Niko Woischnik should have been in Berlin this summer overseeing Tech Open Air, the tech and startup conference he founded but like everyone else in 2020, his plans were turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tech Open Air, or TOA, is usually one of the biggest stops on the European tech conference calendar.

Like many conference organisers who have been turned upside down by lockdowns, Woischnik turned his attention to virtual events as a stand-in. It wouldn’t quite be the same but it was better than nothing.

In recent months the organisers have been toying with different models for online events such as TOA Meet, a networking platform, and TOA On Air, a podcast style show featuring founder interviews, including with Wordpress’s Matt Mullenweg.

One thing was clear from these efforts: a virtual event is not simply a case of transplanting all the participants into a Zoom call.

Woischnik said TOA turned to its network, amassed over years of running the physical event in Berlin, to find out what they’re actually looking for when they come to a conference.

“There was very consistent feedback in the sense that it revolves around three core needs,” he said. Those three needs can be described as learning, seeking inspiration and networking.

“Now let's experiment with developing formats that cater specifically to those three needs.”

By running a series of isolated events during the summer, TOA is now planning to run a much bigger digital event in October that brings all of these together.

It’s a new frontier but in recent months, a standard for pulling off these events has been gradually established.

In June, Web Summit moved its sister event Collision entirely online. Usually due to be held in Toronto with around 30,000 attendees, the organisers moved quickly to build out new software for live streaming talks and workshops that could handle large user numbers.

Collision and TOA may be proving that certain aspects of tech conferences can translate well virtually but there are still pain points.

Woischnik said that the trickiest part is recreating the networking experience. TOA Meet repurposed its matchmaking software for networking into a digital setting to connect people based on their individual needs, whether it’s recruitment, funding or business development.

“It was encouraging to see how even in the virtual space, these conversations and networking and meeting people can actually work.”

Another initiative is TOA Skills, a platform for running workshops and break-out sessions digitally.

Business model

While event organisers have responded to the Covid-19 crisis by going digital, many uncertainties remain, namely around the business model of the future.

Tech conference tickets can be hefty expenses, veering into the high hundreds, so what should people expect to pay for a digital event?

“That's an interesting question that we haven't answered yet fully to be honest so it's something that we experiment with, we've had free tickets, we've had paid tickets,” Woischnik said.

The “experimental” nature of TOA – which raised funding from investors not long after the onset of the pandemic – will see a hybrid model for the October show with free tickets for startups and paid ones for larger companies and investors.

Thus far Woischnik has found that price sensitivity is higher for a virtual event. Meanwhile the costs of running a virtual event are much lower.

“Whether that results in a better business model or a worse business model is too early to say for us. I would say on the ticket sales side it's hard to say,” he said.

“On the sponsorship side I would say that the budgets have not yet shifted all the way to virtual. I think we see from our corporate partners that there is interest in experimenting with virtual but they have not taken their budgets for physical events and invested into virtual.”

Despite that uncertainty, digital events right now are a must for the conference business if it wants to survive.

Gatherings like Tech Open Air, Web Summit, Slush and the many others that happen around Europe during a normal year are unlikely to return any time soon, at least not in the way we knew them.

Much will depend on how the virus can be suppressed for good and ultimately when or if a vaccine becomes available.

Until then, virtual events will have to plug the gap.

“I do expect the revenue for virtual events to really significantly grow and take a significant chunk of overall event expenditure for our corporate partners even in a world where we are back to physical events,” Woischnik said.

“It's definitely wait and see. I'm not too optimistic that we will be back in 2021 to the degree that we were last year, neither in revenue or event guidelines on the type of events that will be allowed.

“At this point in time, we cannot plan 2021 to be a year like 2019.”