How To Further Your Sustainability Goals With Virtual Events

May 21, 2020

Lindsay Arell

Lindsay Arell is the founder and principal of Honeycomb Strategies, a sustainability consulting firm specializing in the events, venue and hospitality industry.

It seems like every trade show and event is “pivoting” to virtual right now. For those live events that didn’t integrate a virtual component before COVID-19, it’s been a painful lesson as they struggle to adapt – and quickly. Regardless of what’s happening in the world, virtual should now be a natural extension of any live event, one that provides an even greater opportunity for any organization to further its mission. 

There are obvious and not-so-obvious benefits to offering a virtual option. Not only are more people able to access your content, but it also provides critical access to people who may be physically or financially challenged to attend face-to-face meetings. Virtual options can help to build and maintain a more loyal event community, increase engagement and inspire more people to collaborate in ways they never have before. 

I recently had a chance to “sit” down (don’t worry, we kept everyone safe and did it virtually!) with Tahira Endean, head of events at the Society of Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) and author of “Intentional Event Design, Our Professional Opportunity.” SITE has been busy going through a digital transformation while working hard to build sustainability into its agenda and adopting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – an ambitious feat, for sure. We hope you’ll find Tahira’s out-of-box insights about virtual events and technology – beyond being just a current survival tactic – as helpful and inspiring as I did!

How can the virtual elements of meetings and events address the social equity and accessibility challenges that certain groups can face at live events?

The majority of live events are designed for the able-bodied, ambulatory participant who can see and hear without aid. This potentially leaves behind many high contributors who may face any of these real-life challenges. Attending virtually allows them to participate from their own location and, depending on how you deliver a virtual or hybrid event, enables them to learn, connect, participate and interact. If you have a smartphone, tablet, laptop, computer and wifi or hardline connectivity, you can access a virtual event. As we start meeting face-to-face again, considering how we add virtual elements will allow us to build more robust and engaged communities going forward. 

How do you integrate sustainability initiatives at onsite events that are aimed at supporting local communities or non-profit organizations with a virtual audience?

By its very nature, virtual is sustainable by the default of no travel miles for any aspect of the event, from people and food to the production elements. If you can divert some of those dollars saved from your postponed or canceled event to support your organization’s home community, your host community or a community where your members are based, what a wonderful thing to do! Ensuring that you tie-in the cause with the organization is obvious, but having someone from that organization join you virtually and show the impact you’re having is a logical next step. 

What is a key understanding that planners should have about virtual events?

It comes down to the basics and creating a user experience that delivers to your objectives. Use a platform that offers what you need to provide the optimal experience, such as delivering content, enabling Q&A, including entertainment offerings and creating networking and interactive opportunities, for example. Designing your event for your audience must be forefront.      

What exciting technologies have you seen that you think could be a game-changer post-COVID-19?

For me, it’s more about the psychology of how we respond to technology, particularly when it becomes our key way of communicating like it is now. I don’t think we’ve seen one “wow” new way of connecting yet. There are tons of apps: Slack channels have become a norm, WhatsApp for work, friends and family groups, multiple social channels with communities already in place, and within these, a growing number of groups to join. AI is becoming more prevalent as platforms embrace it to better understand how we interact with their technology and each other.

When we started meeting online seven weeks ago, it was very basic – throw a bunch of people onto a screen and have someone talk at them. Now that we have more options to present and a better understanding of how to keep a virtual audience engaged, we’re likely to see more events shift to virtual without the fears we once had, such as quality of delivery, ability to keep people engaged and the cannibalization of live events. 

Understanding that we can reach more participants who can’t attend live and do it well gives us more opportunity to deliver information and create engagement with the content. This will allow us to grow communities faster in the future, which will be key to sustainability. We can have more people sharing ideas globally, creating understanding faster between cultures and identifying needs and solutions more quickly – that will be the real game-changer!

This article was previously published in The Bee's Knees, Honeycomb Strategy's new blog series about the "new normal" in event sustainability post-COVID-19. To read more, go here.

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