A recent PULSE survey found that a whopping 81 percent of meeting organizers are planning to hold their next in-person event this year. Although 59% of those meetings will happen in the second half of 2021, that doesn’t leave much time for circumstances surrounding COVID-19 to change. Not surprisingly, people inside and outside the industry have voiced conflicting feelings. While the vaccine is rapidly becoming available to the public and many regions are completely re-opening sans mask mandates, safety is still a major concern for in-person events.
How Do Event Creators and Attendees Feel About Returning to In-Person Events?
Understandably, some event creators are excitedly embracing the reopening of events- and many are beginning this process with safety as their priority. For example, in England, Coalition Event Services’ Craig Wilkinson opened a London Fields-based bar early in 2020. When it closed due to the shutdown, he was forced to compensate for lost revenue by launching The Great British Drive-In. This is just one example of how event creators are using outdoor events to dip their feet in the water before diving into a full return to in-person events.
Also in England: Piotr Krzymowski, co-founder of a designer fashion reseller called Loop Generation, recently hosted the company’s first pop-up shop since the shutdown began last year. Although Krzymowski had typical concerns about post-lockdown logistics and reception of the event, it was an overwhelming success. In fact, he says it was Loop Generation’s most successful event to date. So while public health concerns still loom large over the industry as a whole, it stands to reason that many people are eager to reconnect with the world beyond a screen. For a year, virtual events have provided attendees all over the world with a way to stay connected socially and professionally. But at the end of the day, even the most authentic virtual experiences can’t negate the value of in-person interaction.
That said, the mixed feelings about the reopening of in-person events abound. And some attendees care more about the content than they do the destination. Mihai Strusievici, chief officer at Colliers International Group Inc., says he has attended more events during the lockdown than he typically does in a year. He likes being able to choose exactly what events/sessions he needs rather than traveling to waste valuable time on content he doesn’t need. His sentiments have been echoed by many attendees whose purpose for attending meetings involve professional development and education. Not only do virtual events sometimes allow for more personalization and independent navigation, they don’t require attendees to spend time and money on travel. Although virtual events were the only choice for most of last year, they have their perks, one of them being convenience.
Furthermore, a recent Martech survey asked over 300 marketers to rate their likelihood to attend an in-person event in the first half of 2021. On average, respondents gave it only a 3 out of 10 percent chance. Optimism about re-opening in-person events depends heavily on the efficacy and accessibility of the COVID-19 vaccine. In January, the Biden Administration announced that they aimed to have enough vaccines for most Americans by the summer, which is rapidly approaching.
Hybrid Events: A Safer Solution
How is the industry responding to mixed opinions among event creators and attendees? One possible way to ease safely back into in-person events comes in the form of hybrid events. Hybrid events allow event creators to offer attendees a choice. Obviously, some people prefer to attend conferences and other events in person; others have safety concerns and special considerations that would still prevent them from attending an in-person event at this time. Hybrid events accommodate both groups- but obviously this requires some cooperation between event creators and venues.
Some key safety concerns for hybrid and in-person events include food and beverage handling, live streaming for online participation, sterilization and social distancing, and biosecurity. Which brings us another matter: event tech. Increasingly, event creators are relying on event tech to mitigate risk for in-person events.
Even after the lockdown is completely over, we don’t expect hybrid events to fade into the background. Advancements in technology have allowed event creators to curate unique, authentic virtual experiences that would not have been possible just five years ago. In a busy world that just keeps getting busier, the remote option is essential. Large corporations are catching onto that and investing in the kind of tech that improves remote experiences. Slowly but surely, AI and AR software and other materials are becoming more affordable and accessible to small businesses.
How Will Event Tech Make Hybrid and In-Person Events Safer?
Jim Sharpe, CEO of Aventri, had some interesting things to share on the matter. According to Sharpe, “technology is paving the way for a safe comeback to live events”. That’s a broad, powerful statement, but what does this contribution to safety look like? Sharpe shared that Aventri is exploring a “more holistic route to safety capability” through partnerships and innovations.
