The airy San Diego Convention Center buzzed on Monday with the throng in town for the Professional Convention Management Association's annual meeting, called Convening Leaders. Among the big topics on site was virtual meetings. An entire educational segment on the topic, called the Virtual Edge Summit, is co-located with the meeting and is being streamed live online throughout the event.
Discussing the digital future of physical events at a Virtual Edge session, Active Events general manager Eric Olson first tried to dispel the popular notion that virtual meetings are a threat to face-to-face events—an essential part of any conversation on the controversial topic.
“There’s a general fear in the events industry of technology replacing what we’re doing in the live environment. But digital technology isn’t a replacement for anything. It’s additive,” he said. “When we talk about virtual or hybrid events, in the past it’s been this scary concept of what do we do digitally and what do we do live as separate things. But there’s already a convergence of all this stuff. And we need to embrace that to take the industry forward.” To wit, meeting pros are now using their digital presence to drive people to their physical events, not poach from them.
Among the factors driving big change toward hybrid programs in the event industry, he said, is the public's willingness to listen to peers online, even strangers, more than to traditional advertising. Another factor is the ubiquity of information: “So [live] events can’t just have a guy sitting on the stage providing information I could get on a blog or YouTube,” he said.
Meanwhile, the global economic crisis, Olson said, “took events from being just part of our DNA to having to really justify them.” And consumer technology gave business attendees new tools: “The iPhone and iPad brought consumer technology into the business space. I no longer have to be a Fortune 500 company, or have a whole IT team, to provide really good technology for events.”
All of this, he said, adds up to the evolution of events toward complex hybrid entities, and to the changing role of event professionals. “Organizers must now understand their role as more than managing a few days in a room, but instead managing the entire life cycle of the event,” he said, including a yearlong digital process. “It does present a new challenge for event organizers. We need to think about ourselves as architects of experience. It elevates our industry.”