Why we should stop blaming Zoom fatigue for our virtual event woes – and start focusing on designing better meetings

If I had £10 for every time I’ve heard eventprofs moaning that virtual events don’t work because everyone has Zoom fatigue, I’d be planning my post-pandemic retirement somewhere hot and sunny with a swimming pool.

Yes, it’s tiring in lockdown, yes it’s insufferable not having open dates from governments around the world and yes, I do want to see delegates in a room enjoying a positive and safe experience, but please can we stop blaming virtual events for this?

Planners, when asked to plan, for example, a conference for 300 of your top leaders, or a 2500 ‐person event with a 2‐week lead time, would you tell your stakeholders, “No problem, let’s source our entire team, design, build a venue and registration, exhibition booths, sponsorship and execute this in less than a month”?

I think the answer is, of course, a resounding no. So why are we experiencing these sorts of pressures regarding planning in the virtual world?

Has the value of the meeting changed? Has the ROI of the participant shifted? Somehow, in this world of unlimited opportunity, we are yet again not seizing that opportunity to redefine and reshape the world of events.

If you host a conference for 500 people for a half day, that works out at 500 x 4 hours, which calculates that your participants are giving this event 2,000 hours of their time. Translate that into an average hourly salary of that stakeholder and you’ll recognise the investment that your event is expected to deliver on.

83 days of time is what you are expecting these participants to give, so how much time should you be investing in preparing the best engagement strategy, the most appropriate venue (virtual or in-person) and the best content that is going to change the behaviour of these people?

Imagine if we invested real time in designing that experience that delivers for exhibitors, participants, sponsors and any other stakeholder in the mix?

What if we spent time and discovered the venue or platform that worked for these stakeholders and the key objectives behind our event by taking the time to explore, rather than going with the top of the Google search or recommendation from someone who hasn’t got the same event objective as you?

We’ve been saying this for years, but the language we speak in the events world needs to be consistent and in line with business owners.

We need to differentiate and communicate the difference between a meeting and an event for us to sustain a profitable and buoyant event industry post pandemic. We need to lead the conversation with content curation and empathy mapping before we look at theatre-style and buffets.

It’s time to define our value as event organisers. Bringing your entire leadership team from across the globe to kick off the year is not just a Zoom meeting. Driving critical best practice across your association membership or launching a medical device or product that will save lives is not just a Zoom meeting. Engaging sponsors, advertisers and exhibitors to drive revenues that pays your people is not just a Zoom meeting.

Communicating the value of events needs to be driven by us all to safeguard this wonderful industry we are in, irrespective of whether our events are virtual, hybrid or in person. We must change this status quo and become leaders in our field of expertise, which we know we are. We must now become consultants with our internal clients or external partners.

This isn’t going to be easy, but who ever asked an eventprof for easy?

As organisers, we need to push back or – even better – become more proactive about defining what success looks like and the time investment this needs.

We need to design events irrespective of the venue and we must be more empathetic when it comes to the stakeholders we are engaging before, during and after the event. We must focus on the behaviour change we are going to create. Whether this behaviour change is online or in a room is a secondary part of the planning process.

Virtual events are here to stay. Like them or loathe them, respect the fact that – when designed effectively – we’ve discovered a new way of increasing engagement, increasing participation and accessibility, reducing carbon footprint and increasing revenues.

Once change has happened, it is increasingly difficult over an extended period of time to go back to the place we started from. Please can we be honest that even in those heady days of social rather than social distancing, many of our in‐person events were poorly designed, with poor engagement and declining revenues. We needed to be better then, and we can be better now.

The virtual/online element will merge into your in‐person event moving forward as well as that event changing and evolving as we see the planning move toward this design thinking methodology.

It is time to use that methodology to define the value of events to build smarter, more engaging experiences online as well as in-person to provide your stakeholders with the chance to be a part of something special, that human connection everyone around the globe needs right now.

Director of The Design Lab at University of California, Dan Norman provides a great quote that we should all have hanging on our office/home office walls, “We must design for the way people behave, not for how we would wish them to behave.”

Without organisers moving more into a design-thinking, design-led planning role, we risk devaluing the role of the event organiser, and this poses a bigger threat to our industry than this pandemic.

Meet the Expert

Samme Allen is the founder and chief participation strategist at Samme Allen & Associates, an event hosting and meeting design agency. Working with global audiences from pharmaceutical companies, international associations and Fortune 100 organisations and along with an associate network of virtual hosts and moderators.

Samme and the team provide their clients with innovative meeting designs, high energy moderation and facilitation, engaging agenda mapping and a good understanding of the technology that can facilitate those wow experiences that all attendees expect, both in person, and online.