April 12, 2021

Virtual Event Trends for 2021: Is the Future Virtual or Hybrid?

Nabeel Keblawi

Virtual Event Trends for 2021: Is the Future Virtual or Hybrid?

Virtual events have increased in popularity, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic.

As we all know, Zoom has been a dominant player in the virtual event industry, with their stock peaking at almost $560 in October 2020, up nearly tenfold from the year before. Of course, Zoom wasn’t the only company to benefit. Many others, including 6Connex, also saw 1,000% increases in virtual events on their own platforms.

However, virtual events are still new to many companies. Some had never hosted a virtual event online prior to the pandemic. To stay at the forefront of virtual event trends into 2021 and beyond, check out some statistics and insights below.

Technological Advances Contributed to the Rise of Virtual Events

Even before the pandemic, technological advances laid down the groundwork for remote work and virtual conferences. 

With the rising popularity of online webinars, Slack, and other communication tools in the few years preceding 2020, Covid-19 turned out to be an “accelerant” of underlying trends. In other words, what may otherwise have taken 5-6 years only took 5-6 months.

Zoom, GoToMeeting, and other conferencing providers were “in the right place at the right time” for the explosion in virtual events once stay-at-home orders were mandated in early 2020.

Here are 9 Reasons Why In-App Chat Is a Must-Have for Every Virtual Event Platform

Insights from Virtual Event Trends and 2020 Statistics

For us to look ahead at what will become of virtual events into 2021 and beyond, let’s review some insights we gleaned over the past year. 

How large is the global virtual event market today?

The global virtual events market size was valued at USD 78 billion in 2019 and was projected to grow at a rate of at least 23% per year from 2020 to 2027. (Grand View Research, 2020). However, the coronavirus pandemic contributed to a sudden surge in virtual events, which may even beat future projections. 

The main driver is that over three-quarters of companies around the globe found immediate value in virtual events through being able to reach people who would not otherwise be able to attend in-person events.

How has Covid-19 impacted people’s attitudes about virtual events?

Spurred by lockdowns, the number of organizations who planned on running virtual events doubled in 2020. (Wild Apricot, 2020).

In a global survey conducted by Conde Nast, 90% of companies said that even when live events are allowed again, they would still continue to host virtual events. (Impact Plus, 2020).

Some say that the post-Covid future will have a hybrid mix of on-site and virtual events. 

What kinds of events are run virtually?

The most common virtual events were team meetings, panel discussions, webinars, and live sessions with guest speakers. 

Interestingly, certain types of events saw the biggest increases during 2020. There was a 32% increase in webinars and a 9% increase in ask-me-anything sessions (AMAs), while other types stayed about the same. (Wild Apricot, 2020). 

Most notably, galas and conferences saw a 13% decrease compared to the year before. This decrease could be explained by the fact that conferences and galas are large and elaborate events, therefore are more difficult to recreate online and require specific technology to run them efficiently. 

What are the expectations of companies that host virtual events?

We were surprised to find that revenue is not a major driver of virtual events. Rather, it was deeper and more fundamental: maintaining human connections amid social isolation during a disruptive pandemic: 

  • 91% wanted to keep members connected.
  • At least two-thirds wanted to maintain normalcy during Covid-19.
  • Around 55-60% wanted to raise awareness and attract new members.

In fact, fewer than one-third were using virtual events to raise money. (Wild Apricot, 2020). 

What are companies saying about virtual events vs. in-person events?

Not surprisingly, 84% of companies found that running virtual events costs less than in-person events. This was true of companies who had never even run a virtual event before. (Wild Apricot, 2020). 

The following statistics from the 2020 Wild Apricot report are broken down into a few categories such as ticketing, revenue, and business model:

Ticketing

87% of organizations who had already held virtual events were planning on charging less than they would have for an equivalent in-person event. (Wild Apricot, 2020). 

However, another possible reason is that organizers don’t believe people will pay as much to attend a virtual event as they would for an in-person event.

