By Lauren Trieschmann

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new and uncharted obstacles for brands in the food and beverage space, perhaps most notably the cancelation of all in-person events and tastings. Over the last year and a half, brands have had to get creative in order to engage audiences through reimagined “virtual” events, branded mailers, and social media initiatives designed to appeal to housebound media, influencers, and consumers.

Fast forward to summer 2021 and over 57% of adults in the U.S. have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine, with substantially higher figures in major metropolitan areas like New York (67%) and San Francisco (80%). The economy has reopened, demand for air travel has soared, and brands are slowly but surely beginning to host live events again.

This all begs the question: will virtual events remain relevant? And what are the advantages, if any, over in-person events as society begins to return to “normal”?

While most Americans now have the ability to eat at restaurants, shop for groceries, and attend concerts without enforced distancing or mask requirements, there are still many factors to consider when it comes to planning events where guests feel comfortable and safe. As we return to live events, frequently asked questions from invitees might include: Are all guests required to show proof of vaccination? What measures, if any, are the host and/or venue taking to ensure the safety of guests? And lastly, what is the host doing to provide a truly unique and memorable experience that cannot be replicated with a virtual event format?

Below, we’ve shared an array of challenges, advantages, and key learnings for brands to consider when deciding whether to host an event in-person or stick to a virtual format.

Challenges:

Perhaps the biggest challenge brands are tasked with is creating a virtual event experience that is truly noteworthy and sets them apart from the crowd. By now, we’re all too familiar with the term “Zoom fatigue,” and brands must consider how to keep their audience engaged through the computer screen – whether through an interactive demo, virtual site tour, or Q&A with a special guest.

Speaking of computer screens, another factor to consider when planning a virtual event is the use of technology. Whether it’s poor internet connection or a guest who can’t quite seem to figure out the mute/unmute function, it’s crucial for brands to anticipate and get ahead of any technological hurdles ahead of time.

Last but certainly not least, logistics are everything when putting together a virtual event. When hosting an at-home wine tasting, for instance, it’s important to ensure that samples arrive well in advance and that someone is present to receive and sign for the package.

Advantages:

While virtual events come with their fair share of challenges, the advantages should not be overlooked, even as media and influencers become increasingly comfortable returning to live events. First and foremost, virtual events allow brands to reach guests in various markets across the country, and in some cases, even abroad. This also presents an advantage for the host, allowing brands to bring in partners and co-hosts from anywhere outside of their immediate region – such as a mixologist to present a step-by-step cocktail demo, or a renowned chef to discuss food and drink pairings.

Another advantage to virtual events is that they can typically be executed with a smaller budget than live events, as brands no longer need to factor in venue rental fees, guest transportation, and catering, among other considerations. This might be of particular importance to brands that have experienced a loss of revenue as a direct effect of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way in which many of us live, work, and socialize, and it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone feels comfortable attending large gatherings alongside strangers after over a year spent at home. The continuation of virtual events allows media and influencers to ease back into normalcy at a gradual pace, without pushing guests beyond their comfort zone.

Key Learnings:

With a virtual event format, brands can take advantage of having a captive audience. Unlike live events, where guests might be seated at the opposite end of the table as the host or become distracted by side conversations, a well-executed online event allows brands to command the attention of attendees from start to finish with minimal disruptions.

That being said, it’s important to ideate a virtual event that’s engaging and multi-faceted in order to hold the interest of your audience (again, this is where “Zoom fatigue” comes into play). Consider incorporating a special guest speaker, live demo where guests can follow along from home, or another surprise element to keep attendees interested in the subject at hand. Custom mailer boxes – especially those that make for an “Insta-worthy” unboxing – are another great way to engage guests from home.

While technology is not always predictable, it’s important to outline clear instructions for all event participants ahead of time. When sending a reminder note to guests, provide detailed directions for logging on and what to expect in regards to event format. Similarly, hosts should plan a virtual “dress rehearsal” prior to the event to run through logistics and ensure everything is working properly well in advance of showtime.

Only time will tell if virtual events are here to stay, but the pandemic has shown us that this format does in fact have its share of advantages, even in a post-pandemic world. Have additional questions about the pros and cons of virtual events? Reach out to our team to learn more.