In-person events have picked up steam as the COVID-19 vaccine has rolled out in the U.S. and worldwide, and industry watchers expect that trend to continue.
But virtual events aren't going anywhere, according to event organizers. Rather than one format replacing the other, event marketing professionals say they're seeing a hybrid approach that combines face-to-face interactions with virtual experiences.
Will trade shows return to their pre-pandemic glory?
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the first major trade show in person since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many shows and expos have been postponed or canceled, CES pressed on with a physical and digital event from January 5th to 8th.
The event was held at various locations across Las Vegas. To ensure safety, attendees were required to wear masks, except when eating or drinking in designated areas. Social distancing rules were enforced throughout the venue with floor stickers and partitioning between booths. Hand sanitizer stations were also available for guests at each location.
Many companies use their time at virtual events to announce game-changing products and services. For instance, Samsung unveiled its latest TV series, which will have an audio system integrated into the back of the set, and LG announced rollable TVs during various virtual events.
Other brands such as L'Oreal and Audi also used their virtual booths to announce new products and services. The beauty company announced a range of new connected beauty devices, while Audi unveiled a new electric vehicle concept car that can be used as an office space or lounge room.
Trade shows will likely bounce back
The most important thing to note about the future of trade shows is that they are not going away anytime soon, especially after a year of virtual events and digital solutions. The industry may be redesigning itself, but most people still see the value in a real-life experience.
Digital platforms will be more appealing for smaller brands
Digital trade shows offer a lot more flexibility than in-person events do. They can reach more people worldwide and cost less money to run, which makes them appealing to smaller brands that might not have been able to afford an event otherwise.
The future of trade shows may be in the technology sector
However, the tech industry was not alone in using tech to showcase its products, as other sectors also demonstrated a willingness to embrace more digital elements within their events. For example, some companies used holographic displays to demonstrate their products at CES – an illustration of how other industries are also looking to incorporate more tech into their events.
This suggests an appetite for more immersive digital experiences within the B2B and B2C spaces.
What about virtual events now that some of the COVID-19 restrictions have eased?
If you are planning an event for 2022, you will likely be faced with whether to hold it online or in person. People will still likely choose virtual events for the following reasons:
Virtual events are more agile and more likely to be attended
Virtual events tend to be a much leaner operation than physical events. There are fewer people on-site, fewer people working behind the scenes, and less equipment required. Because of this lower overhead, virtual event organizers can often produce more frequent events with a smaller team.
Virtual events also tend to be more likely to be attended by your target audience than physical events
As opposed to physical events where attendees need to travel and arrange accommodation at their own expense (which often involves having time off work), virtual events remove barriers that prevent people from attending your event.
Virtual events are more accessible
You're no longer limited by your event space capacity with virtual events. You can accommodate an unlimited number of attendees if you have the infrastructure to support them (and have the money coming in). This means that you can reach a whole new audience who otherwise wouldn't have been able to attend your physical event.
Virtual events have a smaller carbon footprint
With virtual events, there's no need to fly in a big-name speaker or jet-set attendees across the country to attend a conference. They can join from anywhere, so long as they have an internet connection and a screen. And even if your event is ticketed, you can still offer scholarships to reduce financial barriers to entry.
Virtual events enable more targeted, strategic partnerships
You can feature more sponsors at a virtual event than at a physical one. For example, if you run a two-day conference in San Francisco, you'll likely be limited by space and budget to just one or two marquee sponsors on your stages (and maybe several more in the expo area).
But with a virtual event, you can include multiple sponsors — for example, one for each day or stage of the event — including those that might not be able to afford to become major sponsors of your physical conferences.
During the pandemic, virtual events were necessary, but they can still be an effective format even when in-person events come back.
You can keep attendees engaged with quizzes and polls
Virtual events allow you to incorporate interactive elements into your presentation that keep attendees engaged throughout the entire event. You can ask multiple choice questions and let attendees vote on their answers. Or you can use polls to collect valuable information about attendees' interests and needs.
You can easily track attendance and engagement metrics for virtual events
Because virtual events occur online, everyone who attends has a digital footprint that your team can track. You can use web analytics tools to track how many visitors you get.
Hybrid Events Are on The Rise
The hybrid event format combines both virtual and in-person experiences. It's not a new concept, but this type of event marketing format gained momentum in 2020 after the global pandemic hit.
Virtual event platforms make it easier than ever to host these hybrid events. There are also some challenges for organizers, such as finding a way to host an engaging experience for both types of attendees and deciding how much content to share with each group.
You can customize which content is available to virtual and in-person guests. Some events will offer all the content online, while others will offer exclusive content only available in person.
While the pandemic has caused many industries and businesses to upend their operations and entire business models, it has also lent a new appreciation for technology. This is especially true in the events marketing industry, where we have seen a rapid shift from in-person events to digital and virtual experiences.
In fact, according to a recent study done by events marketing platform Bizzabo, event professionals expect hybrid events to be the industry's future. The hybrid format allows in-person and digital attendees to gather simultaneously at various locations for one large event experience. For example, an in-person conference at a hotel can be streamed to digital attendees who can ask questions and provide feedback in real-time through interactive tools.
This doesn't mean that industry experts are entirely giving up on in-person events. Rather they see them as a complement to digital and virtual events. As pharmaceutical companies begin to roll out vaccines, there is significant pushback against long-term remote work because employers want employees back in person. As this happens, companies will want to hold events designed for both audiences, and we believe hybrid events will be one of the best ways to achieve this goal.
Hyper-Personalization Must Be Core to the Event Experience
To create a one-of-a-kind virtual experience, event planners must leverage AI to collect and analyze data to personalize the event in real-time.
The Role of AI In Hyper-Personalization
AI is being used in various ways to help brands create personalized experiences for every attendee at live events. Some companies have already begun using AI to build profiles of attendees based on their prior interactions with the brand online and offline, their social media presence, and demographic information.
This allows brands to customize everything from session topics and speakers, for instance, for maximum engagement. Other companies are using augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) technologies to help attendees navigate events through interactive maps that point out sessions or booths that are most relevant to them or instead offer them a curated experience based on their interests.
Closing Thoughts on Post COVID Trade Shows and What Is Next
Brands will have to rethink their entire trade show and event marketing strategy and experience to stay relevant in 2022 and beyond. Companies are investing more in building audiences than individual consumers — creating a much more personalized experience for their customers.