Online Events: Virtually No Substitute for Meeting in Person

Simon Birinder

March 15, 2021


7 min read

Technology has made it easier than ever to connect to anyone, anywhere. Online meetings can be cost effective, highly interactive and widely accessible.

So, are live events destined to be a thing of the past?

Not exactly. Virtual meetings software has been around for a long time allowing us to ‘see’ much more of each other. But despite breakneck developments in virtual technology, nothing quite matches the value of face-to-face meetings.

And here’s why…

Humans need humans

“Human beings are an ultra-social species — and our nervous systems expect to have others around us,” - Emiliana Simon-Thomas, GGSC, University of California, Berkeley (source: NBC News)

Whether it’s bonding at a team offsite, mingling with thousands at an international congress or dancing the night away at a wedding, the human brain is wired to connect with others.

And there is enormous power in human connections.

The power of networking

“…the only reason I’m a partner and owner at PAIT Group is because I met my business partner at a conference.” – Mark Rackley, Partner & CSO, PAIT Group (source: CMS WiRe)

Virtual exchanges make the world a smaller place to navigate. But networking in person connects us in a way that is more authentic and almost impossible to replicate online.

How so?

For starters, face-to-face interactions allow for deeper, more intuitive human connections, helping us form long-lasting relationships and reinforce existing ones.

Being in the same physical space with someone also enables us to better gauge their character through non-verbal signs such as:

  • Body language
  • Facial expressions
  • Eye contact

And there’s an added bonus: face-to-face networking is brimming with possibilities of that fleeting chance encounter – the kind that inspires collaboration and leads to new opportunities.

Engaging in the moment

Live events also allow us to fully immerse ourselves in the moment and offer a break from routine.

“At home, it’s more challenging to put away all the distractions.” – Reuters

Be honest – how many of us have logged into a virtual meeting and used the time to do a host of other things while on mute? A recent survey found that 99% of people multitask some or all of the time during online meetings and presentations.

In other words, the number of participants in a virtual meeting may be considerably high, but the overall level of engagement much lower. That’s quite a dilemma for event marketers. 

Source: Ginger Leadership Communications

Creating a buzz

The best events produce memorable experiences.

The highly interactive nature of exhibitions, trade shows and product launches allows businesses to really push the boundaries of creativity to maximize visibility and accelerate brand recognition as well as:

  • Give live demonstrations of their products and services
  • Visit the stands of competitors and learn from their tactics
  • Generate new business leads and develop sales pipelines

And that’s not all.

Any questions?

Having the opportunity to ask questions is one of the most rewarding and insightful aspects of attending an event.

Engaging in Q&A within a live environment immerses us in the spontaneous reactions of audiences to burning questions and encourages debate.

Panelists and presenters experience in-person and online meetings very differently too:

“A natural stage speaker will not have the same energy in front of a screen, and panelists will not have the same flow of conversation when separated by oceans.” - Gradient

Going off-piste

“In-person interactions tend to be a lot looser: Running into someone you know, having a drink at a hotel bar, making last-minute dinner arrangements. Online, you have to be much more deliberate and strategic about who you want to meet.” - Reuters

Online meetings tend to follow a more tightly regulated structure. In-person events offer greater flexibility with plenty of scope to engage on the periphery.

Zoom fatigue

Virtual meetings are exhausting. They require more focus and we need to work harder to decipher non-verbal cues.

Being mentally and visually connected with others online whilst physically separated from them also creates dissonance.

It’s especially hard for online presenters:

“It's almost like you're emoting more because you're just a little box on a screen,” - Jodi Eichler-Levine (source: National Geographic)


“In a conference environment, delegates move around from the plenary hall to break-out rooms, exhibition areas and coffee lounges. This simple act of relocating to a different room is energising.” - Cvent

The Verdict

According to the World Economic Forum, Covid-19 forced 2.6 billion people into what was arguably the largest psychological experiment ever: Lockdown.

But alongside this an even broader exercise has taken place, on a scale so vast we may never know its true scope: an unintended test to establish whether virtual technology has the capacity to replace face-to-face meetings.

And the verdict?

Yes, it can.

But replicating the intrinsic value of genuine, in-person interactions is not so easily done.

Looking to the future, enhancements in virtual technology will continue to enrich both online and face-to-face events.

“However, the importance of physical communication to build human connections, address sensitive issues, gather feedback, plus enhance credibility and trust, will ensure that live ‘in-person’ events are very much a part of our future.” - Cvent

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