In-Person, Virtual or Both? How to Manage Conferences and Tradeshows in 2022

February 08, 2022

Contributor: Katie Costello

Here’s how to navigate the fallout that the omicron variant is having on companies’ plans to bring back in-person conferences this year.

For two straight years, technology marketers and conference organizers have optimistically budgeted for the return of in-person events, only to find themselves shifting plans on the fly. Omicron is the issue in early 2022, but there are ways to stay agile and minimize the risks that go beyond this variant.

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Indeed, the first few weeks of the new year have already seen significant changes in the conference landscape. For example, many of the largest CES exhibitors and attendees opted to participate virtually, E3 moved to a virtual-only format and RSA postponed its conference to later in 2022. 

Technology event marketers are now well aware of the critical importance of remaining agile. While conference hosts want to bring in-person delivery models back into their event marketing mix, and technology providers are keen to shift back to sponsored in-person events, the expanded reach of virtual delivery models means that in 2022, a balanced approach to event strategies is necessary.

“The ongoing uncertainty the pandemic brings means that technology marketers must continuously monitor the environment and customer propensity and ability to travel, while also managing both stakeholder and attendee expectations,” says Christy Uher Ferguson, VP Analyst at Gartner.

Agile conferences strategy is more important than ever

Most event marketers have come to value the reach of virtual event delivery models but remain eager for the return of in-person events. They are also more consistently offering hybrid events — in-person delivery complemented with digital components. Gartner expects this transition to hybrid to dominate event strategy discussions in 2022. 

Virtual-only events will also remain: By 2024, Gartner predicts that 30% of technology providers with at least $100 million in revenue will extend their reach to additional audiences and roles by shifting to a “virtual-first” event model for both first-party and third-party events, compared with less than 5% before the pandemic. For those “virtual-first” marketers, virtual-only events will dominate their portfolio but will be complemented by in-person offerings.

While brands have hosted hybrid events for years, advancements in technology have added to shifting trends in customer behavior to drive increased hybrid delivery. Recent hybrid experiences that successfully engaged customers used elements of real-time engagement (e.g., live streams, synchronous experiences or virtual simultaneity) or real places (e.g., curbside, drive-by, location-tracking features or location-monitoring features) while still offering attendees social distancing from one another. 

“Future events may include further innovations that bring audiences together, such as augmented reality and virtual reality technologies,” says Ferguson.

Agile event strategies must continue to evolve to anticipate and plan for quick pivots as warranted by external market forces — including a sudden shift to 100% virtual delivery if needed.

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Four key considerations for hosts and participants

Event marketers and attendees will consider four key issues when deciding when and how to participate in future conferences. Hosts must make sure to address ongoing public health guidance while delivering engaging events to improve brand awareness and growth.

1. Regional status and ongoing management of the global pandemic

You may be inclined to rely on regional protocols, but don’t overlook the criteria that attendees will use to determine whether an event is worth the risk to them. Speak to them, or conduct a survey to find out what protocols they’d like to see in place.

Consistent communication of all safety requirements through dedicated communications and webpages is also key to easing concerns and properly preparing all invitees, registrants and attendees for a seamless experience.

2. Level of in-person attendance

Don’t mistake the desire to attend with the ability to attend. Technology marketers must consider the target audience’s ability to obtain travel budget and employer approval considering the current environment. Companies have realized extensive travel savings since the onset of the pandemic, and those budgets aren’t likely to return quickly.

3. Budget impact

With hybrid events, meal and off-site budgets may decrease, but meeting room rental space and audiovisual (AV) budgets are likely to increase. Bringing together digital and in-person audiences requires the event technology platform to deliver content and the appropriate AV equipment to ensure that on-stage, in-person content is captured and streamed as high-quality digital media. This may also require renting space earlier than expected to allow for the AV team to access and set up the required equipment. 

4. Success metrics

Often, event success is measured by volume; however, this metric must shift in 2022. Conferences will not look as they did in 2019. Attendance is expected to be lower, which requires technology marketers to redefine success metrics. New success measures may include a level of engagement within target accounts, the progression of pipeline deals and customer retention.

Beyond this year, event strategies are expected to evolve rapidly. Technology marketers must develop long-term strategies that reflect the pandemic's influence on events. Be realistic in forecasting future event participation; the return of attendees to in-person conferences will inevitably be impacted by constraints of travel budgets and employers’ willingness to send their employees on-site. 

For your upcoming in-person or hybrid conference, start by setting clear expectations for stakeholders and attendees. Then clearly communicate these expectations and monitor external market forces by developing agile event strategies to improve the impact of their events.

In short:

  • The omicron variant poses an all-too-familiar challenge to technology marketers and conference organizers who were optimistic about bringing back in-person events in 2022.
  • Incorporating a balanced, agile event strategy is critical to technology marketing success.
  • There are four key factors to consider when determining how to host or participate in conferences in 2022.

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