The Historical Debate: Will Virtual Cannibalize Face-to-Face Events?

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By 2008, webcasts and online meetings were part of everyday business. The natural evolution of things spawned the rebirth of full-on virtual events. The technology improved giving people a much better online user experience and in some cases, giving the feeling as if they were right there in the room with the other virtual attendees participating in the event.

And so starts the renewed discussion…will virtual cannibalize face-to-face events?

This is a recap of many social discussions on the subject of cannibalization of face-to-face events by virtual event programs.

In a post by Brian Slawin on The BusyEvent Blog in mid-2010, he compares virtual cannibalization with the very same debate professional sports leagues were having in the 60s of whether televising games in the local city would cannibalize attendance. This led to experimental 72-hour blackouts until it became clear that television games “would not cost onsite eyeballs.” And Slawin says “The hard reality is, if the event producer doesn’t provide a virtual channel, the event attendees are going to create one anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to promote and take advantage of its possibilities.” It has been found that adding virtual channels and enabling hybrid participation expands the audience.

Richard Feldman’s LinkedIn question in the Virtual Events & Meeting Technology group, “Will running an online event in conjunction with a physical event cannibalize my face-to-face attendance?” generated over 40 comments, including one from Slawin.

This question floated through cyber space, was pondered over by many creating more online discussions. The Engage365 blog post by Kari Rippetoe again asked “Do Virtual and Hybrid Events Cannibalize F2F Events?” Rippetoe says “What we have to get past is the notion that virtual and hybrid events will become a reason for attendees not to pay.” Rippetoe cites a Cisco case where “55% of virtual attendees were ‘net-new’ and 35% said they’d attend a live event.” She concludes that “hybrid events present a huge opportunity to engage a portion of your audience during a live event that you wouldn’t have engaged otherwise.”

There became a concern in Europe with the growth of the virtual events market in Europe in 2010. On the Virtual Events Get Real – Imaste Blog post, “Cannibalization of virtual events, should physical event organisers…?” says “many conversations with traditional event organisers and convention centre responsibilities fear these new technologies could cannibalize both their physical attendees and exhibitors.” But the article offers 6 arguments that speak in favor of hybrid events.

Two years later, people are still wondering if virtual will cannibalize face-to-face events. In a recent PCMA member poll, one of the most pressing concerns about going virtual was the cannibalization of physical events. This led to a PCMA365 live webinar on November 30, 2011, “Ask the VES experts—your toughest virtual issues addressed,” where Kristin Beaulieu, SVP Sales & Development, East, of UBM Studios, addressed this issue. TheVES Expert in the live webinar covered how the “virtual boost” is driving in-person registration, and shares proven techniques and strategies to increase interaction of event participants and create a memorable experience.

The historical debate is over. The consensus is no, virtual does not cannibalize face-to-face events, it does just the opposite. The CD ConferenceDirect – Meeting Mentor Online author, Maxine Golding, in her post, “Virtual Events Won’t Cannibalize Face-to-Face,” announces “meeting professionals no longer fear that virtual event technology will cannibalize their physical programs. Instead they project that online components of meetings will help organizations and corporations broaden market reach and deepen value to all constituents.” In this story, Golding outlines 7 steps you should be doing about hybrid events.

Go virtual. Go hybrid. But Just go!

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