Despite visitors showing a lot of interest in attending hybrid events last year, there are some signs that attendee enthusiasm may have begun to wane. Does that mean the end of hybrid events?
Trade shows are a popular marketing channel for businesses and represent a large portion of spending for marketing and event teams. However, where more conference-style, education-focused events have been able to replicate themselves online, trade shows have found it much more difficult to deliver value for visitors and exhibits digitally.
Explori, working in collaboration with UFI and SISO, recently surveyed 15,000 exhibitors and exhibition visitors to understand the road to recovery for the exhibition industry. Reassuringly the research found that demand for exhibitions has returned to pre-pandemic levels, and 45% of exhibitors say their budgets will return in the next 12 months.
The report also shares some interesting insights about attendee attitudes towards hybrid events and how digital events are actually increasing in-person participation. Is the exhibition industry any more enthusiastic about online events now that they’ve had some exposure to the format, or has interest actually waned with firsthand experience? We’ll take a deeper look at the research to tease out some of the nuances.
Hybrid Events — Do We Need Them?
Running contrary to many popular beliefs about the appeal of hybrid formats, the research suggests that hybrid exhibitions are losing popularity with visitors and exhibitors.
When visitors were asked to rate their interest in attending a hybrid event on a scale of 1 to 5, the average response in 2020 was 3.2 (or somewhat interested in attending hybrid events); however, in 2021 this average has fallen to 2.8 (not very interested). Visitors also indicated that digital events are their least preferred channel, with hybrid events coming out only slightly ahead.
This sentiment is also echoed by exhibitors. Explori’s exhibitor NPS benchmark for digital events currently sits at -51. This means there are many more exhibitors who would recommend against participating in digital trade shows rather than for.
But why is this?
There are two likely scenarios that could explain the waning interest in hybrid events:
Exhibitors and visitors only experience an event virtually or in-person
Both exhibitors and visitors say they favor in-person events over hybrid events. Over 80% said in-person events are better for doing business, belonging to a community, having an enjoyable experience, networking and making serendipitous connections.
One of the problems here is the terminology “hybrid”. It could refer to a digital and in-person event running concurrently, a live stream from a studio to a virtual audience, or a small, scaled-back in-person event with a majority virtual audience. However, these are simply different ways organisers can produce their events. Once an attendee has decided to participate virtually or in person they usually aren’t experiencing it as a hybrid event.
At EventMB’s recent Experience Design Summit, Gerrit Heijkoop, the founder of LiveMediaEvents, even suggested that we scrap the term “hybrid event” altogether. He said, “The term hybrid we should get rid of — it’s a production term. In an audience perception, they either attend a physical in-person event, or a virtual online event.” Apart from the few in-person attendees who might want to stream some content from their hotel rooms, most are experiencing it as a virtual or in-person event.
With this in mind, it’s not surprising that over the last 12 months, as in-person exhibitions have returned, interest in hybrid events has declined. Visitors and exhibitors are either attending the event in person or virtually. It’s highly unlikely they perceive themselves to be a hybrid attendee, even if they come in person and choose to stream some of the event content.
Exhibitors don’t fully understand how to make virtual work for them
The report found that exhibitors who have already participated in the digital portion of an event are actually less enthusiastic about future hybrid events, with most preferring a purely in-person model. It’s important to note, however, that the results also suggest that digital events have the potential to deliver better results for this sector of the event industry.
There appears to be a knowledge gap. Exhibitors may not be aware of the capabilities of online events and how to use them to achieve their objectives. Exhibitors who had received training from organisers were 39 percent more likely to invest in digital booths in future.
The virtual format represents a huge opportunity to connect visitors and exhibitors beyond the event itself — after all, hybrid audiences are only hybrid for the duration of the in-person component. The rest of the time, everyone is a virtual participant.
This presents a golden opportunity for exhibitors who are trying to increase brand awareness and generate leads. But exhibiting at a hybrid event is like exhibiting at two events at the same time. There will be a virtual booth and a physical booth, as well as pre-booked meetings on the event platform and on the show floor. Exhibitors have to think strategically about who they will send to the show. Where the ability to build rapport face-to-face and demonstrate product knowledge is critical for the show floor, for the virtual space, exhibitors need reps who have product knowledge but can also express themselves well in emails/messages and are comfortable video conferencing.
Considering the resources needed to exhibit effectively both in person and digitally, we also have to consider how viable hybrid events are for SMEs with small teams. It’s possible that hybrid exhibiting will be an attractive option for larger companies who can afford to allocate extra resources to it. However, it’s more likely that smaller teams will have to choose between exhibiting at the digital or in-person event. This is why 365-day online communities will be important in allowing smaller businesses to take full advantage of the increased reach and awareness possible with virtual events.
The waning interest in hybrid could therefore be a mix of poor past digital experiences, lack of training, and difficulties resourcing a digital and in-person event.
Digital Events: a Gateway to In-Person Participation
The research also suggests that visitors and exhibitors are more likely to decide in favor of participating in an in-person event if they already had experience with a digital event from the same organizer.
50 percent of exhibitors said that after attending an event digitally, they would be highly likely to attend the onsite event in future. Interestingly, visitors are more likely to use digital events to sample shows that are new to them. That way they can find out if the show is relevant with minimal time and cost outlay.
This is an important insight for organisers who have been quick to abandon the virtual component of their events. Digital events function as part of the marketing conversion pathway. It’s an opportunity for exhibitors and visitors to experience what makes the event special and relevant to them. Using data gathered from the virtual event, event planners can work with the marketing and sales team to establish a scoring framework. This can be used to score attendees, prioritize sales follow up, and identify what stage of the marketing cycle attendees are placed into.
The report also surveyed senior marketing decision-makers in the US and UK who did not use trade shows as a marketing channel pre-pandemic.
This group, termed “non-exhibitors” by the report authors, appear to have embraced digital events more than exhibitors, with an adoption rate of 80 percent versus 67 percent. This finding isn’t entirely surprising. It’s likely non-exhibitors have been more focused on using digital tactics to increase brand awareness and generate leads instead of attending trade shows. The proliferation of online events has allowed them to use their digital expertise to meet their objectives.
Following their digital participation, the report found non-exhibitors were more likely to convert into in-person exhibitors. But could this be a temporary rebound?
One of the draws of virtual events is the increased reach and data. Not only do exhibitors have access to a much larger audience of attendees, but they can also find out who has visited their booth, how long they spent there, what they engaged with, what talks their key accounts are attending, how many times their profiles have been viewed, how many connections they have made and how many meetings they have had. All of this insight allows exhibitors to understand the value that events bring to their business. Event organisers should consider how they are going to maintain this level of data transparency so that exhibitors can adequately measure the value of exhibiting.
Hybrid events are here to stay but how we refer to them, and whether we expect visitors and exhibitors to see themselves as attending a hybrid event, may change over time.
Visitors and exhibitors usually only experience events virtually or in person, so the use of “hybrid event” in this way may in fact be redundant. Alternatively, with so much content now available on demand after the event, it could be argued that all visitors and exhibitors are in fact hybrid. Exhibitors also don’t fully understand how to make hybrid events work for them. Despite poor past experiences with digital events, exhibitors may come to see the value in virtual — but they need training and support from organisers to understand how to meet their objectives for online events.
Digital events are a promising marketing channel for organisers who want to grow their events and provide more value for exhibitors and sponsors. Attendees who participate virtually are more likely to convert to in-person participants later on. This is particularly salient amongst non-exhibitors (companies who didn’t exhibit at trade shows pre-pandemic). However, with the increased reach and data exhibitors have experienced, organisers should consider how they will deploy technology at their event to enable exhibitors to measure the value of this offline marketing activity.