Delta variant has marketers less eager to return to in-person events this year
A new wave of caution for in-person gatherings is sweeping over marketers as the COVID-19 Delta variant is causing cases to spike, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.
Marketing professionals we surveyed this summer give it a 5 out of 10 chance, on average, that they will attend an in-person event through the end of 2021. The results showed a slight decrease in optimism compared to April, when respondents gave a 6 out of 10 chance, on average, that they would attend an in-person event in the fourth quarter of 2021.
About 30% of the nearly 170 marketers we surveyed in our latest Events Participation Index, said it was extremely unlikely (1 out of 10) that they would attend an in-person event this year. On the other hand, 20% said they were extremely likely (10 out of 10) to attend an in-person event this year.
This comes as several trade shows, conferences, and smaller regional shows are being planned for the remainder of 2021. It also follows an announcement by the New York Auto Show that it will not hold its 2021 event, despite optimism earlier this year that it could host tens of thousands of attendees in person.
The outlook improves slightly for 2022. Respondents on average gave it a 6 out of 10 likelihood that they would attend an in-person event in the first half of 2022. That jumped to 7 out of 10 for the second half of 2022.
All of this suggests that the kind of attendance seen in conferences, trade shows and more before the pandemic will not return in the near future.
Looking to 2022
Despite lingering concerns over safety, both attendees and exhibitors are budgeting to attend in-person events in 2022. But they plan to attend far fewer than before the pandemic.
About 78% of respondents said they are budgeted to attend a small number of in-person events in 2022, while only 12% said they were budgeted to attend many. We saw the same trend with exhibitors, which make up a smaller proportion of our respondents. Nearly 19% said they were budgeted to exhibit at a small number of in-person events next year, compared to 5% who expect to exhibit at many.
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2022 attendance might also be limited by geography. While 56% of marketers said they would attend regional events that they could access through ground transportation or by driving, only 40% said they would fly long distances to attend.
Of course, willingness to attend an in-person conference depends on how safe attendees feel, so it is not surprising that 70% told us organizers should only allow vaccinated adults to attend.
This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which could lead to more vaccine mandates across the US. New York City has already mandated proof of vaccination for visiting restaurants or gyms, and several major employers are also requiring staff to be vaccinated. The Consumer Technology Association’s upcoming CES 2022 event in January will also require proof of vaccination to attend.
Still, 30% of our respondents disagree with mandating vaccination, suggesting that organizers should expect mandates to be another limiting factor on attendance.
What hybrid means to attendees
Offering a digital component to a live event is not new. Conferences like SXSW, TechCrunch Disrupt and more had incorporated digital live streams into their events before the pandemic. But with the lockdown proving the value of virtual events, organizers are betting that hybrid events that pair in-person and digital experiences is the future. However, what attendees want from hybrid events is not so clear-cut.
About 32% of the marketers we surveyed said they would prefer a hybrid event where the in-person experience is smaller and more intimate paired with a large virtual experience. On the other hand, 25% said they would prefer a larger in-person event paired with a scaled-down virtual offering.
About 26% said the in-person and digital components of a hybrid event should be identical in scope while 17% said they saw no value in hybrid event experiences.
The virtue of hybrid during pandemic times is it gives organizers a chance to engage a larger audience that includes both in-person and virtual attendees. About 40% of the marketers we surveyed said they would attend an event in-person and access virtual components. About 22% said they would attend in-person only while 38% said they would attend the virtual components only.
Virtual to stay
Many of our respondents commented on how the past 18 months have changed their views on professional training and networking. For many of them, virtual events expanded their access to actionable information.
“It’s wonderful getting the benefit of top-notch presentations from the safety of my office. Going virtual has allowed vastly more people to ‘attend’ events and learn from the best,” wrote one respondent.
“While I love in-person events, I feel like I’ve attended more virtual events and training than I would have otherwise. It’s probably a combination of a reduced overall time commitment, and not having to pay for travel. I also feel like the level of training I’ve received hasn’t diminished from not being in-person,” wrote another.
But when it comes to networking, digital experiences miss the mark for many professionals, which is surprising in the age of social networking.
“I have not found virtual networking to be useful. It’s impossible to genuinely connect when there are so many participants, and the camaraderie that comes from being at a conference in person is totally gone. I don’t know what the magic ingredient is (mutual bonding over bad coffee and lack of sleep?) but online, networking interactions feel much more forced,” one marketer said.
Maybe this response sums it up perfectly.
“Virtual training is possible. Virtual networking … not so much.”
Events Participation Index timeline
- 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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