January 4, 2021
The demand for and needs of virtual and hybrid events continue to evolve along with the changing Covid-19 situation and advancements in event tech.
In December, the FDA approved the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines for emergency use. Healthcare workers, the elderly, frontline workers, politicians and other vulnerable populations have been among the first to receive the vaccines. So, what does this mean for the return of in-person events? For the future of virtual and hybrid events? In the near-term, not much.
Though industry optimists expect the first large, in-person events to take place in the second half of 2021, others don’t expect a return before 2022. According to recent research by Socio, 1 in 5 event professionals reported they do not plan to produce any in-person events in 2021. Somewhat conflicting, the American Express 10th annual Global Meetings and Events Forecast found that most respondents expect to hold their next in-person event in the second half of the year. These events, however, will be small, simple meetings or internal meetings. I think it’s therefore safe to say that virtual events will continue to dominate the first half of the new year, if not longer.
This is true regardless of the success of the vaccines. Despite the first distributions of the two vaccines, Dr. Vivek Murthy (President-elect Biden’s nominee for surgeon general) believes it may take until late spring to finish vaccinating just high-risk populations. Lower risk categories will follow, with the general public likely to begin receiving the vaccine closer to mid-summer or even early fall 2021—and that’s if everything goes according to plan. Of course, supply (AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are also working on vaccines) and demand (people actually lining up for the vaccine) will affect rollout, and plans will vary from state to state. In a recent survey by MMGY Global, 50% of respondents said they plan to take the vaccine as soon as it’s available to them. 40%, however, plan to wait at least a few months to see if it’s safe and effective and 10% don’t plan to get vaccinated at all. It’ll thus take a while to vaccinate 60-70% of the population and achieve herd immunity. Even so, it won’t be the end of mask wearing, frequent hand washing, testing, and social distancing.
You also have to take people’s feelings and perceptions into account, and I’m not talking about people’s views on vaccines. It may take some time for people to feel comfortable gathering again in large groups, especially if those groups contain a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Those used to working from home or who’ve permanently shifted to WFH may be less inclined to travel, and employers will be less willing to take on the cost and liability of sending employees to events if they can attend virtually for less. Interest in virtual events may be waning, but people are increasingly comfortable with virtual attendance. The fact is that public perception of events has been forever altered by the pandemic.
Even when face-to-face meetings do begin to return, there will be challenges, including ever-changing regulations (by airline, by nation, etc.), social distancing while traveling and onsite, enforcement of health and safety measures like masks and sanitization, as well as reduced flight schedules and slimmer budgets. Budgets will certainly remain an issue throughout 2021, especially now that companies realize how much business can be done without traveling. And there’s a lot of uncertainty: Will people still need to quarantine upon arrival at/return from a destination? Will individual countries, airlines and/or venues require proof of vaccination and what will that look like? Planners need more runway for in-person than virtual events. With so much uncertainty and without new approaches to event contracts, virtual will remain the go-to / safest option.
That brings us to hybrid events: Planners should anticipate a hybrid model for the return of in-person events, with a small, localized in-person component and a much larger virtual attendee base. The challenges will be two-fold: Organizers will have to improve the virtual format by investing in new tech and higher production values and ensure the safety of on-site attendees. Right now, as they should, meeting and event professionals are focused on technology; if their budgets were increased by 10%, nearly 40% said they’d spend that money on increased use of tech (American Express). And yet, 66% are still using the same event tech they used before the pandemic (Splash). That means that planners in 2020 scrambled to repurpose tech that wasn’t designed for fully virtual or hybrid events, and it showed. Stay tuned for future blog posts on vetting virtual event platforms, virtual events 2.0, considerations for hybrid events, and how to create Covid-safe meeting spaces.