Revenue

Only 27% gained revenue from these events. For most companies (at least 73%), virtual events did not generate extra revenue. (Wild Apricot, 2020). 

Even for those who gained revenue, most (76%) gained less than they would otherwise have with an in-person event. 

However, as noted earlier, companies weren’t doing virtual events for the money. There are other intangible — but just as important — benefits such as staying connected and maintaining a sense of normalcy. 

Business Model

What channels have organizers used to generate revenue with virtual events? 

Most (64%) charged for tickets and admission. Another common method (44%) was to find sponsors for their events. (Wild Apricot, 2020). 

Other tactics such as collecting donations, crowdfunding, and selling merchandise were attempted, but did not contribute significantly to the virtual event model.

What kind of challenges have organizers faced?

The answer depends on how experienced organizers were with virtual events. We’ll break this down into two parts — one with companies who already had experience hosting virtual events, and one with companies who had not yet gained this experience before the pandemic.

Challenges faced by companies already experienced with virtual events

“Zoom fatigue” is real. Even 38% of companies experienced with virtual events have noted that there are too many events and participants are sick of calls. Similarly, 32% said it’s harder to get supporters to participate. 

37% of companies also said that supporters and participants aren’t as technologically savvy as they could have been to make their events a success. Even 23% of experienced virtual event holders were not able to deliver the value their members needed.

Other challenges were mainly technical such as stable internet and necessary infrastructure to run a virtual event. Interestingly, groups who were unsuccessful were almost three times more likely to blame technical difficulties than the successful group (31% versus 11%). (Wild Apricot, 2020). However, technical difficulties or infrastructure limitations are more straightforward to solve than the more difficult issues such as keeping participants engaged.

Challenges faced by companies not yet experienced with virtual events

Again, Zoom fatigue was cited by 44% of these companies, who said that it’s increasingly harder to get supporters to participate and engage. 

Not surprisingly, technical challenges were a bigger complaint in this group, in which over 40% cited as such, than companies more experienced with hosting virtual events. 

Upon digging deeper, we find that this group is almost seven times more likely to note that they did not have the technological capabilities to run virtual events. (Wild Apricot, 2020). 

What Engagement Tactics Have Organizers Used?

Based on feedback from attendees, companies have found that the best ways to keep virtual event participants engaged are to open a freestyle discussion with them (66%) and to hold a Q&A session (62%). (Wild Apricot, 2020). 

Some companies also hosted live hangouts before and after an event, allowing attendees to discuss amongst themselves and build connections, just as they would at a networking reception at a live in-person conference. At least 70% of event hosts included live discussions, breakout chat rooms, post-event recordings, and real-time text communication between attendees.

Many attendees have said themselves that they find more value not in the main programs of virtual conferences, but in the post-session side chats, unexpected experiences, and spontaneous run-ins that replicate the real-life experiences they crave. The good news is that live interactive chat solutions available through CometChat can be easily integrated into any virtual event of any size — even into the thousands of attendees.

Here are 13 Killer Ideas to Make Virtual Events More Engaging

Hybrid Future? Virtual Event Projections For the Next 2-3 Years

It is now clear virtual events are here to stay long after the pandemic ends: 

“92.2% of those who held a virtual conference say they will again.” (Tagoras, 2021).

Lessons Learned

However, companies may become more strategic with virtual events. During the pandemic, companies had to scramble. Almost 80% had no formal strategy for virtual events during 2020, most likely because they had no playbook for this and had no time to create one either. 

Based on their own experiences with their virtual events, many companies have come away with some lessons learned that can be summed up into the following: 

  1. Start with strategy
  2. Be mindful of the medium
  3. Design for interaction and engagement
  4. Adopt a growth mindset

Strategy

According to the Tagoras report, only 20.7% of companies surveyed had a formal and documented strategy for their virtual conferences. Although nearly 80% did not, many of these companies came away with new insights after gaining experience with virtual events.

