The COVID-19 pandemic forced a dramatic shift in the events industry, with in-person conferences, trade shows and corporate meetings moving online en masse. While in-person events are beginning to return, virtual and hybrid events are here to stay as organisations recognise their advantages. 

However, virtual events also have downsides and may not suit every situation. Let’s analyse the pros and cons of virtual and in-person events to help you choose the right format for you.

Advantages of virtual events

Greater accessibility and reach

By removing geographical limitations, virtual events open up conferences and meetings to a truly global audience. Attendees can join from all corners of the world, rather than just those within travel distance of the physical venue. This removal of barriers provides enormous reach, allowing event organisers to significantly broaden their audience and tap into wider viewer diversity. 

Virtual events also increase accessibility for those who cannot easily attend in person, such as people with disabilities, working parents and remote workers. Enabling remote participation makes it easier for important voices and stakeholders to be included, rather than excluded due to travel restrictions.

Lower costs

Venue hire, catering, speaker travel and other in-person event costs are eliminated with virtual events. Attendees also save on travel and accommodation costs. 

While there are some unique costs to organising virtual events, organisers will in many cases find their budgets easier to stick to in the digital realm. Organisations can pass these savings on through lower registration fees.

Convenience and flexibility

Virtual events allow attendees to join from their home or office, without time spent travelling. Organisations can also run shorter sessions over multiple days to accommodate different time zones. You can choose to record your sessions to be viewed later, too.

More data and insights

Virtual event platforms can provide detailed analytics on attendee engagement, content popularity, lead generation and more. Organisers can use these insights to improve future events.

Environmental benefits

Generally, virtual events dramatically reduce the carbon footprint associated with in-person events. This supports organisations’ sustainability goals.

Disadvantages of virtual events

Lack of human interaction

In-person events enable face-to-face networking and relationship building in a way virtual events struggle to replicate. Changes of scenery and informal gatherings during breaks are also lost online. The use of virtual avatars can mitigate these concerns.

Technical issues

Virtual events rely on internet connectivity and audio-visual tech working smoothly. But video dropouts, sound problems and other glitches can disrupt events and frustrate attendees.

That said, in-person conferences can present technical issues of their own if microphones and PA systems break down. You can mitigate this risk with dependable solutions like portable PA systems for schools from TechXpress.

Difficulty sustaining energy

Staring at a screen for hours can be tiring and disengaging for attendees. Creative formatting is required to maintain engagement and energy at virtual conferences and career fairs.

Security risks

Zoombombing and other security issues have affected some virtual events. While solutions exist, data privacy requires continued vigilance with virtual platforms.

Advantages of in-person events

Human connection

One of the greatest advantages of in-person events is the human connection and relationship-building they facilitate. While virtual events have their place, nothing can quite replicate the experience of meeting, networking and socialising face-to-face. 

The conversations, interactions and chance encounters that happen in real life often feel more authentic and meaningful than those online. In-person events provide opportunities to pick up on body language, make eye contact, read facial expressions and establish trust in a way that technology cannot always enable. For many, in-person events feel more special and celebratory as well – there is buzz, energy and motivation generated by coming together in real life.

Immersive experiences

In-person events can make memorable use of venues through site tours, decor, entertainment, catering and more. The energy of a real-world gathering creates buzz.

Higher attendance

People make more effort to attend in-person events, often having travelled to attend. This can lead to higher actual turnout and engagement.

Natural engagement

In-person events often feel more interactive, engaging and dynamic than virtual alternatives. Being in the same physical venue allows for natural communication through body language, eye contact, and facial expressions. This facilitates more active participation, discussion, and audience interaction. 

Sessions can take on a life of their own as conversations organically evolve in real-time based on the energy in the room. Presenters can read cues from the crowd and adjust their material accordingly. Unplanned discussions or activities can add spontaneity. Informal connections during breaks also spark engagement. While virtual events are improving, the innate humanness of in-person events remains difficult to replicate online.

Disadvantages of in-person events

Limited reach and access

In-person events restrict audiences to those able to travel to the physical venue. Important voices may be excluded due to cost or geographical or accessibility barriers.

Higher costs

Major costs include venue hire, speaker fees, food and beverage, marketing and equipment. For attendees, there are significant travel and accommodation costs.

Inconvenient scheduling

Multi-day conferences disrupt work schedules and family life, requiring significant time out of the office. Shorter events may still require substantial travel.

Environmental impact

Though improving, in-person events have large carbon footprints due to attendee travel and venue operations. Some organisations avoid them on sustainability grounds.

Health risks

In-person events pose higher risks of transmitting illnesses like influenza or COVID-19 if precautions are not taken.

The choice between virtual and in-person events involves balancing these pros and cons for your specific situation. Smaller meetings can often work virtually, while large conferences still benefit from a real-world gathering. 

Hybrid events can be a ‘best of both worlds’ solution, expanding the accessibility of your event while maintaining the sense of connection in-person events provide. By offering both virtual and in-person participation, organisers can broaden their reach to a global digital audience while still enabling local attendees to gather and network face-to-face. 

With the right technology, remote and in-person audiences can be integrated through live-streamed content and opportunities for interaction. Hybrids allow more people to benefit from an event while keeping a physical on-site component for those craving human connection. When executed well, hybrids can provide wide access without compromising on the energy and engagement of being on-site.

Assess your goals, audience, content format and resources to determine the optimal platform. But always have a contingency plan – the pandemic proved nothing is certain! With careful planning both virtual and in-person events can be powerful tools for successfully engaging your stakeholders.