Technology is changing everything we do, both personally and professionally, and its impact is far-reaching and will continue to be so. New apps, whether or not they are valuable and usable, appear daily simply because we have the technology to create them. So as we move forward and find myriad additional ways to connect virtually, is there still a place for face-to-face events in the b-to-b environment? The answer is a resounding yes.
Don't get me wrong. webinars, virtual events, Twitter and Facebook status updates all have their value. But getting in front of someone, face-to-face, in-person, creates an immediacy of interaction, a responsiveness of active dialogue that cannot be replaced with technological tools. In almost every instance, electronic communication takes place after a connection exists. In January 2009, Spencer Jarrett, director of creative services at InVision Communications, said in the BusinessWeek Debate Room, “Asking if virtual meetings will replace live meetings is like asking if singles chat rooms will replace real dating.” In other words, virtual is great, but it cannot compensate for the look in someone's eye, a firm handshake or, to continue the analogy, the chemistry between two people.
Aside from well-documented fiscal justification, several specific reasons face-to-face will maintain its ascendency jump out immediately. First, there is the emotional component, the most basic of all human interactions and something lacking in virtual events. It's impossible to bond over a virtual cup of coffee. Human relationships depend on a variety of factors: tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. Standing around with peers, exchanging ideas, doesn't occur in a virtual scenario. Yes, you can communicate information, but attention can wander. Imagine a virtual attendee at a webinar checking e-mail, playing a game, writing a report. The engagement of an audience is stimulated by the shared experience.
Next there are the two facets of serendipity. First, several studies by the Center for Exhibitor Research detail aspects of face-to-face that simply cannot occur in a virtual environment. The Nov. 2008 CEIR Index, repeated over 20 years with consistent results, pointed out that about 80% of the visitors to an exhibit are prospects your staff hasn't called on in the last 12 months. These hidden buyers appear at events because they provide opportunities for personal development and growth.
Networking is the other part of serendipity. Often too busy to devote time to networking, face-to-face benefits include, in addition to education, the ability to network with one's peers. Going to the bar after hours and chatting, responding to a comment made by a colleague that sparks a new idea, bumping into someone riding the elevator, can all occur. Virtual events don't allow you to connect with others in spontaneous ways such as these. That's because, to provide you access to other participants, virtual events demand that you purposefully “sign in,” search out and interact with “avatars” through the use of a keyboard. And networking goes far beyond identifying prospects or customers. Face-to-face increases the likelihood of creating strategic alliances, form partnerships and learn from those with similar interests and varied experiences.
Last is gaining attention from a targeted group of people. A recent blog on The Economist's website asked if face-to-face meetings make more sense for large or small companies. One respondent said both, and then explained, “the No. 1 reason to meet face-to-face is to minimize the “us-versus-them” mentality that all too easily forms.”
It seems that everywhere you look a discussion rages over which is better, virtual or face-to-face. Yes, we are the Trade Show Exhibitors Association, so we are expected to have a preference for the latter over the former. But, when all is said and done, I picture an evening meal this past December at our hosted buyer event, Face to Face Connections. Throughout dinner, our participants were engaged with their fellow diners, leaning into each other, sharing photos on phones, waving their hands to make a point and, as the facility staff tried to clear away the tables, they transferred to a still-uncleared area until they had no choice but to vacate the room. The energy engendered that evening and the palpable connections that were made among a group of people who just a few hours earlier were total strangers were unforgettable.
The Economist blogger titled his posting, “You can't have a beer over an e-mail.” For me, as for many, there will always be justification and validation for face-to-face. And I don't even drink beer.