Skift Take

Virtual events don't seem to be cutting it anymore in the emerging, post-pandemic world, but business travelers should think twice before throwing away their headsets.

The “recoil” in demand for in-person meetings is hitting event technology platforms and contributing to the current downturn, experts argue — with some organizers intentionally switching them off. But there are still plenty of reasons why businesses should refrain from pulling the plug altogether.

Virtual event platforms including Hopin and Bizzabo have been laying off hundreds of employees in recent weeks, after raising hundreds of millions of dollars during the pandemic.

Even Zoom, the go-to platform for Covid-stricken businesses, has seen almost 40 percent wiped off its share price in the past six months.

Part of the slump is down to the rebound in corporate travel. Spending on conferences, as a share of overall business travel spend, is expected to be up 4 percentage points in 2022 compared to 2019, according to the Global Business Travel Association.

“Virtual events were an absolute necessity during the pandemic, but after more than a year of communicating through a screen we have seen corporates reintroduce in-person events as part of their event mix,” said Suzanne Neufang, CEO of the association.

The amount of virtual events hosted by CWT — one of the largest corporate travel agencies — has declined 65 percent so far compared to 2021. Meeting marketing platform Splash has also found that the average number of live attendees at in-person events is just 4 percent below 2019 highs.

“Some event tech companies are certainly having a hard time dealing with the recoil to face-to-face from corporates,” said Ian Cummings, vice president of CWT Meetings & Events. “With this, some of the most significant virtual and hybrid platform providers are reducing staff numbers at an alarming rate in the region of 30 to 40 percent.”

Settling Back

Cummings said CWT’s clients have been keen to revive travel and meet face-to-face over the past five months. “Pent up demand has been real,” he added.

Another agency has said that corporate travel was now returning to the old ways.

“Many pandemic-era trends are definitely settling back into pre-pandemic norms,” according to a spokesperson at corporate travel agency TripActions, citing a decline in virtual events as well as home gym subscriptions and food deliveries.

Event organizers may also be keen to lock out virtual platforms in order to introduce some element of exclusivity. The Institute of Travel Management didn’t want to livestream its annual conference in April, despite having gone virtual for the previous two years.

“For 2020 and 2021 we pivoted the conference to a virtual event platform, which was very successful given the circumstances,” said Scott Davies, the institute’s CEO. “But our members couldn’t wait to be back in the same room in person and we had exceptionally strong demand for delegate places as soon as registration opened.”

Davies added that the drop in demand for virtual meeting platforms would be even greater if it weren’t for the current impact of flight cancellations and travel and hospitality industry staff shortages, which is causing disruption and uncertainty for corporates planning in-person meetings and events.

Of course, the association may be biased, with its travel background. But it’s still business, and delegates hoping to virtually “join” its next conference in October will again be left out in the cold.

“Hybrid and remote events have their place, but we are seeing a real return to meeting in person to achieve business critical results,” added Clive Wratten, CEO of the UK’s Business Travel Association. “While numbers have not reached pre-pandemic levels, those going to international events are doing so with purpose. Deals are being done, meetings had and wider suppliers visited.”

Do Not Switch Off

Despite all of this pent-up demand, businesses may find the need to stay plugged into virtual event platforms. American Express Global Business Travel in particular said its own staff were benefiting from a special relationship.

As well as counting Zoom as a new investor, the agency struck a special partnership with Bizzabo earlier this year. And it’s still going strong.

“Our partnership with Bizzabo has allowed for both parties to come together and support clients as they navigated through a hybrid world,” said Ariana Reed, Amex GBT’s director, global strategic partnerships — meetings and events. “We have utilized Bizzabo internally to help support internal meetings and externally supporting clients who needed solutions to meet the demands of their evolving workforce.”

On top of internal meetings, the threat of new variants of coronavirus lingers.

“I’d like to think of this as a market correction,” said CWT’s Cummings, “but I believe we have learnt a lot from forced technology usage throughout the pandemic. The event tech opportunities are here to stay and will continue to be part of the strategic mix for meetings, engagement, communications and digital solutions generally. It would be unwise for corporates to disconnect themselves from the technology available.”

Virtual platforms are also rethinking their business models. It’s not all about conferences, as the larger corporate clients offer them more opportunities; they can even act as video content or online community hubs. Zoom’s new president Greg Tomb, for example, has been tasked with helping “shape Zoom’s next chapter as the company continues transforming into a multi-product platform that enables communication, hybrid work, and an expanding number of business workflows,” the company said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Global Business Travel Association’s Neufang points out that the role of the virtual meeting will continue to be relevant as long as there’s pressure to reduce carbon emissions.

For now the push in the opposite direction will likely continue in the short term, particularly as international business travel recovers, but the two formats should be able to exist side by side. It may just take a while before they find their groove.

“The virtual events sector has its place, but I’m not 100 percent sure it has really been defined yet,” said Gavin Smith, director of Element Travel Technology.

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Tags: american express global business travel, bizzabo, business travel, corporate travel, corporate travel management, cwt, gbta, meetings and events, tripactions, Zoom

Photo credit: Meeting marketing platform Splash says the average number of live attendees at in-person events is now just 4 percent below 2019 highs. Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash