2020 was the year of virtual events -- but what will 2021 be like?
Way back in 2019, it was very difficult to get people to attend a virtual event. Webinars were commonplace, but I rarely ever attended them. They were clearly a marketing engagement and I recognized that as a consumer, even though I used them as a marketer.
Then COVID-19 came to the U.S., everyone went home, and physical events were essentially over.
I remember my last in-person event back in February. People were aware of the virus, but it wasn’t dominating the conversation the way it did just 20 days later. There were fist bumps and small containers of hand sanitizer all over the place, but we weren’t quite anticipating the massive shutdown that was right in front of us. If only we knew.
Next year promises to be better, but what does better actually look like? Vaccines are on the near horizon, but we all know that they will take time to be distributed, and a significant portion of the population will not take them.
Vaccines and mask-wearing could effectively snuff out the virus by the end of 2021, but the fact is that both of these factors have been, and will continue to be, politicized, and people will put up a fight. If this is the case, what happens to the promise of in-person events?
In my opinion, we are looking at a massive change to the event industry in the future. The landscape was littered with hundreds of trade events in all categories of business. That will not be the case going forward. I foresee a few tentpole events per industry where large groups can get together, but attendance will require vaccination.
I see virtual events being maintained as frequency building, intimate affairs that allow for one-to-few-style conversations. The tentpoles will be the one-to-many events where big ideas are introduced and customer engagement is high. The Oracle Open World and Dreamforce model will still work, but I think these events will happen in a “bubble” where attendees have to prove they are either vaccinated or immune due to having had the virus in the previous nine months.
I can’t imagine that large companies will still host these massive events and take on the liability of being a super-spreader event without at least trying to implement precautions. Requiring attendees to be immune to such a contagious disease, while alarming, could become commonplace.
This kind of requirement does tread on thin ice, as it skates perilously close to HIPAA privacy laws. Requiring attendees to be vaccinated may not even be legal, but I still won’t be surprised if companies move in this direction.
Large events are the lifeblood of industry. They provide high value opportunities for customer engagement, cross-pollination, networking and education. The way virtual events fulfilled in 2020 was impressive, but they can never take the place of breaking bread with a customer and getting to know them as a person. That type of interpersonal connection underscores a great working relationship. The industry still needs these kinds of events.
As I write this, I wonder how many of you are willing to jump in with both feet first and attend an industry event in the middle of 2021? I
I know all of you will want to be there, but are you willing to do what it takes to be there? Will you be comfortable with being at a large in-person event knowing the virus is still out there and that you may be susceptible to it?
Vaccines aside, those first few events are going to be awkward as people get used to them with all the new protocols and procedures. Will people shake hands? Will they be comfortable sitting in a room with 3,000 other people to hear a keynote speaker? Even I don’t personally know how I will answer that question as I sit here at home, once again on a stay-in-home order in California.
Here’s hoping things will be a bit more “normal” in the middle of 2021!