When the pandemic first began about 18 months ago, the events industry was among the first to be affected. Even as early as February 2020, conferences, expos, trade shows, and other gatherings were put on hiatus or called off altogether. Indeed, in a survey by Meeting Professionals International (MPI), 96% of event planners had experienced cancellations by March 2020.
Many organizations feared the loss of in-person events would seriously derail audience engagement and revenue. But many were pleasantly surprised to learn that the opposite could be true: With proper planning and the right technology, virtual events could be as successful, or more successful, than traditional ones. “As it turns out, adopting a virtual event strategy can actually produce a number of unexpected benefits — benefits that will surely outlast the pandemic,” explains CMSWire.
Now, as the pandemic recedes and more people step away from the virtual world and back into the real world, it is a good time to assess your events strategy. Should you return to in-person events? Or keep your events virtual for the foreseeable future? There isn’t a right or wrong answer; the best approach is unique to each organization. Here are three key questions to answer as you hammer out for your own approach.
Is your audience comfortable with in-person gatherings?
Vaccination levels may be increasing and mask mandates may be relaxing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your audience is ready to crowd into an expo center or catering hall. In an April 2021 survey by BizJournals, only half of about 5,000 respondents said they were ready to return to in-person events. Further, many respondents said they still prefer mask requirements and social distancing at events. Before finalizing your event strategy for the second half of 2021, take a close look at your audience’s needs and wants. And, be sure to consider how you can deliver the best experience, regardless of the medium.
Do virtual events help you reach a wider audience?
Many businesses worried that virtual events would diminish their audience. But oftentimes, the opposite happened. By making events virtual, anyone anywhere could attend. A nonprofit in New York City fighting hunger could invite donors as far away as California. And a tech company in Austin, Texas could host a panel of speakers from Germany, India, and beyond.
Indeed, according to a research report by events technology company Bizzabo, 80% of marketers were able to reach a broader audience — and also boost their ROI — when leveraging virtual events amid the pandemic.
Here’s a concrete example: When the European Geosciences Union (EGU) held their annual event in-person in 2019, there were about 15,000 participants. But when they moved online in 2020, more than 25,000 people participated.
Take a close look at your attendance and engagement numbers from recent virtual events. Are you seeing high engagement from audiences that couldn’t make the trip in person? If so, that’s a sign that you should at least keep a virtual component in all your events.
Did going virtual improve profits?
At the start of the pandemic, many fretted that a loss of in-person events would hamper networking, leads, and ultimately profits.
But in some cases, going virtual allowed organizations to reduce production costs, increase engagement, and ultimately boost profits. “Smaller companies and startups in particular found virtual conferences saved them time and money,” explains CMSWire.
Scrutinize your finances from 2020 to determine if virtual events are a sound economic move. If they are, there may not be a compelling reason to return to in-person events and the costs associated with them — like high catering bills and costly staff travel costs.
Understanding your audience, defining clear goals, setting measurable outcomes are key to executing a successful strategy. As you chart your events plan for the months and years ahead, pay careful attention to what you learned during the unique pandemic period — and then put those learnings into practice.