What’s the future of events? Trends shift as COVID rages on

live event crowd at business conference

Companies now consider virtual events a permanent part of the landscape, according to a new study by Splash.

Once upon a time, thousands of attendees would flock to business events chock full of exhibitors and a jam packed conference schedule. In between events, people would network over coffee, at lunch or happy hour. 

Enter 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic put these live networking opportunities to an end and businesses shifted to virtual connection. 

In 2021, in-person events slowly trickled back as vaccinations rolled out across the U.S. Companies also embraced  “hybrid” event strategies, which mix in-person and virtual components.

But the first few days of 2022 had an eerie sense of deja vu as the Omicron variant sweeped the world. The Consumer and Electronics Show (CES), which was supposed to be the industry’s big return to live events, saw the in-person portion of the show crumble with exhibitors, large sponsors and attendees pulling out. 

Companies need to get comfortable with an uncertain future, according to Splash. The event marketing technology company conducted a study on the future of live events, surveying 253 event professionals and 3,133 event attendees. 

Splash found that businesses are adopting virtual events as a more permanent strategy.

Seventy-nine percent of respondents expect to host hybrid events in 2022, and 46% anticipate hosting more virtual events in 2022 than they did last year. More than half (59%) will increase their virtual event technology investments and 74% are using virtual events to attract future employees.

The pandemic helped companies learn how to flex their digital marketing muscles, a skill set they’ll need to apply to their future events strategies, said Splash CEO Eric Holmen.

“If your event gets canceled, you have to put on the digital marketer’s hat and start using the toolkit,” he said. “Because you can't rely on the serendipity and the magic of an in-person experience anymore. You have to be able to go back to the digital tools that personalized [attendees’] experiences.”

Trade shows and large retail brands, which often have grand openings or seasonal shopping events, will be hit the hardest by the downsurge of in-person connection, according to Holmen. 

“I would really not want to be in the trade show business right now,” he said. “I think that's going to be a rough business during the remainder of the pandemic, and even after the pandemic.”

Despite uncertainty, companies aren’t planning on eliminating in-person events altogether. In fact, 50% of respondents anticipate hosting more in-person events in 2022 than they did in 2021. 

In-person attendance often increases when there is a lull between COVID surges, Holmen noted.

Regardless, downsizing in-person events will become standard practice. Smaller events with curated content and experiences have become more appealing to attendees.

”It's becoming too much of a risk to go to a really big event, so smaller events are getting more of the appeal,” Holmen added. “Attendees are more selective about where they go.”

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