As we approach the mid-year point of 2021, COVID is sadly not in the rear-view mirror quite yet. The Events Revenue Summit gave us a glimpse into where event professionals are not only in-terms of generating revenue from their events but how they are developing their approaches for the remainder of 2021 and beyond.

A few key themes developed across the 15 sessions, panel discussions and round tables with event professionals, industry colleagues, and partners from organizations and associations big and small.  If you missed the event and want to watch any of dynamic and informative on-demand sessions, we have you covered. Just sign up here.

Virtual Margins Continue to Dwindle

The data from nearly every events industry survey continues to point to the lack of revenue margins on virtual events. Our guest speakers confirmed the same understanding.  Lack of booth space revenues, physical sponsorships and the overall number of exhibitors and sponsors participating have most events struggling to make even a third of their traditional income compared to their physical event.

As companies saw less and less return on their marketing dollars and inconsistent experiences across the virtual platforms at various virtual events they participated in, the appetite continued to decline. More concerning is that some exhibiting and sponsoring companies have shifted their marketing dollars to other initiatives (including digital) to connect with their customer base with the lack of engagement in the virtual world. The understanding and company congeniality early in the pandemic has faded and companies are demanding a much higher rate of return. Many companies are waiting on the sideline until they can participate in person once again. This was especially true of larger trade shows represented at the event.

The only consistent growth area were the sales of thought leadership or education-based engagement opportunities with exhibitors and sponsors. Providing instances for companies to present education to their prospective buyer was very popular. Even sponsorship of industry executive sessions offered a chance for brands to showcase their involvement in the industries they serve. While some events had harnessed this in the past, many companies will expect these sponsorships moving forward. Unfortunately, medical shows cannot offer this type of sponsorship, given industry regulations.

Flexibility and Agility are Key

John Allen once said, “uncertainty is the only certainty there is.” Irrespective of the organization’s size, flexibility and agility are now critical for this uncertainty.  Organizers shared that even those comfortably planning for an in-person or hybrid experience are actively exploring backup plans for a virtual event should the pandemic and potential variants shift the landscape once again.

Flexibility and agility are not just tied to the approach of the events. Dealing with industry-wide labor and supply shortages and rising costs across the entire ecosystem creates a far less predictable event. Event organizers will need to adjust and often modify their existing plans to account for these ever-evolving challenges.

This approach will also be necessary for attendees, exhibitors and sponsors as they will also be faced with similar challenges in participating in your events. Exhibitors, for example, may find new payment schedules (requiring earlier and larger expenditures) from their exhibit houses and short staffing causing lengthier timelines to build their exhibits. Attendees mostly likely will find higher travel costs, reduced flights/rental cars and diminished experiences at hotels.

Engaged in online event communities.

Hybrid event viewer

Hybrid Events Will Vary Greatly

One thing that was consistent about hybrid events–their inconsistency in design, execution and vision. Each organizational speaker had different ideas of what a hybrid event would look like for them. For some, it was mixture of virtual and in-person experiences. For others, their events would be more focused on the in-person audiences. And for many, they had yet to fully define their event.

Organizers shared their event strategy and implementation will primarily be driven by available staffing and their capabilities, budget constraints and the desire of their audience to engage in the various formats. Ironically, virtual fatigue on the part of event producers may be even higher than from attendees and exhibitors & sponsors. As that fatigue continues to grow, the interest in virtual participation wanes. For those with a larger international audience, virtual components may be the only way for those audiences to connect with the organization as many other countries are still experiencing lockdowns and travel bans.

Unlike the inability to produce anything but a virtual event last year, as the US (in particular) is returning to normalcy, some organizers are becoming far more focused on bringing back their live events with virtual (hybrid) components supporting and driving attendance to their in-person event. I agree more and more with this notion of what hybrid events will look like for most organizations. I shared this approach in my recent Hybrid 2.0 webinar.  This is especially true of larger events and organizations that need to produce much higher revenue levels in 2021. Events with a heavier conference or education component have more flexibility in terms of virtual offerings as education has been consistently delivered effectively in the virtual world.

Habits Have Changed

The pandemic has shifted consumer behavior, probably forever. The “new normal” reflects a much more just-in-time approach to every action we take and purchase we make. Beyond the shortages early in the pandemic, convenience has become paramount for consumers. Flexibility in booking, canceling and even committing to purchases has shifted.

Unfortunately, for event organizers, our policies, pricing and marketing do not align with this new behavior. The traditional room block cut-off, early bird rate and other milestones reflect the event of the past. One speaker reminded the audience that attendees have been able to sign-up for a virtual event moment or even after an event has started. Exhibitors and sponsors could often commit (depending on the opportunity) even the week prior to the event.

Event cancellation policies have only worsened the behavior by making it more advantageous to wait versus a benefit to sign-up early. As events return, consumers will also be more likely to wait till the last minute to commit to better understand their commitment at home and work. One speaker asked, “How will this behavior impact our venue contract and food & beverage orders?”.

Even the call for papers no longer reflects reality for most presenters and their topics as man industries will be drastically different in 6-8 months from when a speaker has submitted their presentation on a topic relevant today that no longer may be valid at the time of the conference. Do speakers want to speak in person or only virtually?  Will they engage with both audiences? So much has changed.

Transparency is Paramount

The return to in-person and hybrid events will involve new experiences for everyone involved. For many Event Revenue Summit speakers, an event, conference or tradeshow was the first time they had traveled. For many attendees and exhibitors/sponsors attending your event, that may be true as well. They all shared; it was different.

The hybrid experience of today will be unique to the virtual events of the past year. Behaviors and interactions will be different (read more on that here). Some experiences will be altered because of costs or availability (receptions, for example). Aspects of your event may be reduced to cut costs to keep registration reduced or similar to years past.

Some practices may be better, for example. Many clients who have staged in-person events report higher exhibitor/sponsor satisfaction as those attending and engaging with them are more serious in their buying habits.

Differences (and potential benefits) will not only need to be communicated, but it will also be critical to be transparent to audiences. This will not be the same event as it has been in the past.

Next Steps

Regardless of the changes happening in the industry, one thing was clear from the Events Revenue Summit – the industry is rebounding quicker than some could have ever predicted. Audiences are showing a healthy appetite to meet again in person with a desire to engage in new ways before, during and after your event. Events will improve because of the lessons learned in the virtual world and the new audiences gained during this trying time.

And finally, in-person events will never be fully replicated in the virtual world. The margins alone make it prohibitive for long-term success. In-person interaction was not replaced with screens and technology. That technology will be used to augment, support and improve our in-person events in the hybrid world we are fast approaching.

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