In 2020, virtual events took off. As societies around the world went into quarantine, and we couldn’t get together in person anymore, event creators and attendees found new ways to connect on Eventbrite. Even as in-person events have begun to return to our service, we’re finding that the success of virtual experiences has fundamentally changed the events landscape. Virtual events, our data suggests, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Need proof? Here’s our expert analysis of an eventful year’s worth of online programming.

A meaningful shift online

Despite the dizzying changes to daily life that took hold in early 2020, both creators and consumers got on board with virtual events fairly quickly. Our data shows that by June 2020, attendees were spending 28x more time attending virtual events than they had been in January 2020. In November, that figure jumped to 34x more than in January. In total this year, nearly 75 million attendees registered for more than one million virtual events on our platform and logged over 100 million hours.Eventbrite report

What accounts for these numbers? While nothing can replace the experience of live events in-person, virtual events have proved to be an excellent substitute. Eventbrite commissioned YouGov to conduct a global consumer survey of over 3,000 consumers in Australia, the UK, and the US. We found that 47% of respondents across all three countries agreed that online events are a good alternative to in-person events. In the UK, out of those who have attended an online event since the pandemic started, 53% agreed. Perhaps that’s because roughly 48% of those who’ve attended online events here reported feeling more connected to others afterwards.

Tellingly, more than half of respondents (53%) in Australia, the UK, and the US said they plan to attend both virtual and in-person events in the future – even when it is safe to gather in-person again. And event creators have taken notice.

“We are thrilled to have cultivated a sizable online audience for our programming,” said Dana Blanchard, head of publicity and marketing for publishing house Haymarket Books. With more than 26,000 subscribers on the company’s YouTube channel – many of them new – Blanchard said that Haymarket is planning to expand its online programming even further in spring 2021. “It’s exciting to create a space where people can come together,” she said.

Haymarket isn’t the only success story. UK creator, Migrateful, has also been enjoying the benefits of virtual events: “It’s a success story. Essentially, with the pandemic and having to go online, we’re now running a lot more classes and our chefs are really enjoying it. It’s a lot easier this way because you don’t have to have all the equipment. It also means that I’m able to reach communities all over the world, whereas before we were limited to London. People have also said that the learning experience is actually better because everyone’s in their own kitchen.”

Personal development, entertainment, and social justice: How people choose online events

Our platform data from 2020 indicates that virtual business and professional events reigned supreme in most markets. Together, they comprised a quarter of our global online inventory for 2020. Half of these events were in the format of a seminar, talk, class, training, or workshop. This suggests that as the year continued – and traditional, in-person avenues for personal growth stagnated – people remained hungry for personal development.

Events related to film, media, and entertainment also boomed. Escapism, it seems, was a major draw amid the challenges of 2020. We know this because the number of these online events stayed strong, with a remarkable 2,000–3,000 of them taking place each month since April. The numbers for visual and performing arts events are even more striking: Creators hosted nearly 4,000 such events in April and that trended upward throughout the year, growing by 74% from April to November.

“People need art,” said Jennifer Fabos Patton – the founder of the themed drawing class company, Gallery Girls. Patton began hosting online drawing and painting sessions with live models at the start of the pandemic and has been thrilled with their success. “It’s a creative outlet that lets people get out of their heads and away from the stress of life,” she continued. “I love that we have been able to hire models who lost all of their work when the pandemic happened.”

The ascent of other event categories also hints at broader global shifts. In the US, Australia, and the UK, virtual mental health events proved popular. It’s hard to imagine that the trend isn’t a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the following social and economic fallout. In the UK, demand for mental health virtual events seemed closely linked to lockdown periods, with interest peaking in May, dipping in August, and rising again through October.

The political landscape of 2020 – particularly events related to the Black Lives Matter movement and the US presidential election – also seems to have impacted how people spent their time online. The number of tickets issued for events related to government and politics climbed throughout the year (both in the US and the UK), and the percentage of paid tickets increased for that category. We saw a notable spike in events related to the Black Lives Matter movement in June, likely motivated by the May 25th death of George Floyd and the resulting discussion around issues of race and justice.