That may sound vague to those of us with average tech savvy, but hopefully it translates to progress. There’s talk of venues providing infrastructure for testing and sending data to an event app. The roles of venues versus tech providers is still unclear. CEO of EventMobi, Bob Vaez, asserts that some tracking and control responsibilities should be relegated to venues. After all, they have the best knowledge of their own infrastructures. He points out that venues are familiar with the ins and outs of their own hardware, which may be involved in temperature checks, crowd control, or contact tracing.
Virtual Events Are Here to Stay
It’s unanimous: Even after society returns to “normal”, virtual events will remain an important thread in the tapestry of a changing industry. Before they became the only option, virtual events were gaining global popularity. In 2019, the virtual events industry was already worth nearly $78 billion. With the advances in technology, a stay-at-home economy has transformed from a fantasy to an evolving reality. And during the pandemic, companies have necessarily made sizable investments in the infrastructure required to deliver goods to our homes quickly. Walmart, Target, and other large chains have had to transform their stores into centers in which deliveries could be sent out. Otherwise, they could not have remained relevant in a stay-at-home economy.
In other words, we were already accustomed to being catered to by technology, and now we’re used to even faster, more efficient service. What has been a necessity during the lockdown will become a luxury most of us take for granted.
That said, people’s habits have changed to adapt to a stay-at-home economy. Becoming more adept at using certain technologies, including those needed to make the most of virtual events, has enabled people to survive the pandemic. Hemant Mohapatra, an India-based partner for the VC firm Lightspeed Venture, openly stated his belief in the laziness of the human species. If given the option, he believes that most of us will opt for “the shortest path from A to B”.
What’s more, event tech startup Bizzabo changed its model to support online events, and eventually secured $138 million of funding to that end. In a growing trend, emergent startups have attracted the attention of high-profile investors such as Founders Fund and Sequoia. The result is an increasingly hybrid world that shows no sign of slowing down.
If you’re an event creator, you’ve likely been inundated with articles about how to boost engagement at virtual events. There’s even been speculation that digital ad revenue could replace sponsorship at pertinent levels. But although generating free content is an easy way to increase online traffic, it doesn’t replace actual ticket sales and investors needed to improve digital content. The transition to a hybrid world requires not just a shift in resources and accessibility, but in communication with consumers.
What do consumers want, and how does that translate to higher engagement? Better, easier-to-use surveys and live polling have strengthened the connection between brands and their virtual events. With people spending more time than ever on social media, the pandemic has actually been an ideal time to improve social media marketing. TikTok rose from relative obscurity to popularity due to a growing need to connect online during the lockdown. One-on-one connections took on new importance in the absence of in-person interaction, and platforms are looking to monetize that trend.
It’s also worth mentioning that AR tech is becoming more affordable and accessible for small business owners. Virtual shopping has been enhanced by AR features that allow customers to interact with products rather than just view them. The projected global market of virtual fitting room technology is expected to reach $10 billion by 2027. AR is also used to make navigation easier and smoother at virtual events, create authentic demos, and enable telework. And with about half of employed adults in the U.S. working from home, there’s a growing need for telework options. We could sit here and talk all day about the developing technologies that are improving online experiences. But the point is that virtual culture will outlive COVID-19 by far.
The Main Idea
The key takeaway from today? For the first time in a year, there is hope on the horizon for in-person events. However, the path from here to there is not linear; it’s an in-depth process that is complicated by many converging factors. That’s why we decided to break some of those down for you.
Remember: A return to in-person events does not imply a return to “normal”, or what we thought of as normal prior to the pandemic. In order to adapt to the lockdown, the industry has evolved. The breakthroughs made by the tech industry have not smoothly translated to the mainstream population. In other words, a lot of the newest technologies are still not affordable for small businesses- a fact that desperately needs to change. However, some pivotal technologies are becoming more affordable and accessible, and that’s a win. The vaccine is also a win for event creators whose brand thrives on in-person interaction.
As society continues to reopen, we’re committed to keeping you informed. In our next post, we’ll give you some tips for easing attendees’ anxiety about in-person events!