Virtual vs. In-Person Events: What Works Best for Science Marketers in 2023 and Beyond

Explore the key benefits and differences between virtual vs. in-person events and how each format can complement the other

By C&EN Media Group

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In-person events are back with a renewed energy and enthusiasm as trade show coordinators merge the lessons learned through the pandemic with on-site meeting advantages to create an optimal experience. The cancellation of conferences during the pandemic highlighted how in-person events offer unique value by promoting an exchange of ideas and connecting people through a common occurrence. With the emergence of virtual and hybrid events, we developed experiential tools that we can leverage to enhance all events moving forward. While there isn’t anything quite like face-to-face relationship building, merging some of the tactics from virtual and hybrid events with in-person events enables organizers to maximize their reach and impact. In this post, we’ll explore the key benefits and differences between virtual vs. in-person events and how each format can complement the other.

Why are in-person events so important?

Networking is essential. Now, more than ever, there is a unified understanding of the value that in-person networking opportunities provide. The Las Vegas Sun reported that more than 628,000 people visited Las Vegas for a convention in October 2022, up 32% from the same month in 2021 and up 20% from October 2019. Trade shows and in-person events are back and finally returning to their pre-pandemic prominence as people recognize more and more the benefits they bring.

Our C&EN BrandLab team attended the 2022 Welch Conference on Chemical Research where they spoke to attendees about the past, present and future of science conferences. It was the event’s first in-person meeting since the start of the pandemic and attendees shared anecdotes on the importance of face-to-face scientific gatherings. Among the stories collected by BrandLab was an account by Stanford chemist Carolyn Bertozzi on how an encounter at a scientific meeting helped her make headway in research that would earn her the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

In-person events make space for an exchange of ideas. Whether they be big or small, new ideas boost enthusiasm for science and can generate progress. By connecting people through a common thread, there are endless chances for thought-provoking conversations, presentations, and healthy debate to revamp assumptions and entice people to engage. Not to mention those chance encounters can lead to opportunities that yield lasting collaborations and kickstart new projects. According to a study out of Northwestern University, participants who formed fruitful collaborations interacted with one another 63% more at in-person conferences than participants who did not form collaborations. And participants who interacted with others in small-group settings at in-person conferences were eight times more likely to enter into new collaborations.

How can in-person events impact sales?

Not only do in-person meetings provide opportunities to build relationships, they also provide important opportunities for B2B connections as attendees often have buying power.

ACS Spring 2023 exhibitor Thermo Fisher Scientific share their latest products on the Expo floor.

A survey of ACS Expo attendees showed that 61% are involved in the purchasing process. A quarter of ACS Spring 2022 attendees said they were more likely to do business with sponsors due to their participation in the event. “ACS Expo has always been a much more efficient and informative way to find and purchase products,” says Lab Coordinator Pamela Nagafuji of the University of Colorado Denver. Instead of scheduling multiple onsite visits, Pamela says events like ACS Fall and Spring meetings allow her to explore upcoming purchases with vendors she is already familiar with, and discover new vendors that she hopes to work with in the future. “The value of the face-to-face conversations, for me, is irreplaceable.”

Pamela’s experience at ACS Expo aligns with other reports within the meetings and events industry. Trade Show News Network interviewed industry leaders about their predictions for 2023. A common theme was a belief that there is nothing like face-to-face interaction for relationship building and that nothing can replace the tactile experience of seeing and feeling products in the field. With the increased enthusiasm, energy, and attendance of customers at these events, there’s no sign of slowing down for the trade show business anytime soon.

What are some of the benefits virtual events provide?

In-person meetings have been important for years to promote research, education, and career development and provide networking opportunities to introduce new technologies. During the pandemic, we had to adapt, which spawned a new category of virtual events that provide their own unique benefits. Consider all the advantages highlighted in our previous post on virtual events including lower cost, trackable lead generation, and lower environmental impact.

Huge value is added by enabling more people to attend via virtual options. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the shift to virtual formats significantly increased the number of countries represented by more than two-fold. Keeping these avenues open in 2023 and beyond will continue to help promote broad representation at events and allow smaller companies with lower budgets to participate even if they aren’t able to send an in-person team.

How can we leverage the benefits of virtual events to enhance in-person ones?

There is vast potential to apply digital solutions and data to create more efficient and effective experiences for customers or potential buyers attending live events.

Illustration of a science webinar presentation
Webinars have proven to be an effective virtual event tool for engaging a target audience and providing a platform for thought-sharing and productive conversation. View our tips on optimizing your webinars.

Through the past couple of years, we have learned that digital is not an equal replacement for the trade show model, but it can help create a more meaningful experience through the use of virtual tools. The pandemic accelerated interest and comfortability with virtual meeting tools like Zoom. Web conferencing platforms continue to be heavily utilized even after many employees have returned to the office. Companies should lean into the fact that most people are now comfortable using this kind of technology and consider a digital component to any in-person event.

Going forward, utilizing the lessons and tools we learned through virtual events in conjunction with in-person events is a viable strategy to capitalize on the benefits of both formats. Organizers of these meetings are getting better and better at creating an experience that allows attendees to choose how they participate while still making space for the networking and collaboration opportunities that events are intended to provide.

What digital components will you look for in your next in-person event? For more helpful guides like this, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter.