What is the future for events in a, hopefully, post-Covid world?

At the start of 2022, very few industry pundits were predicting that the year would prove to be a memorable one for conferences and events. The Omicron Covid variant was still raging and authorities in many parts of the world had responded with the now familiar mixture of restrictions and lockdowns.

Yet within a few months, Covid seemed to be on the wane and an air of normality seemed to be returning to everyday life. Event organisers, many of whom had rescheduled events from 2020 and 2021 to summer 2022 watched nervously as attendee booking numbers started to creep up.

By early summer the trickle of sign-ups was becoming a flood and many conferences and events, which at one point looked as if they would struggle to break even, started to look as if they might be ongoing viable concerns.

In-person events are back

Like many others, I shared a sense of excitement and optimism as we gathered for the Fipp Congress in Cascais, Portugal in June. Elated not only by the excellent selection of speakers and presentations but also by the sheer joy of seeing and networking with industry colleagues that I had only seen through computer screens for the past two years.

Other events throughout the summer came and went without a hitch and entrepreneurs, who had endured an agonising eighteen months began to dream up plans for new events in 2023 and beyond.

In recent months signature industry events such as the Web Summit, hosted in Lisbon in November, and the AWS re:Invent held in December in Las Vegas, came and went without a hitch.

The tech industry’s landmark event, the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES as it is colloquially known, is slated for early January. After taking a year’s sabbatical in 2021 the 2022 event was hailed by its organisers as a significant success. For January 2023 though they predict that the number of exhibitors and delegates will be up by more than 50%, with 80-100,000 attendees anticipated.

It seems that media industry professionals are also ready to return to in-person events. Research from LinkedIn, highlighted how 85% of marketers had held a virtual event in the last year. However, 78% said they wanted in-person events to return to a primary role once it’s safe to do so.

What has been notable at many publishing events this year is that when experts discuss the list of possible revenue sources for publishers, events, once seen as something of a magic bullet, have fallen down the agenda. The balance has shifted and in the b2c arena subscriptions and memberships are the big talking point, while b2b concerns, especially the smaller ones, are focusing on offering ancillary services such as content creation and research for brands.

So where next for publisher events and conferences? Has Covid and the fear of a new wave of the virus, undermined confidence to such a degree that publishers have decided to focus on other potential revenue streams?

Or has the return of real-life events, supported by the virtual experiments that many publishers undertook during the height of Covid created a new optimism?

The evidence suggests that there is some truth in both of the statements.

“When experts discuss the list of possible revenue sources for publishers, events, once seen as something of a magic bullet, have fallen down the agenda”

The show must go on

For media companies that had built a significant portfolio of events and conferences before 2020 there is a sense that they have no choice but to keep pushing on.

In the spring The Evening Standard confirmed that its roster of events would be back in 2022. Its bullish approach has been rewarded by some significant successes, and it would appear that those events are once again permanent fixtures on the company calendar.

“Since 2020, the LIVE team has pivoted to produce innovative virtual events which demonstrated the value of staying connected remotely,” says Charles Yardley, CEO of the Evening Standard. “However, now we are able to gather people together in person, we are seizing the opportunity to bring together our audiences at live events designed to reconnect Londoners, spark ideas, showcase innovation and celebrate success.”

Yet in some ways the Evening Standard had no choice. The events are so important to the company from a revenue and a profile perspective that they had to be resurrected as early as possible.

The company is also fortunate too in that it has the deep pockets of its owner, Evgeny Lebedev, to leverage.

This year also saw the return of the trade show, many of which are allied to a publication. In London, b2b events meant that venues like Olympia and Excel had a busy year.

There is also evidence that bigger publishing companies are looking again at events and conferences as potential, important revenue sources. In 2022 Condé Nast appointed its first ever Global Head of Events, Patrick Garragan, who is responsible for developing and implementing the company’s global events strategy, adding new offerings to its more than 650 events around the world that take place each year.

Yet, while Condé Nast and other major players are apparently looking to the future of events with confidence, it appears that smaller companies and entrepreneurs are a little more reticent. Whereas a few years back acquiring events companies was a strategy that many publishing companies were contemplating or indeed undertaking, that simply isn’t the case now. And investors appear to be looking at other types of media opportunities not real-world events.

It is clearly easier for larger companies, for whom events are just one element of their offering, than it is for smaller companies who would struggle financially if their event was postponed.

New challenges

Event organisers also face new challenges in 2022 and beyond, most notably the economic downturn. At this point, it is difficult to see how marked the global slowdown will be. It is likely to be deeper in some territories than others. The UK in particular, which has always been a world leader in events and conferences, is predicted to have slower economic growth than much of the rest of Europe.

If consumers have less disposable cash, then attracting them to events might prove to be difficult in 2023. It is not just consumer-facing events. Businesses that are uncertain about their future economic performance inevitably look for ways to cut costs and budgets to buy tickets for events could be cut or even rescinded.

Event organisers will need to double down on showing ROI for their attendees, to ensure that they continue to attract customers.

“In-person events and conferences should be on the agenda for publishers in 2023. Yet the savvy ones will keep their options open too”

Hybrid events

One of the few bright spots for event organisers in the pandemic was the way that many of them were able to experiment with virtual events. While there is never going to be a substitute for in-person networking, b2b conferences seemed to work successfully in attracting audiences watching at their desks.

Hybrid events, where part or indeed all of the event is available online, can also significantly extend the reach of a conference. Tortoise Media in the UK built much of its initial business plans on events with members having access to discussions in its London newsroom. The pandemic shifted the events online, which saw a huge increase in the number of people able to attend.

In 2022 Tortoise returned to producing in-person events, yet almost every gathering is filmed and is either live-streamed or made available to members at a later date.

The company found that there were many benefits to offering its live content virtually. It was able to build up much larger databases, saw its social media presence reach new levels and was able to harness the virtual events to generate data and intelligence which it has been able to monetise in other ways.

It isn’t just Tortoise. Donna Dia, Director of Events at Condé Nast, stressed the imperative of still incorporating digitalisation into event strategies. “We must commit to ‘hybrid’ models of engagement that will offer the exclusivity of physical events whilst maintaining the global reach that only digital events can sustain,” she argued at an event a year ago.

Virtual events have also created opportunities. Bauer has added online conferences, events and even access to some editorial discussions via its membership models. This year it launched Inside Empire, a series of virtual events exclusive to the movie magazine’s VIP Club subscriber base. The first event featured a panel of Empire staffers discussing the art of the interview – from their favourite stars to sit down with, to their biggest conversational disasters.

So, it seems that publishers, while more bullish about events than they were a year or so ago, are not going to be jettisoning virtual offerings any time soon. There are some clear benefits from hybrid events, from data accrual through to reach extensions, and these in turn create revenue generation opportunities.

An uncertain future?

Besides, it surely makes sense to keep an open mind about how events might work in the future.

In late 2021 I attended my first in-person event in a year at the PPA Independent Publisher Conference. It was during a session on the future of events, with presenters speaking optimistically about the return to in-person events, that I got a news alert informing me of a new Covid variant emerging from South Africa, Omicron. You know the rest of the story…

It may feel like we are through the worst of the Covid pandemic, but that is purely a hunch as no one really knows. Covid might not dominate the agenda as it did in 2021, but publishers need to have plans to cope with any potential future pandemic.

In-person events and conferences should be on the agenda for publishers in 2023. Yet the savvy ones will keep their options open too.

Header image: 7th Son Studio | Shutterstock.com


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