In 2020, virtual events took off in a big way. As the world went into quarantine and our ability to gather in person stalled, event creators and attendees found new ways to connect on Eventbrite. Even as in-person events have begun to return to the platform, we’re finding that the success of virtual gatherings has fundamentally changed the event 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 onboard 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 of 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 Eventbrite and logged over 100 million hours. 

What accounts for these numbers? While nothing can replace the experience of live events, virtual events have nonetheless proved an excellent substitute. According to a global consumer survey we commissioned by YouGov of over 3,000 consumers in Australia, the UK, and the US, 47% of respondents agreed that online events are a good alternative to in-person events. Perhaps that’s because roughly 44% of those who’ve attended online events reported feeling more connected to others afterwards, and more than a quarter (26%) of those who’ve attended online events since the pandemic began said they’ve made new connections through virtual experiences. 

Tellingly, more than half of respondents (53%) 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.

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

In 2020, Eventbrite platform data revealed that virtual business and professional events reigned supreme in most markets. Together, they comprised a quarter of Eventbrite’s global online inventory for 2020. Half of them were either “seminar or talk” or “class, training, or workshop” formats, suggesting 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 loomed large. Escapism, it seems, was a major draw amid the doom and gloom of 2020. We know this because the number of these online events stayed strong — a remarkable 2,000-3,000 of them a month — 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 74 percent 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 head and away from the stress of life,” she continued. “I love that we have been able to hire models who lost all 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 was closely linked to lockdown periods, with interest peaking in May, dipping in August, and rising again through October.

The political landscape of 2020 — particularly the 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 government and political-related events climbed throughout the year, and the percentage of paid tickets increased for that category. We saw a notable spike in related events in June, likely motivated by the protests that were organized following the May 25th death of George Floyd.

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 Eventbrite’s most-attended virtual events of 2020 centered 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.

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, Eventbrite creators felt more comfortable charging for their virtual events—and attendees were willing to pay. Sports and fitness events (anything from minor league soccer 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 paid. As gyms and sports leagues shut down and people became desperate for the camaraderie of physical events, the share of paid tickets and 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 percent in March to 34.4 percent 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 gratis content — especially when the physical doors of theaters, 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 for event creators to leverage 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 virtual venue entrepreneur who this year founded the virtual concert venue TOF Productions. He’ll encourage future artists to help spread the word in 2021. Because Rinaldo can track attendee data from recurring events with Eventbrite, he’s seen trends that allow him and his artists to maximize 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 online events’ success may be global attendance. Eventbrite found that virtual events hosted in the US and UK attracted more than 30% of their attendees from other locations around the globe. The main reason is that there aren’t practical physical limitations on where attendees can be located with virtual events. In the absence of language barriers and time zone constraints, there’s no reason why a person in Osaka, Japan, can’t attend a virtual lecture in Kalamazoo, Michigan. 

One has to wonder if in a year when most travel abruptly ground to a halt, 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 exclusive 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 grown by over 100%. “70% are in the Greater New York Area, but around 25% are other domestic ‘visitors’ from coast to coast. A smaller fraction are 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 his 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 acknowledged no plan to slow down. “I plan to restart our in-person events with the goal of complimenting our virtual side of the business. I’m still figuring out the details on the rollout, but 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 this Eventbrite Inside Look Report make it clear that creators may miss out unless they invest in virtual events. When the pandemic draws to a close — whenever that may be — creators with strong online presences may be in a position to leverage their demonstrated success and 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 town America 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.”