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How to Make Virtual Exhibitions Work for You

I've spent quite some time researching online to see if I can find statistics on the effectiveness of virtual meetings, conferences and exhibitions. As seems to be the case with most digital strategies, that's a hard bit of data to come by. It seems like there is a huge lag-time between when a digital trend becomes popular, and when the bean counters get around to quantifying the ROI of the technology. I'm still searching though, so let me know if there are places I should be looking.

What seems to be universally accepted is that yes, online or virtual events are very effective, and growing in popularity. There are a number of reasons why that popularity is so evident, and perhaps a clue as to why not that many people are trying to lay out comparative statistics between virtual and real-time events. They're very different, and I don't think anyone is ready to suggest that in-person events should be totally replaced by digital ones. I wonder though how long we will be able to justify their expense.

The benefits are pretty well obvious, and hard to argue with. A real-time art exhibition, concert, conference, or class requires an investment in a venue. That can be a very large budget item, as well as a nightmare to schedule. There are logistical considerations with chairs and tables, catering. reception desks, staffing, equipment, swag, transportation, lodging, advertising, insurance, security. cleaners, entertainment, coordination with vendors, speakers, etc... These events are a significant undertaking for any company, let alone for a small business or gallery. Musicians face similar obstacles with concert productions. I get chills just thinking about it. We hosted a one night event just before the pandemic hit that set us back $5,000, and only realized about 150 guests, and three sales.

How many more could I have reached if I had opened the one day show with a virtual component? Instead of a single night, the experience could have been available for a year, and reached potential collectors from all around the globe. With photos and video of the reception, quick interviews of the crowd, a posted resume, artist statement and access to high quality images for sale online... Why in the world didn't I think of that then?

Virtual events are clearly far less expensive to produce. And that may justify their existence full stop. There is far less to organize, though it will require more technological skills than most of us have at our fingertips. If something goes wrong in a meeting room, I can jump in and arrange chairs... I can't do that with a sound mixer, or a livestream broadcast. But without a doubt there is a huge financial benefit to hosting an online event. Equally obvious is the time consideration. A gallery show may last a few weeks, with one reception event. A conference may last only two or three days, and a concert or entertainment event may only last an hour or two. The same presentations in a virtual atmosphere can last indefinitely, or certainly much longer than a real-time event.

Obviously the coronavirus pandemic has necessitated many, many scheduled events to be cancelled or postponed, and virtual meetings, classes. and shows have started to crop up everywhere. As so many were unprepared for this surprise tragedy, some of that content is sketchy at best. Virtual corporate and educational events have been developing since the 1990s, and they have had the funds, talent, and time to get much better at these sorts of presentations. Small businesses, clubs, organizations and individuals have jumped in only recently, and still have a lot to learn.

The most important thing to remember is that we will never completely replace the in-person experience. We shouldn't try to replace it. But we need to be professional enough about any virtual component to treat it with the same amount of seriousness, with the same attention to quality and entertainment value as someone would experience in person. Not the same obviously, but equally excellent an experience should be available online. So the question is not whether or not virtual events work for creatives, but rather what do you need as a creative entrepreneur, to make online experiences work for you and your business?

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