budget for business travel. If they do attend an event, their employees have to sacrifice a weekend or let their other work fall behind, but a virtual event can be attended in a few hours every day without disrupting the normal workflow much.

The best use case for virtual events, in our experience, is the dissemination of information. If your event is basically a series of speakers talking about industry trends, new products, or case studies, your attendees aren’t gaining much from being in the room with you. In fact, if you’re asking for feedback or questions, an in-person seminar might be unproductive and chaotic, while a virtual meeting allows people to ask questions via chat so you can answer them in order.

Attendees at a virtual event might also retain more information. Most of them will have a laptop or computer in front of them to take notes or look up other relevant information, and you can share a screen in order to enhance what you’re talking about.
Since you’re not making everyone travel to a specific location (and you don’t have to worry about the capacity of an event space), attendance at virtual events can be far higher. You could broadcast a popular speaker to tens of thousands of people on a live Youtube stream, while you’d be limited to a few hundred in a big conference room.

In Summary

Virtual events were born of necessity during the pandemic, but there’s no reason to expect them to vanish entirely now that event spaces are opening back up. Virtual events should fit somewhere between in-person events and emails — you need some amount of participation and feedback, but you don’t need the full engagement and participation of an in-person gathering.

As the shape of the American workplace evolves over the next few years, with remote work becoming more and more common, virtual events will become a commonplace occurrence in nearly every industry. With some careful consideration, you should be able to incorporate them seamlessly into your workflow.