Fostering social impact in a world of virtual and hybrid events

During the past few years, those working in the events sector have been paying more attention to how events can leave a positive social impact on destination locations. In the time of Covid, this noble mission has hit a stumbling block now that many events have gone virtual and many more will become hybrid in the future.

The challenge of maintaining social impact was the topic of the panel discussion ‘The Role of Social Impact and Legacy in Hybrid/Virtual Events’ which was held on 2 November at the European Convention Center Luxembourg as part of the 59th ICCA Congress 2020, for which Luxembourg served as regional co-host. The discussion involved three panelists and was moderated by Didier Scaillet, Director of the Events Industry Council.

Toward a clearer understanding of social impact

Geneviève Leclerc, CEO of Meet4Impact, which aims to help associations improve the social impact of their events, joined virtually. She emphasised that social impact goes beyond economic and short-term outputs, and that we should measure impacts as ‘post-event positive results’ that morph into ‘longer-term social change, for a society or a particular community’.

Ms Leclerc says that despite the shift away from physical gatherings, the conditions for continued social impact still exist, just in a different form. She says that 60 percent of the organisations that have put on virtual events this year have increased the number of participants, which shows that reach is expanding. Social media and online forums have also gone up in importance, with half of participants engaged in this manner, compared to 16 percent in pre-Covid times. In this regard, the events industry has been increasing its potential for impact with increased accessibility, diversity, and inclusion – resulting in more colleagues from developing countries in attendance, for example.

However, Ms Leclerc says the industry has not made enough progress in other areas, such as increasing attendee engagement overall. Also, the industry is not leveraging virtual events to increase social capital, nor are those working in the field doing enough to generate new forms of revenue or engagement from sponsors. ‘We haven't figured out the data and analytics we can leverage’, she says.

How a large medical association is continuing to create social impact

Also in attendance was Patricia Foo, Director Of Congress & Events for the European Respiratory Society (ERS), who also joined virtually. She said that prior to Covid, the ERS used to bring 23,000 to 24,000 attendees to a city for an event. A sister organisation called the European Lung Association (ELF) was usually tasked with engaging with the public and patients as part of the goal of positive social impact. For example, the ELF would reach out to inhabitants about their lung health and organise initiatives to educate and promote self-assessment. In some cases, the association even helped to kick-start clean air movements.

Now that events have gone virtual, this type of social impact has been difficult to maintain. Still, Ms Foo and her team try to be creative in order to continue their mission. They still reach out to delegates, albeit digitally, urging them to engage with their communities. The ELF has successfully run campaigns to encourage physical activity and solicit donations. Ms Foo also expressed enthusiasm about participation becoming more geographically widespread, saying that India, Mexico, and the Philippines have been showing much greater participation than before. Moving forward, she hopes to continue closing the global gap in terms of education. Also, more delegates from hospitals in developing nations have been able to attend events – a promising sign.

A return to physical events: still plausible

Riccardo Pizzutti, Marketing & Sales Manager of the Roma and Lazio Convention Bureau, also joined from a distance. He discussed the catastrophic effect that Covid has had not only on Rome and the region of Lazio, but on other major cities that had invested heavily in infrastructure for events. ‘We’re trying to develop a new perspective’, he said, admitting that it’s been hard. As for the social and economic impact, he believes that the industry will largely return to the way it was before Covid because people will still opt to participate in events physically rather than virtually. ‘The impact of knowledge will be greater than before’, he says, ‘but we need the social and economic to come back.’

A path toward more social impact 

Ms Leclerc says that while participants are being exposed to a range of educational content, the true measure of social impact will be shown by what they do with newfound knowledge – and if it’s used for long-term empowerment and action. Also, she says that destinations need to better showcase their economic sectors. While many destinations still rely on tourism videos, more innovative actors are creating spaces to promote local experts and industries and organise events to help their communities. Event organisers should keep their destination host really engaged, even if an event is virtual or hybrid, she says.

Key points

  • In order for social impacts to be considered substantial, they need to engender long-term social change in the community where an event is hosted.
  • The preconditions for social impact in an era of virtual and hybrid events already exist, including wider virtual participation that cuts across former geographical and economic barriers. The key is to capitalise on this opening up and build more engagement.
  • Associations can still create social impact by using social media and online platforms, and also by developing creative initiatives to foster engagement.