The coronavirus understandably caught the events industry flat-footed last spring. Who can predict a once-in-a-century disease? But nearly a year into the pandemic, there’s been time to experiment, learn, adapt and develop better strategies going into 2021.
Live events are going on, and will only pick up toward the second half of the year. That doesn’t mean COVID-19’s effects will disappear anytime soon. Almost all considerations that event planners, trade show organizers, exhibitors and attendees face are related to health and safety measures or economic challenges related to the pandemic.
There is proof that trade shows, corporate events and more can occur safely with in-person attendees. What lessons can the whole industry learn from shows like Surf Expo, Connect and PCMA’s hybrid experience?
The virtual component is out of the bag, though. And there will no doubt be many attendees, presenters and other participants who feel more comfortable in front of a computer screen, while others won’t have the time or resources to devout to getting on a plane and being away from the daily grind for multiple days. All this adds to the challenges that event planners and organizers face in positions that are difficult even under ideal circumstances.
“The ability to react quickly to changing and refined needs while remaining flexible to pivot again is mandatory,” said Scott Graf, global president of BCD Meetings & Events.
For better or worse, this is going to be the year of hybrid. It will serve, many in the industry hope, as a bridge toward a return to what is considered normal in 2022 and the year after. Here, we look at what’s ahead on that path as the industry takes a page from Elsa and goes into the unknown.
This will be a year of recovery. While we can’t expect all of last year’s lost jobs and revenue to return all at once, there are a number of encouraging signs the industry will be in a better place by this time next year. The American Hotel and Lodging Association’s state of the industry report predicts hotels will add 200,000 operational jobs in 2021, but remain 500,000 below the pre-pandemic level of 2.3 million employees. “COVID-19 has wiped out 10 years of hotel job growth,” said Chip Rogers, president and CEO of AHLA in a statement. “Yet the hallmark of hospitality is endless optimism, and I am confident in the future of our industry.”
Decisions will be made quickly. Virtual events pioneer Pathable predicts in a new report that 38% of decision-makers will choose between hybrid, virtual or in-person for their events within the first quarter of the year. Furthermore, about 40% of planners say they will settle on a platform to host their events by March.
COVID-19’s echo will be felt almost all year. A study from Innovatis Group, a leading association management and engagement company, found that 70% of its respondents say the top factors in ushering in a return to in-person events will be a significant drop in COVID cases and widespread vaccinations. Restrictions like social distancing and smaller group sizes will play a smaller role.
Virtual won’t go on the backburner. INVNT Co-founder and CEO Kristina McCoobery is optimistic that brands will return to in-person events, albeit smaller than past levels. But of note is that 2020 opened the door to reaching larger numbers of attendees through virtual events—a fact that won’t be lost on savvy groups. “Virtual attendees mustn’t be treated as an afterthought, and their experiences need to be carefully curated in the same way they are for an in-person audience,” she said.
Hybrid could upsell. Hybrid and omnichannel events may ultimately be the best driver toward a full return to in-person, predicted Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. Dow’s rationale is that hybrid events inherently draw larger audiences than in-person conferences and trade shows, which in turn introduces a brand to attendees who otherwise would not engage with them. That increases the pool for attracting a number of future attendees. “One half will see the event virtually,” said Dow, whose association is hosting a hybrid IPW in Las Vegas in September of this year. “They will see how safe it is and want to come in-person next year.”
Exhibitors will feel the love (or else). Corporate meetings and training seminars weather the COVID storm better than most. The same can’t be said of trade shows, which had difficulty re-creating the in-person expo experience—that is, if groups tried at all. “Exhibitors need more value from virtual events,” said Howard Givner, founder and executive director of the Event Leadership Institute. “So far, virtual exhibitors are not getting enough traction, lead generation or ROI. If planners can’t solve this problem, expect exhibitors to go rogue and create their own events.”
Customization will be king. How do you get attendees to engage more at events? Start by adjusting your event rather than expecting your guests to change their behavior organically, said David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Global Events. “By better understanding our event guests, we can design more personalized experiences for their event journey,” he said. “Most importantly, we need to let design dictate event structure and content rather than simply cutting and pasting from previous live event agendas.”
Pay per play. Staying on engagement, McCoobery and Givner said higher expectations are going to create better offerings—especially for virtual attendees—but at a price. In other words, attendees will get what they put into an event. “We’ll start to see more and more monetized interactive competitions followed by exclusive content offerings to unlock, immersive activities that allow audience members to create their own avatars and explore a space or live gig with others, and tiered payment plans, including VIP packages,” McCoobery said.
Las Vegas is coming back strong. No destination has been hit harder by travel restrictions and the economic downturn than Las Vegas. But the city never stays down for long, and that should be the case once again. Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority data points to a quick recovery, with 74% of study respondents believing that Las Vegas is best prepared to safely host in-person conferences, conventions and trade shows in the second half of 2021. Add that with 91% of those surveyed saying they miss in-person meetings and events and 77% of business travelers preferring to attend in-person, Las Vegas is primed to host a plethora of groups this year.
Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. For all his optimism and love for the events industry, Givner knows this is going to be a trying time. Uncertainty remains over the vaccine rollout and how federal, state and local agencies manage travel and crowd control. Potential attendees may stay on the fence longer about taking the trip. After all, many people are out of the habit of traveling while companies evaluate the pros and cons of flight costs. Said Givner: “Attendees are waiting until the last minute to register for events and book travel. For those who register, there will be more no-shows than usual. Be prepared for a roller coaster.”