Virtual Events Are Booming. Will It Last? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because there are other advantages to online events.

By Joshua Eferighe

It was less than two weeks before the wedding when everything changed. Justin Pando, 29, and his then-fiancée, Maryssa Medley, 28, had been together six years and were preparing to welcome more than 100 guests to their March 28 wedding when COVID-19 crashed the party.

So, with just 48 hours to go, they switched to Zoom. The couple, who both work for tech organizations, had their friends and family drop by digitally to celebrate their love. “I knew we were going to do something that was unorthodox and local,” Justin tells me. 

The now happily married couple is just one who’ve had to pivot to digital events. Videoconferencing platforms across the globe have been experiencing unprecedented traffic not just from work-from-home business meetings but from another essential component to the societal fabric: the need to party, quarantine or no quarantine.

Apps like Zoom and Houseparty have seen their stock prices and downloads skyrocket. And much of that may be events. In fact, according to statistics from invitation company Evite:

The number of virtual gatherings grew 1,130 percent from March 2019 to March 2020.

Evite started off 22 years ago as an event invitation company — a way to organize events offline and let people know where to go. Since the spread of the virus, however, they’ve made changes to accommodate the rapidly growing digital space, adding new designs specifically for virtual gatherings, such as “Happy Hour From Home.” In addition, invitations can now be turned into a virtual party with just one click thanks to their new fully integrated live video chat feature. “Frankly, receiving an Evite invitation is a bit more fun than just a plain Google calendar invite or Zoom link,” says the CEO of Evite, Victor Cho. Before the COVID-19 spike, virtual events represented 0.1 percent of all events in the Evite system. As of last month, 70 percent of events thrown via Evite are happening online.

Those events encompass every big life moment: birthdays, cocktail parties, weddings, funerals. People in quarantine have realized you can pretty much do the same things you wanted to do in person from home — and while it may not be the same as going to an actual wedding, it’s better than not having human contact at all. Evite’s business in years past has been dominated by birthdays, and that hasn’t changed — but Cho says the biggest shift recently has been the growth of casual get-togethers like happy hours, which represented 13 percent of all virtual events last month.

Zoom is another example. Although predominantly used for offices before the virus, the videoconference platform can also host events that aren’t business-related, like karaoke nights or trivia quizzes.

In Justin and Maryssa’s case, Zoom’s webinar feature was key for their online wedding. During the ceremony, the attendees could see them but not one another — similar to a live stream — but afterward, during the virtual reception, they switched modes to allow everyone to socialize independently, talk and make toasts. “All of our friends were able to use the chat feature and write us messages in real time during the ceremony and we recorded it all, so we have a document of all the chat. It’s almost like a live guest book,” Maryssa says. 

Of course, once quarantine eventually ends and people can gather IRL once more, such virtual events will likely see a drop-off. Even while the crisis continues, Cho says, it’s possible that virtual events will lose their luster as stressed people feel virtually overscheduled even if they never have to put on real pants. Even people starved for company need a break from screens occasionally. But Pando says the experience has taught him something new. “This has really opened my eyes in terms of what being connected means and what we need to do to in order to keep that feeling alive,” he says. Not only did their digital wedding cost very little, it also saw a higher turnout than they’d expected for the live event. So maybe virtual gatherings will get a permanent boost now that people realize their potential — and have all the apps downloaded and ready to go.

Next, virtual events spaces will need to figure out how to recreate a digital honeymoon.

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Maryssa Medley’s name.

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