Post-Covid: What Are We Learning (From Attendees, and) From Virtual Events?

The world is coming out of the long sleep, event-wise, and starting to move in new directions when hosting conferences, trade shows, association events, and such.  While people are anxious and excited to get back to “normal,” it’s also clear that “normal” doesn’t mean that things are the same as they were.

Officially, the word is that we’re moving to learning to live with Covid, not that it’s extinguished and no longer an issue. The fact is, it’s not going away, perhaps ever, and perhaps becoming another of those seasonal flu inoculations that are available for those that wish to have them.

This has real implications for the event industry, and already it’s changing how people attend or don’t attend, in-person events.  Here’s a look at just some of the feedback we’re seeing from both event managers and attendees:

  • Registrations begin strongly as they have traditionally, however, cancellations as the date approaches for a given event can be staggering up to the last minute.  We are hearing numerous cases where cancellations come in waves approaching the event date, or the “last minute to cancel for a refund” dates.

  • We have completed some research into how attendees see events, and the common thread is that they want to have options.  They tend to hesitate on events where the cancellation is punitive or placed too far out from the event to be useful for last-minute issues.  This seems to pull from the airline industry (and many hotels, and other aspects of the hospitality industry) where they had to address cancellation clauses, adjusting for flexibility on the part of customers.

  • A surprising trend is that attendees are using a mixed approach to events. This mixed approach has them using the virtual components of a given event, while still physically in the same town, or even facility of the event.  They attend sessions they feel are critical to be physically present for by going to the session rooms, and other sessions that they don’t feel they need to be present for virtually, perhaps from the hotel lobbies, their room at the venue or other locations they feel are appropriate.   We see this same behavior for vendors – if they can get the exhibit information virtually, they’ll do so first, then visit only a handful of vendors on the trade show floor to get further questions answered or begin their customer relationship with that vendor.  There is great hesitation on the part of many attendees to “press the flesh,” shaking hands and having more casual interactions where they are not required.

  • Attendees expect more from virtual venues and in-person venues alike.  From the virtual side of things, the platform should allow for this flow between in-person sessions and virtual, should allow them to participate in discussions, without regard to where they physically are (they should be able to ask questions, see others’ questions, etc.).  They also like the flexibility to take in more sessions than is physically possible at the in-person event.  We were surprised by this; they have modified their expectations of shows such that they have come to expect access to missed sessions from an on-demand standpoint.

  • Attendees are burned out on Zoom style “meetings” that have doubled as sessions – too many people interrupting, lack of materials for the session, inability to have different options to participate, and an overall lack of “conference” feeling in a Zoom or multiple-contributor “room,” making it difficult to take in session information.

The biggest thing heard from attendees is a need for options.  The options need to continue up to and through the event, with a preference for post-event access as well.  this is precisely where a solid, experienced hybrid solution comes into play.  For relatively low expenses, as an event organizer, it’s possible to eliminate possibly one of the biggest expenses and risks in the event management cycle.  Refunds, credits, and cancellations.

By having a solution where the attendee makes the choice, you fulfill their desire to take in the event in the way they want.  At the same time, it addresses access, content viewing and interaction, vendors, and the other aspects of the event, making it possible for the attendee to make the choices – to choose exactly how, on a moment-by-moment basis, they wish to participate.

The biggest request overall from attendees, and the best way to assure the success of the event, was to provide choice.  The choice on when and how information was gathered from the event.  The choice on how they interacted with vendors.  The option to do so live, online live, on-demand, or any combination of these on a session-by-session, interaction-by-interaction, basis.