By Derek McFerran

AS Covid-19 forces the cancellation of conferences worldwide, environmentalists are using the opportunity to call for their virtual replacements to become the future.

It’s an idea that’s not been given serious airtime until now – melting ice caps and wildfires certainly weren’t on the minds of most businesses as delegates travelled the world to sell their wares – but lockdown has seen great numbers successfully attend virtual gatherings. So, should we really consider making virtual conferences the new norm?

I know they’re not perfect. So far, large scale virtual events have been a quick fix, scrambled together with little preparation to meet delegates’ needs in this unprecedented time. The technology and infrastructure is already there but people need skills – and the time to learn them – to experience these platforms’ greatest potential. We’re already seeing usage of tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, skyrocket as companies take to the virtual world, so there’s a solid foundation to build on. With further innovation, and an open-mindedness to what the virtual world can bring, we could drastically improve our environment.

Let your imagination wonder for a moment and take yourself back to the fluid networking scenes, over drinks or lunch in a foreign city, where it felt more natural to single out a new business prospect and spark up a conversation. This is still possible – it will take a slightly different shape, true – but virtual conferences needn’t hold us back from these experiences.

This isn’t sci-fi fantasy – this reality is well within touching distance. We have a magical toolbox of tech gadgets at our disposal – from VR headsets, to the ability to create our own avatars and user profiles – it’s just that technology hasn’t been demanded in this way before by the masses.

From my own experiences of virtual conferences, there’s equal potential to come away with as many new business opportunities as I would have, had I attended in person. And while it’s true that, in their current form, speaking to people online doesn’t quite have the same effect, the direct nature of video conferencing can help build relationships quickly. And, after all, isn’t efficiency something we want in business?

There is considerable value in the scheduled, speed-dating-style video networking slots. Planned one-to-ones can be a key part of conference attendance and we’re seeing this trend grow in the virtual world - partnering with a certainty of taking place, can be where virtual conferences excel.

And it may prove a more valuable world for those who don’t take naturally to the networking scene, but nonetheless, have lots to offer.

Do we risk losing real connections that come with authentic human interaction? Do we need that personal bond if technology can give us the benefits of a strong relationship without the groundwork and upkeep? Could this efficient, data-driven approach in fact help us eradicate nepotism and personal business “favours” that taint working life? Businesses need relationships – but perhaps what type exactly is yet to be determined as normality changes.

I’m not arguing that we abandon “real” conferences altogether. But we must weigh up the true value of being there in person against the sacrifice we make to the environment with each industry meet. Appetite for radical change is growing – it’s time we seize it for the good of our planet.

Derek McFerran is Business Development Director, Intelligent Tissue Group