By Gerardine Donough-Tan

While optimists yearn for the return of physical conferences and exhibitions, pragmatists laud the global reach of online events.

“There’s nothing like meeting face-to-face” is a common refrain, but virtual – or the compromise, hybrid business events – are becoming almost ubiquitous. On the upside are convenience and scalability. The downside is mainly cost, and technical constraints like poor internet connection and sound quality. Million-dollar budgets have also shrunk drastically.

Although initial expenses for well-produced online events are high, regular users can benefit from economies of scale, volume discounts and preferred-partner agreements. But it’s not so easy for companies or associations who hold occasional events.

“From a business perspective, this reset is hellish for incumbents but heaven-sent for those who have been championing digital-driven MICE,” observed miceNeurol founder Kenny Goh.

“Virtual conferences need more manhours and planning. Although venue rental and F&B costs are reduced, other costs go up, such as many hours liaising with speakers on tech issues and preparation, renting a studio to pre-record presentations and having a tech team on hand to monitor quality,” said Chab Events co-founder, Alexis Lhoyer.

ITAP 2020 conference session with safe distancing.

A hybrid event requires a physical venue, customised set-up, safety protocols and strict surveillance – all additional costs. Some convention and exhibition centres have turned empty meeting rooms into broadcast studios with AV crew. Enterprising start-ups, exhibition-stand builders and AV/lighting companies are also offering production studios for virtual events, because many guest speakers are not tech savvy and a trade conference is more than a glorified webinar.

Singapore-based Sunyau Expo general manager, Peck Sik Juan, said: “Our clients include facility managers and corporate offices who like the fact that these solutions are simple and easy to install, movable, modular and most importantly, cost effective.”

Flummoxed by the array of virtual event platforms and daunted by their cost? One outfit claims it can virtualise an existing event “in under an hour.” Another company touts a single platform from event registration to post-event survey, with support team to “help plan, prep and launch your event.”

Digital engagement

Unlike the captive audience in a ballroom or exhibition hall, how do you hold the interest of a diverse, scattered audience? Moreover, get them to pay when numerous events are offered free (wherein many people don’t log in or leave early)!

“Build powerful content and an engaged community,” advised Mr Lhoyer. Commercialisation can then follow. “Ideas include access to exclusive reports, gamification – even for medical and ‘serious’ disciplines – and discounts on future programs.”

In 2019, Singapore FinTech Festival and Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology drew 60,000 participants from almost 140 countries. The December 2020 virtual edition had similar delegate numbers overall, but from 160 countries and triple the number of speakers. It also went global: 45 satellite events in partner cities, more than 4400 business meetings and 3.5 million session views on the online event platform and social media.

ITAP2020 virtual command centre

Significantly, delegates paid to attend. While some sessions were free on YouTube, paying delegates received full session reports and partners’ content and a discount for 2021 – great branding for big names and customers able and willing to pay. But few virtual and hybrid events are commercially viable as yet.

“We are beginning to see proof of concept of a range of different models that demonstrably work for providing important, specially-curated experiences. If implemented well, some business models can become sustainable,” said Aloysius Arlando, President of Singapore Association of Convention & Exhibition Organisers & Suppliers.

“A growing number of impressive, forward-looking organisations are doing digital story-telling for a digital audience in a digital age, and are making money. It may not be as lucrative as before for many organisers, but in a way that is sustainable and gives confidence in the future.”