According to our survey, 48% of US respondents said they have become more informed on social justice issues and political issues since the pandemic. This mirrors what we’ve seen on our platform: Three of our most-attended virtual events of 2020 centred on social justice. “Ibram X. Kendi on How to Be an Antiracist” took the top spot, with more than 277,000 people registered to attend. Our ninth-ranked virtual event, “Uplifting Women and Girls of Color Through Antiracist Pedagogy, Practice, and Policies,” drew over 56,000 attendees.

Eventbrite data

How event creators made money

Prior to the pandemic, virtual events were not considered central to many of our creators’ businesses. But when COVID-19 hit, and many of our interactions shifted online, the virtual realm became a natural place for our creators to convene. While at first, they were unsure if they could generate value from virtual events, as the pandemic continued, our creators felt more comfortable charging for these events – and attendees were willing to pay. Sports and fitness events (anything from junior football games and yoga classes to quidditch leagues and walkathons) consistently recorded the highest share of paid tickets for virtual events, with about ⅓ of all events being paid for. As gyms and sports leagues shut down, and people missed the camaraderie of physical events, the share of paid tickets and the number of attendees increased.

Virtual events in the spheres of film, media, and entertainment also raked in more income, with the percentage of paid tickets in that category more than doubling from 16% in March to 34.4% in November. For example, by October, at least a third of all virtual museum tours charged a fee – a stark shift from April, when almost all of them were free. This may be proof that people are willing to pay for previously free content – especially when the physical doors of theatres, museums, and other venues remain shut.

Some event creators are developing best practices for hosting more profitable events. One successful method we’ve seen is event creators leveraging the power of their guests and hosts. “The artists who do the most to help us promote their event have the largest audiences,” explained Vito Rinaldo, a retired teacher turned entrepreneur, who founded the virtual concert venue TOF Productions this year. He’ll encourage future artists to tell others about his venue in 2021. Because Rinaldo can track attendee data from recurring events with Eventbrite, he’s seen trends that allow him and his artists to maximise their returns. “Thursdays falling before holiday weekends see a reduced attendance for obvious reasons,” he said. “We plan to avoid scheduling on those dates in 2021.”

Virtual travel helped creators reach new audiences

A major factor in the success of online events may be global attendance. We’ve found that virtual events hosted in the US and UK have attracted more than 30% of their attendees from other locations around the globe. Since there are no physical limitations on where attendees can be located, virtual events give creators a greater global reach. In the absence of language barriers and time zone constraints, there’s nothing stopping a person in Osaka, Japan, from attending a virtual lecture in Manchester.

Eventbrite report

One has to wonder whether in a year of limited travel, people have turned to online events as a means of visiting new places and indulging their itch to travel. According to Corey William Schneider, CEO and founder of New York Adventure Club (a community-driven club that offers tours, history seminars, and events focused on and in New York City), “Virtual tourism is not just here, but here to stay. COVID-19 forced the world to stay indoors and pursue all forms of entertainment from home, and when the pandemic subsides, I believe there will be events that people will prefer to do from home instead of in-person.”

Since starting to host virtual events in mid-March, New York Adventure Club’s audience has more than doubled: “70% come from the Greater New York Area, but around 25% are other domestic ‘visitors’ from coast to coast. A smaller fraction is international viewers, though I’m sure it would grow if we offered events at times of day that better suited them.” It’s clear from William’s audience that the appetite to “visit” New York through one of the club’s virtual webinars is strong.

Due to the success he’s seen expanding his audience through virtual tourism, Schneider has no plans to slow down. “I plan to restart our in-person events with the goal of complementing our virtual side of the business. I’m still figuring out the details of the rollout, but I feel the future is a hybrid approach.”

Looking to 2021

With the future of COVID-19 still uncertain, virtual events are likely to remain a popular supplement to in-person events. The results of our Inside Look Report suggest that creators may miss out on a promising growth opportunity if they don’t start offering online events alongside in-person events. When the pandemic eventually draws to a close, creators who have a strong online presence may be able to leverage their demonstrated success and established online audiences to improve their businesses’ long-term bottom line. But the benefits of online programming go beyond financial incentives.

“Perhaps the silver lining of this pandemic is that online events have the power to globally engage communities in new ways, helping creators bring people together from small communities to far-reaching corners of the world,” shared Julia Hartz, co-founder and CEO of Eventbrite. “That’s something to celebrate as we continue to work toward the safe return of in-person events.”