During the past week, as lockdown lifted and the wheels of industry started to turn around the UK, a new kind of email started to arrive in my inbox and a new kind of message started to appear in my social media newsfeeds.

The message posed a question:

Virtual events –Useful during lockdown, but do we really want to continue with them now?

As a small business owner in the UK, live conferences, shows, and networking events have been very much a part of the self-employed social calendar for years, giving people the chance to meet, mingle, learn and sell.

Then Covid-19 brought it all to a standstill.  One after another, trade shows were cancelled and re-scheduled for 2021, but rather than cancel altogether, some businesses found a novel way around it.  They discovered that they could move everything online, offering a virtual solution – and rather than being dismissed, it was being well received.

We saw a dramatic shift with businesses big and small working hard to figure out exactly how it could be done.  

Trade shows, fairs, social events, and week-long conferences with multiple speakers all moved online.

Even the Nottinghill Carnival went digital!

To many people, this was unprecedented progress, but not everyone was happy.  

So, what’s the problem?

My own experiences of online events have been largely positive.  They’ve given me the opportunity to speak with people around the globe and extend the circle of people I work with.

 The progress made during lockdown has felt like a tangible step in the right direction

So, imagine my dismay, reading that some people wanted them to come to an end.

It transpired that despite most people preferring to work from home, they felt that Zoom was a poor substitute to live meet-ups.  They tolerated virtual events because they were one of the only ways they could connect with clients, audiences and each other, but they considered them a short-term solution.

Many of them missed face-to-face contact.  They missed the buzz.  Digital events were technologically challenging.  Marketing them was hard.  They had Zoom fatigue.

So if they don’t appeal to everyone, why should you still offer virtual tickets to the few that want them?

I’m not going to pretend for one second that online events can compete with or replicate live ones, but they do provide a service to those customers who for whatever reason can’t attend in person.

By not offering a virtual option, you’re losing ticket sales and leaving money on the table.

You will always have customers that cannot attend because the timing is wrong or because your event doesn’t work with their schedule, but perhaps more important than these people, are the people who would love to attend but are perpetually left on the side-lines when it comes to networking because their personal circumstances make networking too difficult.

Now if you’re able-bodied, healthy and don’t have responsibilities that get in the way of being able to leave the house for long periods of time, that’s great!  You’re in the majority.

It’s sometimes difficult to step outside your bubble and see things from another point of view, but there are many people who are not able to do what they like when they like.

  1. Remember that not everyone is able to equally co-parent. 
    In 2019, 14.9% of UK families were lone-parent families.  Whilst some of those 2.9 million people will have amicable childcare arrangements that would allow one parent to disappear across the country for a live event, some will obviously be excluded.
  2. Even if you are not a lone parent, different work commitments might mean that it’s not possible to split childcare 50:50. There’s been a lot of criticism of ‘old fashioned’ parenting arrangements in the media lately, but for a lot of families, childcare still largely falls to one person.
    If your partner works 60 hours a week in a different industry, scrapes home every day in time to kiss the children good night, and has the legal minimum annual leave, it might not be easy to attend a live event.  Many people live this way.
  3. Not everyone has access to childcare and not everyone lives in close proximity to parents or relatives who can help out.
    In Britain today, the majority of people live over 100 miles away from their families and where they were born.  That’s a huge change from 50 years ago, when most people moved no further than five.  It takes a village to raise a child?  Well, society has changed and the villagers have gone.  In a lot of families, parents are on their own.
  4. There is an increasing number of people who have caring responsibilities for older relatives, sometimes in addition to looking after families of their own.  These people might need to stay local to deal with emergencies, or to provide support throughout the day. 
  5. They might have caring responsibilities for children or other family members who are living with an illness, disability, or a mental health condition. Being unavailable even for a day or a few hours could be a problem.
  6. Maybe money is a barrier.  The price of attending a live event can make them out of reach. It doesn’t matter how valuable an event is or how much you desperately want to go, everyone has a different household income and different demands on that income.  Having to save up for tickets and possibly also travel and accommodation might be a huge problem. Virtual events can be much more reasonable.

    Don’t ever be tempted to tell someone “If you want it enough, you’ll find a way to afford it”.  If you honestly believe this, your opinion might be clouded by your privilege.  Plus, it sounds a little like “let them eat cake”.
  7. They might have other work commitments.  Maybe they’re a start-up, but they haven’t taken the leap to full-time self-employment and are still being largely supported by an employed role. Maybe their time is permanently divided between different roles making it difficult to step away.
  8. They could have a limiting health condition or a disability. In the UK today, there are 15 million people living with chronic health conditions and disabilities, and although many of these people are perfectly capable of getting out and about, many are not.

    For these people, the recent upsurge in online business activity made overnight improvements to their quality of life and the way they’re able to run their companies.

Self-employed Networking in the New Normal.

We live in a society with a rapidly increasing number of self-employed people.  In the UK alone, between 2001 and 2017, self-employment increased from 3.3 million to 4.8 million and all of these people need to connect with customers, colleagues, and industry contacts in some way.

The ability to offer online tickets and get in front of a previously untapped audience should be seen as an opportunity, not an inconvenience.

Looking at it from another point of view, for people with inflexible home commitments, complicated health conditions, and disabilities, the technological advances we’ve witnessed over the past 4 months have meant access and inclusion.

It’s meant new work contacts, sales and community.

It’s perhaps the one part of the New Normal that we’d all rather like to keep.    

You can see why the desire by some to get back to normal as quickly as possible is so alarming.

Maybe instead of striving to get back to normal, we should instead be thinking about a different future for the way we sell, network, and operate our businesses.  A future where we adapt, learn, and embrace the new technology available to us.

A future where we take responsibility as business owners and offer accessibility to all.