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People yearn for human interaction

Video conferencing, webinars, virtual meetings: when the UK was in the grip of the double-dip recession, companies cut back on corporate travel and the global meetings industry faced a rising threat of virtual meetings. New technologies enabled better, swifter and more tangible video conferencing and meetings that had previously been deemed business-critical were scrapped by some companies in favour of virtual solutions.

Yet in spite of the rise in event tech, the meetings market has remained resilient. Experience agency TRO’s client services director Sian Bates explains: “The virtual approach can work for some meetings, but it really does depend on what the objectives are for that event. If you have a network of offices around the world and you need to catch up regularly with staff to share information and ideas quickly, then this can be effective through Skype or video conferencing.

“But if you are trying to make an impact – to change perceptions and behaviour or to inspire and motivate – our belief is that nothing can replace the face-to-face medium.”

Indeed, the drive towards virtual meetings was overwhelmingly driven by a desire to cut costs, without measuring the impact on the overall outcome of the event. Ms Bates concedes: “Of course, there is the cost element which needs to be taken into consideration as the perception is that face-to-face meetings can be more costly when you factor in expense, but that’s where the objectives and measuring success against objectives come in.

Moving to online

“If it’s a hugely important product launch that requires internal and external stakeholders to be fully educated and empowered, then our opinion and that of our clients is that face-to-face is the best way to do this.”

The reality is that while meetings and annual conferences were cancelled due to costs, this was a short-term measure and supplemented by fewer, regional events, which then utilised the latest technology to connect to a wider audience. The “hybrid” event has flourished and enabled internal teams to still come together and share learnings with their peers across the globe.

Kevin Jackson, vice president sales and marketing, Europe, Middle East and Africa, for global brand experience agency George P. Johnson, adds: “The half-way point is the hybrid event where people gather locally and regionally, and content is then supplemented centrally, but at the heart is the face-to-face – we are social beings and we crave human interaction.”

And while social sharing and carefully crafted digital campaigns abound, the engagement recorded from real face-time still trumps a virtual meeting. Referencing data relating to the recent general election, Mr Jackson explains: “Despite everyone’s belief in the power of social media, the biggest spike in voter engagement was when they met a candidate or went to a meeting. We don’t work for a company, we work for a person – that person needs to be front and centre, and in the flesh – we need to see and be seen.”

And rather than digital solutions hindering the meetings market and replacing events, experts in the field believe this will enhance the live environment and offer a richer delegate experience.

Nic Cooper, chief executive at Sledge, the agency behind Telefonica’s Campus Party tech festival, believes pushing meetings into the digital space is less about replacing face-to-face events and more to do with extending the audience reach.

“The digital platform is a great space to use when you need to get a message out to your audience quickly and also where there is a need to overcome geographic boundaries. It is also useful for amplifying a live event and extending the experience into the virtual space for a broader audience. So if the digital space is used in a targeted way, it can be highly effective, both from an experience perspective and a cost point of view,” he says.

There is nothing more powerful than using the collective moment of theatre to make your message resonate in a way that is not possible in the digital space

Digital and social in particular are now used regularly to increase engagement pre, during and post event with organisers engaging with delegates to help shape content, stream out to a wider audience and enhance the lifeline of an event. Rather than competing outright, the boom in technology in this space has enabled companies to use both digital and live in a combined approach to strengthen their communications strategy and have a richer dialogue with their audience.

George P. Johnson’s managing director Jason Megson believes brands will continue to invest in face-to-face in the future and puts the business case forward. “Businesses are built on relationships and their ability to leverage both internal and external connections in order to exchange ideas,” he says. “Without these communications channels, the chances of any business flourishing are significantly reduced – sales pipelines dry-up, product development stagnates and work-flow processes grind to a halt.”

And despite the next generation growing up with tech at their fingertips and embedded in the social network, which some would argue is slowly replacing real human contact, companies are continuing to invest heavily in face-to-face.

Percentage who will attend a virtual or live event

Sledge’s Mr Cooper explains: “More than ever, people yearn for human interaction and live experiences. We now have a society almost permanently glued to their tablets and smart devices, so the live experience is the only way to disrupt and grab an audience’s attention effectively. There is nothing more powerful than using the collective moment of theatre to make your message resonate in a way that is not possible in the digital space. Once you have the audience in the presentation environment, free from their devices and other distractions, your message can be so much more effectively delivered.”

So while technology companies may be targeting the burgeoning meeting market with new conference kit and virtual solutions, the industry is showing no signs of slowing and many agencies specialising in conferences are experiencing growth across 2015.

TRO, which has delivered meetings for brands including Tata Consultancy Services, BMW and Shell, has enjoyed an upturn and, according to Ms Bates, “the objectives are often very similar – to enable brands to connect with their audience via a distinctively positive moment that inspires and educates groups of people, driving change, and strengthening relationships within organisations and between people and brands”.

She concludes: “The importance of creating a brand experience, whether at an annual conference, product launch or an employee training event, is ever-growing, and with it the appetite for greater entertainment, personalisation and immersive engagement.”