To Host or Not to Host: Strong Headwinds Limit In-Person Event Revival

An empty stadium enforcing social-distancing requirements exemplifies one of many difficulties when hosting in-person events

As the United States opens back up for business, one question burns in every event professional’s mind: to host or not to host an in-person event? There is a lot to consider, and no easy answers. Face to face socializing is one of the most longed for activities since the onset of the pandemic. However, of over 100 events currently live on the Banzai platform, none are in person.

“There is absolutely a desire to get back together, especially on the part of sales organizations,” says Tina Baylocq, Founder and Principal at WOMMCOMM events. “What we didn't foresee was the incredible amount of hesitancy about this vaccine, and the emergence of COVID-19 variants such as Delta, Delta Plus and Lambda, which are now causing countries to shut down again. Now we're back in ‘wait and see’ mode.”

Widespread lack of readiness

Baylocq says corporate clients began reaching out in March to start planning in-person gatherings for summer, and sales staff at event venues have been pressing hard to get events under contract, but so far none of those plans have come to fruition. There’s a lack of readiness across the board.

Many people are now gathering with family and friends, but comfort levels for attending larger events with strangers are uneven. Businesses are proving reluctant to commit to live events, and the event industry isn’t back at capacity. In a May 2021 survey of 300+ event professionals conducted by Northstar Meetings Group, 40% reported their finding that hotels and venues lack adequate staffing, while 36% said that their supplier contacts are gone. 

It all points to most live events being out of the picture for 2021, and any that do happen will be dramatically scaled back.

“We’ve been talking with clients about live events in an exploratory way--small pop-ups, regional events and exclusive invite only gatherings,” says Marisol Jenkins, an Events Manager at Firewood, an event agency that contracts with Google and other large corporations. “The discussions I’ve been involved with are mostly about events for 15-20 people.”

Despite these explorations, all their events will be virtual for the rest of the year, Jenkins says. “Our clients are still trying to figure out what their audiences are comfortable with.”

Daunting challenges

The COVID-related challenges are still daunting. Within the U.S., vaccination rates vary widely from state to state, and places are open for business to different degrees. If you’re looking to attract an international audience, attendees will have to contend with a confusing patchwork of travel restrictions, and in many places COVID is still raging and stay at home orders are in place

Any in-person event hosted in 2021 will require safety precautions which will further increase the total cost. The CDC still recommends attendees at large gatherings stand six feet from people who don’t live with them. That means you either need more space or fewer people; either one reduces potential ROI. 

Then there’s testing. To ease fears, many planners are considering rapid testing prior to entry, which runs about $40-$45 per person. Even for small events, planners should be prepared for slow and last minute registrations as people ponder the safety and necessity of it all. 

Not surprisingly, executives are proving reluctant to fork over large deposits in the face of continued uncertainty.  “We want to make sure that we put these contracts in front of leadership teams and make sure that they know what's available to them,” says Baylocq. “But then we're looking at an incredible amount of spend that we may or may not use. I can’t recommend that they sign them.” 

A closer look at ROI

Besides the current financial risks, companies now have a year’s worth of data on the results of virtual events, giving executives a benchmark to consider event ROI in a new light. In-person costs are climbing; planners say hotel prices are higher than expected. Other components may also cost more. At 4.99%, the U.S. inflation rate is at a 13-year high and is expected to continue rising. 

Many companies have found that virtual lets them reach a broader audience, attract high-level speakers more easily and cheaply. They can also eliminate the cost and productivity impacts of having people out of the office traveling to and from events.

Some companies are finding that to be a formula for more bang for the buck. The Information, a tech news publication, pivoted their annual in-person event to a virtual one and drew twice the number of attendees. They found it much easier to recruit speakers, since they could do the gig from the comfort of their own homes. According to CEO Jessica Lessin, with attendance up and overhead down, the event made more money. Fears that networking would suffer didn’t materialize, and Lessin says she has no plans to return to hosting the event in person any time soon.

Hybrid or the highway?

Over the long term, it’s likely that even as in-person events return, hybrid events will become the norm. A 2020 Marketing Charts survey of 350 executives found that half (50.7%) think that in the future all live events will have a virtual dimension.

Whether the in-person component will ever return on a large scale is anyone’s guess. Earlier this year, Salesforce announced that Dreamforce 2021 will be a global event with a dramatically scaled back in-person component in selected cities, and an expanded virtual component. The event is sure to be closely watched as a bellwether to what the future holds. 

We’ve now gotten very used to a world where anything can change in a matter of weeks. People may be tired of it, and they may be willing to go about their business as usual in their personal lives, but when it comes to signing on the dotted line and committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to a live event, corporations are nowhere near being ready.

In the meanwhile, the learning period for companies to improve upon virtual events has been extended. So has the runway for adoption of new tools and platforms to support them. Audiences are growing increasingly comfortable attending from home and skipping the time, travel and potential health hazards. The best path forward may be for companies to focus the bulk of their efforts on virtual for the foreseeable future.