Back in March, at some of the last in-person tradeshows that I attended pre-lockdown, I recall some of the discussions: we felt like we were on the cusp of a change. Travelling around the world, spending a fortune on hotels, flights, expenses, exhibitor booths and graphics, carpets, power….the list goes on. All of that was an accepted way of doing business and it would probably have continued that way for a long time without a global phenomenon to shake things up and force a change in perspective.

In the past, one of the arguments for attending industry events was “you need to be seen there”. We were made to feel like if you were absent then you’re not part of the ‘industry’ – particularly as a start-up or a growing company. But the impact of all these events is time: valuable time away from home, and our families. I have seen a number of LinkedIn posts with people highlighting how much time they now have. Working from home is also a factor: the hours that they would spend travelling and away from home.

Normally, as we come into Spring, our list of events is overwhelming. This year, after Embedded World was over, and it became clear the lockdown would be affecting us for some time to come, we tore up the list and started planning with a clean sheet of paper.

Rather than making ourselves fit into big events with their own themes, we could start to think about what online events would really give us more focus to communicate with our customers and to engage with the partners that matter. That has kept us incredibly busy and is proving to be rather successful for us. We have been running a series of webinars, 3-4 per month. Some on our own, some with partners, but each tailored to specific customer groups or regions, or focused on certain applications or platforms (such as RISC-V).

Our most recent webinar this week was with our customer, NSITEXE, part of DENSO – to talk about automotive design with a predominantly Japanese audience. It was targeted, both geographically and in terms of the application. That worked so well for us and for NSITEXE,  it made me question if we have reached a point of no return – a return to many of the ‘traditional’ mega-, life-sapping, in-person events.

We also recently attended the first Virtual DAC: the only legacy event we have ‘exhibited’ at since lockdown. How did it go? Well, like all first-time events, it was a learning experience and there were substantial logistical teething problems. On the plus side, it was relatively low cost to register and attend, which is definitely a step in the right direction. We’re still gathering data on attendee numbers and what real impact our presence had. The jury’s definitely out on that front.

Will in-person industry events ever return to what they were? I think some will continue or restart but having seen the disruption and financial impact of MWC’s last minute cancellation, it seems likely that event organizers will remain cautious about committing to major events for some time to come. Exhibitors are also going to think twice before signing up and paying through the nose for hotel rooms and flights. CES organizers is another major event that has now decided to run online-only next year.

In the meantime, until confidence returns, online events will continue to grow in importance, and they’ll mature to the point that we can do more, with more focus, at lower cost to the business and eating up less of everyone’s time.

Results from our own events show that people are getting more accustomed to attending and engaging, and I would like to think we’re getting better at organising events that ‘work’. There’s clearly some way to go to replace the lost value of face-to-face contact. That applies to some cultures/geographies more than others – but that’s another story.

Personally, I think there’s an opportunity for more hybrid events. DAC is a great example of an event that could reach out to a much wider audience if it was open to an online audience in addition to those who are local or happy to travel. It would be a shame to lose the personal contact from all in-person, ‘live’ events. But, if people are given the choice, then exhibitors get to interact with a wider audience, but we don’t lose the higher-value, in-person face-to-face contact. As we join forces with our new parent company, it will be interesting to see how our involvement with events changes.