The Social, Environmental, and Economic Advantages of Virtual Events

This image represents virtual events with a person viewing an online conference platform on her computer.

This post originally appeared in the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s “TIAC Talk” November 2020 newsletter.

By Angela Nagy

At a time when industry conferences and events have gone virtual for the foreseeable future, how can we ensure that sustainability issues aren’t overlooked as just topics on the agenda? What advantages and opportunities has this pause provided for us to reflect upon as we re-build a more responsible industry?

According to ISO, a sustainable event is one that responsibly manages social, economic and environmental impacts. In a pre-COVID world, event organizers typically focused on the green aspects, such as eliminating plastic water bottles and single-use coffee cups, measuring and offsetting the carbon footprint of events, and including plant-based and locally sourced menu items. 

Without these physical impacts to worry about, conference and event organizers now have a unique opportunity to dig deeper into sustainability issues, starting with the following four positive attributes of virtual events, and at the same time, think about how to integrate these advantages into in-person events over the coming years.

1. Virtual events can be more inclusive

Inclusivity can be improved through virtual events in two key areas, both of which can result in increased numbers of participants. First, the financial costs of attending conferences can be a barrier for small business owners or non-executive employees of larger organizations that are interested in the networking and personal development opportunities that events can provide, but are not able to attend due to budget limitations. Virtual events reduce these barriers as they are either offered free of charge or for a significantly reduced cost compared to in-person events. 

Second, industry members with diverse abilities may find travelling or participating in events challenging for a variety of reasons, but with adaptive technologies in their homes or workplaces, they can attend virtually in a more comfortable and accessible setting.

This image represents virtual events with a person viewing an online conference platform on her computer.

2. Offer greater diversity

High profile keynote speakers, panellists with unique perspectives and experiences, and culturally enriching entertainment, all carry significant costs for event planners yet are essential to providing the kinds of learning opportunities that attract delegates. By eliminating travel time and related expenses from their budgets, event and conference organizers can retain a more diverse range of industry experts and talent for their virtual events that will help to maintain the attention and engagement of participants who are attending remotely, while also offering enhanced levels of professional development.

3. Virtual events can create more networking opportunities

Many conference delegates attend industry events primarily for networking. While it would be difficult for a virtual event to ever replace the deeper connections that happen when people meet and gather face-to-face, virtual event platforms can make it easier to digitally connect with a larger number of people than would typically be possible on the conference floor for both sponsors as well as regular attendees. These connections can lead to increased business opportunities, and improve the event outcomes for delegates.

image of a woman in her office working from home, looking at her computer screen

4. Lower environmental impacts

This is probably the most obvious change with virtual events. While a growing number of event organizers have begun working to improve the sustainability performance of their in-person events by doing things like measuring and offsetting their carbon footprint or working to include farm-to-table menu items and reduce food-waste, virtual events eliminate these kinds of concerns. 

Event organizers can highlight their reduced carbon footprint by quantifying and reporting on the avoided emissions from air travel, ground transportation, facilities and accommodations, and comparing this to a previous year on a per-participant basis, to highlight and celebrate their lower impacts.

Moving forward

As the world transitions back to normal, we will likely see virtual events evolve towards hybrid events that include a combination of in-person and virtual attendance options. The four sustainability advantages of virtual events highlighted above are all transferable and could lead to conferences and events that have higher attendance, reduced environmental impacts and associated costs, improved social, economic, and cultural benefits, and greater financial returns.

image of a woman interacting in a virtual event while working from home