Marketers are looking forward to returning to in-person events in the first half, and especially the second half, of 2023. As far as the rest of 2022 goes, they are split down the middle.
The Event Participation Index, which we last fielded at the end of 2021, asks our readers to rate their likelihood of returning to in-person events in the near and medium-future. It also asks how many events they have actually attended, as well as the extent to which they have a budget for attending, or exhibiting at, events.
Writing off 2022?
As we head towards the fourth quarter of 2022, we can begin to look back on a bumpy ride as live events battled with unpredictable dips and spikes in COVID infections. We saw an enormous leap in cases at the beginning of the year, when many first-half conferences must already have been planned. It turned out that although the new variants were highly infectious, they seemed less damaging.
The number of cases quickly declined and have remained fairly flat. Nevertheless, the uncertainty seemed to shut down the in-person option for about half of the roughly 200 survey respondents. Fifty-three said they were “extremely unlikely” to attend a live event in the second half of 2022; 62 said they were “extremely likely” to go to an in-person event. The rest of the sample was spread unevenly between those extremes.
Heading optimistically into 2023
Things look brighter for next year — but of course next year isn’t here yet. About twice as many respondents were “extremely likely” rather than “extremely unlikely” to attend in-person events in the first-half of 2023. For the second half of next year, optimism reigns, with 80 “extremely likely” to go to live events, and 40 more checking in as likely or highly likely. Only 19 were still “extremely unlikely” to jump aboard.
At the same time, many thought that a virtual element should still be included. One reader wrote:
Given climate change, travel challenges and increased viruses I think events should have online virtual opportunities that are both synchronous and asynchronous and facilitate in-person gatherings in the locale where people are.
For example you have attendees from Chicago, London, and Philly. Create small, intimate networking events in each city so that attendees can go in their backyard while also attending the conference sessions that could be streamed from anywhere.
Vaccination is the key
A strong majority continued to believe not only that attendees should be vaccinated (and presumably, although we didn’t ask, boosted), but that event organizers should mandate vaccination. Logically, that probably means checking evidence of vaccination too.
Fully 121 respondents wanted to see vaccinations made mandatory, over half of our sample. 77 said no, but of course that doesn’t mean they’re against vaccination or indeed unvaccinated.
A slight return?
Of course, the return of in-person events doesn’t necessarily imply a complete return to normal. “Attendance will be at pre-pandemic levels,” predicted one respondent, and for 2022 at least that seems likely to be true. HubSpot estimated a decline in Inbound attendance of around 10-15% compared with 2019. All eyes are now on Dreamforce.
Of course, Inbound had an extensive virtual component, so the overall audience was doubtless larger than at previous live-only editions of the conference. It remains to be seen whether offering audiences the choice of virtual or in-person will depress live attendance. After all, viruses aren’t the only problem — there’s the expense and rampant chaos of air travel too. As one person wrote: “Expensive air travel and brutal travel experiences make me not want to recommend in-person events.”
Another wrote: “If event attendance is down, I don’t think it’ll be due to COVID. I’ve been to concerts, ball games, and other crowded events. People seem to be back living their lives.”
Here’s what the survey sample actually did (or are doing) this year:
There was a fairly even split between those who went to zero events (77) and those who went to one or two (the present author went to two or three). There was a sharp decline when it came to multiple event attendance, with only eight brave warriors experiencing ten or more in-person shows.
Seeing how accessible events can be online has made it more difficult to justify spending money and time away from family on travel for in-person events. While it’s true that networking might be a missing component in the online space, networking isn’t always a strong enough justification to attend in person.
What’s in the budget?
Finally, to cover the rest of this year and into next year, a strong majority (154) respondents had budget to travel to at least a few events. A small minority (22) had the budget to attend many events.
When it came to exhibiting, 46 had the budget for at least some events, while 19 had the budget for many. Added together, that means around one third of this sample have the costs of at least some exhibiting covered.
Of course, there’s no pleasing some people: “Do something different. I’m bored with in-person and online events.”
Events Participation Index timeline
- December 2021: Fearing Omicron wave, marketers less likely to attend upcoming in-person conferences
- August 2021: Delta variant has marketers less eager to return to in-person events this year
- April 2021: Most marketers expect to attend in-person conferences by early 2022
- February 2021: Marketers say COVID vaccines create hope for quick return of in-person events
- September 2020: Marketers hopeful for late 2021 in-person conferences
- July 2020: No in-person events until 2nd half of 2021, marketers say
- June 2020: Prospect for in-person conferences fades for 2020
- May 2020: Many marketers unlikely to attend in-person conferences until COVID-19 vaccine
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