10 Things that will Dominate Conferences and Events in 2021

Time After Time. Too Much Time on My Hands. Time in a Bottle. Closing Time. Back in Time… Like the songs say, time passes. Sometimes slow. Sometimes at the speed of light. You can’t change it, you can’t stop it, you and I are simply along for the ride. Time has not been kind to anyone planning a conference or event this past year but now, here we are. Sitting at the dawn of a new conference and event industry.

Some say that this new world will be like the old but it won’t, this future will be nothing like what has come before. This new world will belong to the nimble, the daring, the unafraid, the lucky, and those that are too stubborn to stop moving forward.

As conferences and events return, they will look different but the end result should be the same. Attendees will be engaged, enlightened, and educated. The changes will favor the attendee, and that is a good thing. They may not want to come to the event in person, they may want to only buy a session or two, or they may want things we have yet to invent. To get ahead of it all, we must understand what is on the horizon and how we can best reach those far away shores.

Here are ten things we think are on tap for 2021

Virtual Events are Here to Stay

At the start of the Covid-19 Era we helped a live event client transition to virtual. The process was smooth as butter… but… everyone on the client side agreed that it was more work than they imagined. One of the positive side effects of the switch was that attendance was up. Way up. In fact, their paid numbers grew by almost 75% and when polled, the old guard remarked that it was the best conference ever and the newbies said they were down to do it this way forever…. So, until things change, this event is now an annual virtual conference.

Now, this is probably the most extreme case of “virtual is here to stay” but we will see hundreds if not thousands of organizations moving at least a portion of their meetings and conferences to the cloud. Board meetings, mid-year conferences, you name it, organizations are realizing that not everything needs to be in person.

Hybrid is Just over the Horizon

So. The Rona runs its course, the vaccine is in wide distribution, and cities are starting to reopen! Whoo hooo…. But, it is not like flipping a switch and live events are back to 100%. We may go years before things return to what sane people would call normal. Some things that will hold us back? Supply lines and science deniers. You can make vaccines but you have to get them to market and once it is in the market, everyone needs to get the jab in order for them to work.

The short term solution to this problem will be hybrid events, a mix of live and virtual. Organizations need to start thinking about their conference plans because these events need lots of good old fashioned planning to make sure that the audience at home does not feel like they are missing out. You need to be thinking about anchor desks and MCs, platforms and performers, in-person and virtual fees.

Technology Will Continue to Confound Organizations

When Covid reared its ugly head, everybody and their brother launched a virtual platform. We ended up with some amazing pieces of technology and some that belong on discount at Vinnie’s House of Virtual Virtuosity. On top of new players, well known technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Attendify are rolling out improvements so fast that even professionals like us have a hard time keeping up and this is only going to be exacerbated by the introduction of technologies used in Hybrid events.

Sponsors are Confused

Sponsors are the lifeblood of many a conference budget and right now, their heads are spinning. We have a client that paid 20K to sponsor two events. For the first event, they received an amazing virtual “exhibit booth” with options for live video, recorded video, PDF placement, live chats with attendees, scheduled meetings, and more… For the second event, they got a logo on a page with a link to their homepage. I will let you guess which one the client preferred. You must be 100% honest and define the value proposition of your event and spell out exactly what sponsors are going to receive. They want to give you their money, respect that.

Your Attendees are Getting Tech Savvy

Organizations might be drowning in the analysis paralysis that accompanies a new platform but you remember Becky? You know the lady. Couldn’t find the power button on her laptop if it had a flashing light and a foghorn… My how things have changed. Becky is now jumping on Zooms, launching polls, and is all up in the chat box telling peeps how her new 1080p webcam makes her look ten years younger…

You can use this to your advantage by starting to incorporate more robust features into your virtual events to add new layers of education, engagement, and entertainment… That being said, remember that there will still be some Luddites that will simply refuse to understand how their camera works.

Attendees are Afraid

Live events will come back. We may be excited and ready to dive back in but that does not mean our attendees are quick to throw on the swim trunks. Some are afraid, confused, and they wish someone would give them straight answers about what to expect and since they are not getting it from their elected officials they look to us to make wise decisions. When the time comes, make sure that you put your feelings aside and look at your event precautions through the eyes of an attendee that is scared of leaving the house. If you make the most fearful unafraid, the rest of the gang will be A-OK.

In Person Attendance will be Down for 2021, 2022, and 2023

If you build it, they may not necessarily come. In fact, by looking at our non-scientific, anecdotal, totally paper napkin event data, we can predict that we may sit at 50-75% attendance rates for the next few years.

Why? Covid has had side effects beyond the disease. Our pesky little friend has taught many people that virtual works and that getting great continuing education doesn’t mean they have to miss little Timmy’s baseball game. Covid has also decimated the travel budgets of many organizations. Add to this that many other attendees may want to attend but have been laid off, furloughed, or are just flat broke. We must be prepared for attendance not being what we hope it will be, keep your estimations low.

In Person Events will Look very Different

Our in person events are going to look very different than they did in the 2019 BC (Before Covid). Social distancing, sneeze guards, and masks will be with us forever and need to be taken into consideration when planning any conference or event. You must now have a line item for hand sanitizer and PPE.

Vendors Love Us but Desperately Need Money

When live events come back be very careful. Of course our hotel partners want our attendees to be safe but higher up the food-chain, they are seeing dollar signs. That means that Covid will be out of Force Majeure clauses, cancellation will be more strict, and some may even try to force us to meet when there are Covid flare ups. Don’t get mad at your hotel sales person or conference services director, it is not their fault. Blame shareholders who have not gotten any dividends and their C-Suite minions who see their careers passing before their eyes.

Some Will Wonder Why We Can’t go back to Normal NOW

You see these folks on LinkedIn all the time, pushing for the good ol days with no regards to the health and safety of their members, attendees, and vendors. These ding-dongs who have lost their grip on reality, do not understand that Rona flare ups will happen and that systems that have been offline for almost a year will take maintenance, hard work, and love to start back up. On top of that, supply chains have been wrecked, key vendors are now out of business, and hotels, conference centers, and audio visual companies will have to rehire, restock, and retrain thousands of workers before we are back to operating normally.

What Happens Next

Yes. Covid will end. When? Who knows but it will and when it does, we need to be ready by being ahead of the curve. Start looking at how your conferences and events will look in 2021, 2022, and even 2023. Think about the changing attendee outlook and how you might lean into it rather than fighting against it.

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