We are seeing so many areas of our lives become influenced by the rapidly rising digital world; from the way we interact with our friends and colleagues to how we manage our finances. The world of conferences is no exception to this, and many event organisers have been experimenting with innovative technologies to improve the conference experience. The question is, will it last and will one on one face to face meetings eventually fade away?

The virtual world technology is one example that has excited many in the sector, from 3D gaming to evening watching 3D Movies at Cinemas or at your own home. This technology can recreate physical conference spaces or exhibitor booths in the digital world and provide people with avatars through which they can interact with each other and the environment. Everything that our industry was once arguably against. Seems futuristic right?

Virtual world technology offers an immersive solution but not an indefinite one.

There are so many other technologies, such as videoconferencing through Teams, Zoom and so much more have also attempted to digitalise the conference experience. However, the outcome in this instance is often sub-standard, with users not being able to use the same physical and spatial cues that they would in real life. They are often low quality, and do not live up to the promise of feeling like you are in the same room. The large contribution is fake back rounds, a dog or cat making an appearance or in some cases things slightly a little more “unnatural”.

A conference organised in a virtual environment, however, is truly immersive and represents the closest thing to recreating the traditional conference experience. 3D avatars and 3D VOIP technology allows attendees to interact with one another in a natural way – being able to talk, react and move around as they would in the physical world. For instance, should two attendees wish to discuss an issue in private, they’ll be able to break away from a larger group to find an appropriate location out of earshot of other participants; something which isn’t easily done when videoconferencing. The downfall here, is that your time is limited anywhere from 10 minutes to 45 minutes. Who can honestly have a conclusive meeting in 10 minutes? It takes me close to 5 minutes to even make a cup of coffee.

The technology is incredibly adaptable don’t get me wrong and has been a life saver during these tough times. The spaces can be scaled to the requirements of the organisers. If you wanted, you could host a meeting in another country, or even another planet. The advantage here is cost saving, I mean imaging spending 10s of thousands of Rands just to fly somewhere, where through the virtual world this can be saved. Again, there are so many pro’s and cons we need to go through.

In most instances, virtual conferences aren’t limited by venue capacity; delegates can simply log in from their own device in a place that is convenient for them. Similarly, being hosted in the digital realm, organisers don’t have to think about parking or public transport connections either, as attendees aren’t required to travel to the event.

This is economically beneficial as a conference will be able scale without having to pay larger fees. A bonus to the buyer and the seller.

Physical conferences can be costly and timely, and employees take a lot of time out of their professional and personal lives to attend. Which can discourage delegates from wanting to go as they may have work or personal commitments that take precedent over attending a conference.

Whereas the virtual conference will not suffer from this problem, users are immediately transported to the conference without having to physically travel there. They can also log in and out at their convenience, reducing dead time and fitting attending an event seamlessly into their daily workflows.

As such, many delegates who may have not been able to justify the logistical or financial cost of going to a conference may now choose to go to an event, due to the ease of attendance provided by virtual world technology. It also gives those who might not have ever been able to attend an event of an exclusive nature the chance to attend and grow one’s brand profile or presence.

The main question I feel is, does this spell the end of the traditional conference?

Despite their benefits, virtual events will not entirely replace the need for physical conferences but add to it. Of course, face-to-face meetings will always be better in certain instances and is of course what our industry is about, connecting and creating connections. It is easier to make connections and develop longer term relationships through face-to-face meetings and gives you a better chance to read the person’s body language better compared to a blank screen (if one does not share their face).

So, we repeat, does this increase in digital conferences herald the end of the physical conference? Probably not, but it is likely we will see more, smaller conferences go online to help increase participation through lesser costs for the organisers and delegates, allowing you to meet with persons on a global scale and ultimately put you in positions where you are able to dictate your brand positioning at a lower cost.

Don’t fear the change, rather adapt and move with the digital age because if you don’t adapt now it might be too late.