That was the question addressed during an engaging session at the International Association of Exhibitions and Events Mid Year Meeting in Boston—which was streamed live to a virtual audience.

The two face-to-face/virtual hybrid sessions broadcast live from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on July 13 were the first for IAEE. (The other was called “Exhibition and Events Industry Makeover.”) Will hybrid events become commonplace? If so, are they good for the industry—and meeting planners? Nearly 60 attendees in Boston and 25 participating virtually offered a range of experiences and opinions.

While there are some growing pains associated with virtual meetings, the panelists, along with many in the audience, agreed that virtual meetings complement, not cannibalize, face-to-face events. One of the main reasons associations are interested in virtual meetings is to reach members who don’t attend the physical meetings, said session moderator Melinda Kendall, vice president, business development, Immersa Marketing, San Francisco. On average, only about 30 percent of members regularly attend an association’s annual convention, she said.

Virtual events also can generate additional revenue, provide education or information to members year-round, and create community, she added. Overall, about 13 percent of associations have a virtual event platform, while another 28 percent plan to have one within the next 12 months, she added, citing a recent survey.

For panelist Chris Brown, executive vice president, conventions and business operations, at National Association of Broadcasters, virtual events promote the physical annual meeting. NAB bookended its annual convention in April with a pre-show virtual meeting in January and a post-show virtual meeting in June. Brown said 4,000 attendees, 15 exhibitors, and three sponsors participated in the one-day pre-show event, while about 5,000 registered for the post-show meeting in June—with about the same number of sponsors and exhibitors.

Pre-show, the content included previews of sessions planned for the April convention, plus content from past shows that pertained to issues that would be addressed at the convention. Virtual participants received $100 off their registration fee for the face-to-face convention. Post-show, the virtual meeting featured archived content from the annual meeting, so participants could access sessions from the convention.

Did it work? About 1,100 of the 4,000 virtual meeting attendees also went to the annual convention. Brown doesn’t know how many would have gone anyway, but he’s hopeful that the virtual meeting caused some to attend who wouldn’t have otherwise.

A few audience members in the free-flowing discussion said virtual meetings are great for delivering content and education but not so great for exhibitions. “Virtual events are well suited for DOI—dissemination of information,” said one audience member. “I have not yet seen a virtual event that is successful at connecting buyers and sellers as commerce.” That’s because when it comes to making buying decisions, people need to touch and interact with products, he said. Another participant echoed those thoughts, saying that his association got raves for the content delivered by its virtual meeting, but low marks from virtual exhibitors who saw little activity.

But panelist John Grosshandler, director of virtual engagement at Maritz, reported seeing a lot of commerce conducted in virtual booths and cited a recent example where a client had a 72 percent rate of virtual exhibitor renewal. The key, he believes, is to approach exhibitors differently and manage their expectations. “If we are promising a face-to-face level of engagement, we are going to let people down. It would never be as engaging as a face-to-face exhibition,” he said. To have a successful virtual exhibition, exhibitors must be teach their representatives how to interact with customers in a virtual environment through the various channels—like e-mail, video chat, instant messages, or phone. One association actually showed a live shot of the physical booth on the trade show floor in its virtual booth, he said.

The other key, added panelist Mark McCourt, president, Dalani Media, Berwyn, Pa., is to have the right people staffing the virtual booth—salespeople, not technology people.

An online participant said virtual exhibits shouldn’t try to be like physical booths—instead, they should focus on things that are easier to do in a virtual environment than amid the hustle and bustle of a show floor, such as demonstrations, tutorials, and education.

Grosshandler pointed out that virtual exhibitions have not been around as long as other technologies that have really taken off, such as webinars, so they still need time to evolve. He believes that virtual events are no flash in the pan but are here to stay—as friend, not foe.