Here to stay: But why haven’t virtual conferences reached their potential yet?

Virtual conferences can be a success. That's a fact – and there's no reason to preclude it.

And yet virtual events have been thrust to the fore, as organisers have been forced to address new options due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, with physical gatherings impossible, attendances across the board have been low and when we hear about upcoming digital trade shows, we can’t help but think “oh, not another one.”

It's a tricky situation, mirroring life in general during such a difficult year, and one that got me talking with a peer from another industry over the weekend. The inspiration behind the conversation was a virtual conference I signed up to attend (albeit for free) in February 2021.

It isn’t a gaming show, although there are some loose links between gaming and the sector in question, and was instead one I showed a personal interest in. That interest, combined with the high-quality conference agenda, meant I am perfectly willing to spend two days of my time watching keenly.

To my mind, that proves the concept works. And as I've both written before and heard in conversation with said peer, there are even benefits. Conference talks themselves are just one part of wider trade shows, so we are obviously at a loss without the human interactions that form perhaps 75% of ICE London, G2E Las Vegas and more.

But the actual conference talks? They are arguably better virtually, as viewers can leave or switch rooms without appearing rude, can laugh, sigh or cry as they please without putting off the speaker and are free to stretch their legs, grab a coffee or do practically whatever they want.

So again, the central question rears its head: why are virtual conferences not living up to their potential, not just in gaming?

A huge factor, which is normally a positive market characteristic, is the low barriers to entry. Costs of virtual trade shows are low and organising one is far easier then arranging a physical presence in London, Amsterdam, San Diego, Malta or elsewhere.

What that means, though, is a dilution in quality. If the same topics are covered over and over again, with smaller industries only having a certain amount of speakers at their disposal, the value of discussing those topics so frequently erodes. No matter how good a speaker is, the pressure increases to deliver something fresh the more regularly they speak on the same topic.

At Gambling Insider earlier this year, we wrote about the need to keep the virtual calendar balanced, with quality prioritised over quantity. That is an important balance many industries have not achieved.

If executives are receiving multiple emails about multiple shows, the impact of each show wears off. The inevitable end result is that virtual trade shows will never reach their potential if people become ambivalent on the idea because of too much choice.

Is it too late? No. But it will certainly be an uphill battle, exacerbated by an increasing frustration that this is still a constant reminder of COVID-19.

So if we are consigned to an indefinite time within this digital bubble 2020 has brought upon us, and 2021 will take the baton for, the only way forward is to try and streamline the virtual conference sector. In many ways, this rebalancing could lead to a rebirth.

Let's not flood the market with too many events and let's instead ensure each event has something worthwhile to offer. Let's see if we can reignite virtual conferences, rather than simply waiting for the return of their physical counterpart. Because if the supply is of the requisite quality, the demand is there to capitalise on.

Besides, as we hold our breath for the return of in-person events, we could still have a while to wait.

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