Most of us are used to attending various types of events in our personal and work lives. Meetups, conferences, trade shows, seminars, classes, mixers, etc. Just about any group gathering could fit the bill. But, with the current focus on social distancing where large group gatherings and even typical in-person social interactions are limited, many (and potentially all) of these types of events have been postponed for at least some period of time.

So how do we adapt to these limitations? For many events, it simply means they will be rescheduled for a later date, or canceled entirely. However, numerous organizers are taking this opportunity to test or simply adopt a very different approach to putting on their events. Instead of looking at shifting an event to a later date, they are looking at how digital solutions can be leveraged in the event arena through the virtual event.

Virtual event technology isn’t new, as arguably the first virtual trade show was held in 1993 (ConventionView). However, this initial foray into virtual events predated the explosion of the internet and would be barely recognizable when compared to virtual events today. In the digital marketing arena, an early attempt at the virtual trade show was called eComExpo, in 2007.

Anyone who has attended a live webinar, used a video conferencing platform, or attended an online class, has engaged in a form of virtual event. In fact, many of us rely on these platforms on a daily basis, to connect one-to-one or one-to-many with co-workers, partners, and others in our work-related activities.

While all of these virtual meeting tools are incredibly useful and have gained regular use across industries, they don’t replicate every aspect of a typical trade show or conference in the real world. For me, there have always been two key aspects of a large industry event that the virtual events can’t quite replicate.


If you have ever attended an event in your industry, chances are there were parts of the agenda specifically designed to foster networking opportunities. Even if it isn’t an organized activity, industry events naturally create opportunities for attendees to meet and network. Whether it’s at a specifically planned networking mixer or simply getting a drink at the conference hotel bar, attendees have constant opportunities to meet with friends and current connections or strike up conversations with people they just met.

This dynamic is very difficult to replicate in a virtual event. Event chat rooms focused on specific topics or simply filled with people who have indicated they want to meet new people attempt to provide a similar experience, but it isn’t quite the same.

The Exhibit Hall

For many companies, one valuable aspect of a big industry event is to have an exhibit booth on the trade show floor. Attendees then walk the floor and stop by the booth to get more information, chat with a team member, etc. It is a major component of lead generation for a lot of companies.

While virtual events often do offer virtual exhibit booths, this is another aspect of a real-world event that is challenging to recreate digitally. How is your virtual booth any different than your website – especially if you have a chat function built into the site to interact with visitors?

Virtual Events in 2020 and Beyond

Today, there are numerous virtual event technology platforms in the market that empower organizers to create interactive events that attempt to replicate as many aspects of a traditional trade show or conference as possible. They have certainly become more advanced over the years. Will 2020 be the year they really catch on and start replacing live events more frequently in the future? The opportunity to innovate and deliver a more fully functional virtual event experience has certainly arrived. I wonder if, in the years ahead, we look back on 2020 as the year that virtual events really came into their own, out of necessity.