With the rise in event apps, IP telephony, webcasts, and virtual presence, it is easy to forecast that the future of events will be centred on virtual reality. In fact, if you ask many professional speakers, they will tell you that they can foresee virtual appearances becoming the new normal in their industry. But might we be in danger of overestimating precisely what technology can do or, more to the point, might we be underestimating what real presence means?
Virtual Conferences Already Exist
Take a simple example, if you are a translator or interpreter, you will have heard of Proz.com. This mega platform regularly holds virtual conference, complete with free webinars, virtual stands and even virtual chat.
But, as an attendee, you quickly see that something is missing. At a real conference, many of the best moments arrive unplanned. A trip from the coffee station to the toilet can lead to a conversation with a key future client. A wander in the area around the venue can mean bumping into that person you have been trying to contact by email for weeks.
That doesn’t happen virtually. At a virtual conference, everything is controlled and deliberate. In fact, it runs precisely the way that some people try to act at conferences. Every booth visit is for a particular purpose and is timed to the second, every webinar runs exactly to time. Every interaction is scripted and rich in information but low in relationship.
At a virtual conference, the currency is information. At an in-person conference, the currency is relationships.
But In-person Conferences are Still Growing
When virtual conferences exist and save a fortune on air fares, it makes you wonder why the same organisation is now turning to in-person conferences, even ramping up the number it runs. If you are an events professional trying to read future trends, the answer is absolutely vital.
In an increasingly virtual and remote world, human contact is what justifies the fees and hassle. No matter how well your conference is run, the accidental moments will often be the ones that are remembered the best. When presenters go off-script, they often sound better and connect better. When people are free to interact on their terms, the quality of the interaction is better.
Perhaps the reason for the continued rise in in-person conference is precisely the yearning for real human contact and the freedom from communication mediated by technology.
At Multilingual Events, Presence is Everything
Applying this same principle to multingual or international events means that we can see why any moves towards taking the service providers away from the conference hall will be problematic. Is it as pleasant to order your drinks at a vending machine as it is to have a real human waiter? Is automated registration as nice as picking up your badge from a smiling person at a desk?
If we answer those two questions truthfully, we will realise the biggest drawback with virtualising interpreting services too. While interpreters work with language, they work in a business that is centred on people: what people are trying to achieve, who is listening and how people are reacting.
While it is often cheaper to try to get interpreters to work remotely, it rarely leads to a flawless conference. Here again, while the technology is fascinating and just about stable enough, it loses much of the human contact that is found in the conference room
So, the next time someone tells you that the future of events is entirely virtual, take them out for a coffee and ask them to compare that with an exchange of emails. Event technology is here to stay but its future is found in enhancing real-world interactions, rather than replacing them.