Having a strategy for virtual events may include:

  • Establishing a clear purpose for the event
  • Setting well defined expectations
  • Understanding the needs of all participants
  • Having a follow up plan after each virtual event

Medium

When companies were scrambling to move events from in-person to virtual, they quickly discovered that they simply cannot copy-and-paste face-to-face formats to virtual experiences in an attempt to recreate things the exact same way. When doing so didn’t work, it was also tempting to dwell on the drawbacks of not being able to host an in-person event.

To ensure that a virtual event is successful, hosts need to not only be mindful of the medium and acknowledge the differences between virtual and in-person formats, but also design specifically for better experiences online. There were also positive benefits such as saving on travel costs, having more speakers from around the world join in, and scale out events where all each participant had to pay was the registration fee. 

Engagement

Conducting a talk or presentation virtually is different than with a live audience. Presenters that usually rely on instantaneous live audience feedback may find it much more challenging to present virtually. 

Even with highly skilled presenters, the lack of input from the audience during virtual presentations may strain their performance, and thus come off as less interactive and more rehearsed. This may especially be the case with larger events with wider audiences that are more difficult to personalize for.

However, virtual event hosts are finding success in retaining the human element by allowing for free social interaction before and after the actual talks. In virtual events, there are actually more opportunities for participants to interact directly with the speakers than at live in-person conferences.

Growth

Even after the first year of going all virtual, companies are still learning and experimenting with virtual events and online conferences. Even though mistakes have been made, as long as they cultivate a growth mindset, they can use iterative approaches along with participant feedback to improve the virtual event experience.

Companies can also experiment with new virtual event approaches that encourage engagement, such as live interactive chats or breakout rooms, with a smaller attendance count before applying them to larger virtual conferences. 

Differing Views on How We Move Forward

While virtual events are now a permanent part of our lives, not everyone agrees how prevalent they will remain into the future. 

Some argue that virtual events will become even more commonplace. Upon reflection of an annual meeting that took place over the internet, Diana Raiselis noted the benefits of online models with a nod towards climate sustainability: "I recognize that a virtual format absolutely makes wider, and more climate-responsible, participation possible." (DW, 2021).

Others, however, say they will be drastically scaled back as everything opens back up. Dr. Jonas Carvalho e Silva, a psychologist, noted there are psychological benefits to meeting in person. "Humans need interaction with peers to improve their development," said Dr. Carvalho e Silva. "It's important to encourage physical socialization of individuals for the good of mental health and enforcement of learning skills, which are built during contact with others," he added. (DW, 2021).

Yet others believe that the future will be a hybrid mix of virtual and in-person events. The main benefits of in-person events, including face-to-face interaction, has been sorely missed during the 2020 lockdowns. Yet online conferences also bring more people together without the limits of space and the environmental impact from flying thousands of people to one place.

Although Fernanda Parente, the co-founder of Rosy DX, acknowledges the importance of in-person interaction, she believes that online is here to stay. "Networking is a major part of conferences and it's hard to allow for serendipity in online events, encounters need to be somehow scripted. Hybrid formats will become prominent in the foreseeable future." said Parente. (DW, 2021).

Key Takeaways

As we head into a future with an interesting mix of live in-person and virtual events, people will want to maintain serendipity and freestyle socializing even through online events. 

Event Management companies are already becoming more strategic and creative about ensuring participants stay engaged during virtual events. 

They’ve already noted more success when they allowed participants to network and chat online during virtual events — even (and especially) during large online summits with thousands of attendees such as those hosted through HeySummit — a virtual events platform supported by CometChat's robust APIs. Read the case study here.

Bookmark our blog for the best advice, research, how-tos, and insights from your industry. Or Sign Up for our newly launched Free Plan and see how our Chat APIs can enhance your app or website.

About the Author

Nabeel Keblawi, a deaf entrepreneur, runs a Content Marketing and SEO agency that helps B2B SaaS companies grow organically in their industries around the world. His previous work experience involved software development, renewable energy, and cloud computing. In his personal life, Nabeel loves to go hiking with his family, and dust off his skis to hit the slopes given the chance. He is also an avid reader of fictional history.

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