For organizers forced to abandon conference centers for digital consoles, here’s the good news: The majority of marketers are ready to come back to in-person conferences by the start of 2022. But improvements in virtual conferences and lingering uneasiness about the pandemic will likely mean smaller shows at the outset.
About 38% of the nearly 250 marketers we surveyed in March said it is extremely likely that they will attend an in-person show in the first half of 2022, while about 45% gave the prospect a moderate to somewhat likely possibility. The numbers shrink as you get closer to the present, with only 21% saying it is extremely likely they would attend in-person events in the fourth quarter of 2021 and an even smaller 17% saying it is extremely likely they’d attend in the third quarter.
The results were part of the March edition of the Events Participation Index survey, which we have fielded regularly since the beginning of the pandemic to help organizers understand the attitudes of the marketing community towards conference attendance.
The increased likelihood that marketers will attend in-person events soon comes as more employers lift restrictions on business travel. According to our survey, 23% of respondents said their companies already allow work travel. About 30% said their employers will lift restrictions in the third quarter, 17% said their employers will lift restrictions in the fourth quarter and 30% said their employers will not lift restrictions until 2022.
The responses should give organizers hope that in-person shows could succeed if held in the fourth quarter or early 2022, but they also suggest a percentage of marketers are still very unsure about their willingness to attend in person.
In fact, 55% of respondents said they would only attend virtual events in 2021.
Here to stay
The COVID-19 pandemic essentially shut down the in-person events and entertainment industry overnight, but it gave new life to digital events. The pivot also equalized experiences, as major trade shows and smaller regional conferences were generally reduced to video-based education and networking. It’s a medium that found an audience out of necessity, and it’s likely to stick around.
About 92% of marketers who took our survey said organizers should keep offering virtual events even when in-person events return. And the reasons are not surprising. Most cited the ability to attend more events and to more easily integrate them into their schedules. Others cited safety during the pandemic and the lesser environmental impact of digital shows. But most often respondents cited the expense.
“While we can only send one person to a live event based on costs, we can send a handful to online workshops,” wrote one respondent.
While in-person attendance can cost a company four figures to send a single employee when you factor in ticket, travel and hotel, virtual events have largely been either free or far less expensive. The average cost for a virtual event ticket was $443 in the last six months of 2020, according to a study  by event management company Bizzabo.
The pivot to virtual events gave a lot of momentum to software like webinar platforms, event management and registration, video and, of course, conferencing platforms. Some platforms had so much interest that waitlists formed. On24, one of the most established players in webinars and digital events, rode that momentum to an initial public offering in February. And Google’s Meet video conferencing platform went from being an afterthought to being updated and enhanced aggressively to keep pace with Zoom.
But the surge in demand for virtual event tech hasn’t yielded any clear leaders. In fact, it highlighted the ingenuity of marketing teams in leveraging a range of different technologies to produce online events. In a recent survey of event organizers, Zoom was by far the most prevalent tech that respondents said they used or will use with 13% adoption, according to the CEIR Global Virtual Event Trends report  . In the next highest percentage, 6% of respondents said they used a mix of internal resources to pull these off. Popular tools like On24, YouTube, Vimeo, and StreamYard were used or will be used by only 2% of respondents.
In fact, out of the 100 tools mentioned, 80 were used by 1% or fewer respondents.
Packing their bags
While virtual shows may have earned a place in the events world, marketers still expect to return to in-person experiences and are currently vaccinated or in the process of getting vaccinated. According to our survey, only 13 percent said they do not plan to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
When they do return, however, they expect changes to the in-person experience. Most respondents said they will want to see mandatory mask-wearing, sanitizer stations and better distancing. Others want organizers to request proof of vaccination from attendees.
A few even suggested ensuring venues have the latest air filtering systems installed to remove contagions.
All of these point to the central question for organizers: What will all of this cost? Organizers will need to weigh the impact of those expenses against the likelihood of smaller attendance numbers.
“Don’t be greedy and pile lots of people in,” one respondent said. “Reduce the capacity so that everyone still feels safe.”
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