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The Return of In-Person Events Sparks Both Excitement and Anxiety

Skift Take

Countries across Europe are moving to loosen restrictions on travel and in-person gatherings, and many states within the U.S. are following suit. In-person events may be back, but how do attendees feel about the change?

While most of the event industry is looking forward to the removal of Covid restrictions, the real question is this: How will attendees feel about it?

Things are changing in the event industry across the globe. Covid restrictions on travel are being removed and other restrictions are being relaxed. Amongst the European countries that will soon relax (or have already lifted) rules are the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, the U.K., Norway, Greece, and Czechia. While Covid rules in the United States have always varied significantly from state to state, the country as a whole is similarly moving towards looser restrictions.

With the prospect of a lasting change on the horizon, how attendees will react to the return of in-person events is fast becoming a hot topic.


Those in Favor May Have to Convince Others

Some attendees are excited about going to in-person events. They want to meet people in person. They want to be on the road, away from home, and doing all the things they enjoyed pre-Covid, and who can blame them?

“As an attendee, I’m excited to return to more in-person events,” said Heather Mason, CEO of Caspian Agency. Mason is enthusiastic about the return of events, but she sees herself as “an attendee that has more of a risk appetite.”

With an eye to the varied mix of perspectives possible on this topic, Mason called for event organizers to think more carefully about persona-based marketing. In order to appeal to attendees reluctant to return to in-person events, organizers will need to develop targeted messaging. Mason added, “The Covid-era has put us more in the marketing mindset […] something we should have been doing before. But now it’s essential, and it’s demanded.”

While the world is not yet pandemic free, much of the media seems to assume that all is well. Whether this is backed up by the latest statistics is debatable. However, many people need to work, and for many that means meeting people. Let’s not forget those road warriors who struggled when they were required to stay at home or within their own country. For them this will be welcome news.


Those Against Limited Options

At the other end of the spectrum are the people who have enjoyed not having to attend events in person. Many of these people welcomed the opportunity to do their job without travel. For many introverts, for example, it simply meant being more selective, choosing which sessions to attend, and which type of online networking to engage in.

There are a multitude of issues that may affect their ability to enjoy in-person events. For some, the very idea of in-person events can induce anxiety. They will be more anxious about making the right choice for their health and career.

Shawna McKinley, director at Clear Consulting, is keen to remind us not to forget the issues that existed even before the pandemic. Childcare support, and the cost of registration, travel, and accommodation may all curtail the participation level of women, caregivers, younger professionals, and low and middle-income earners at in-person events. “It would be tragic to re-marginalize them simply because they can’t physically attend,” said McKinley


Organizational Responsibilities Shift

The power of peer pressure can be enormous. It takes a rare individual to go against the tide and mention their worries when colleagues are excited about the return of in-person events.

Mahmood Noman, people director of Bradfield College, pointed to the need for organizations to rethink the way they approach in-person events. Given how charged people’s feelings can be on this issue, shifting norms may call for open and honest conversations with staff. “Many of my colleagues and their families have suffered through the pandemic and a return to in-person events will cause great anxiety,” said Noman. It is entirely possible that staff who were happy to attend pre-pandemic, may have qualms today.


Behavior Changes and New In-Person Priorities

Organizations must consider the welfare and safety of staff, but must also balance this with the need to be in front of their customers. Often the best way to engage with potential clients is to meet in a face-to-face setting.

There are also lessons to be learned from the pandemic experience, such as changes in participant behavior which are impacting event design. According to Annette Gregg, senior vice president of experience at MPI, attendees who come to in-person events are placing greater priority on experiences that happen outside the conference room:

“What we noticed at our June 2021 [World Education Congress] event was that people were more measured in their participation in everything going on. They didn’t feel obligated to fill their entire day with educational sessions; that could have been because they were operating at a slower pace than pre-Covid, or they were content to spend the time catching up with friends in the hallways.”

– Annette Gregg, SVP of experience, MPI

Gregg explained that these observations have changed MPI’s approach to event design moving forward. Speaking of plans for the association’s next major in-person event, WEC 2022 in San Francisco, she said, “We will focus on social learning, gathering spaces, and some white space or wellness time built into our agendas.”


Taking Sustainability Seriously

When it comes to discussions around the return of in-person events, we would be remiss to ignore the question of sustainability. Some of the key issues that concern event attendees today relate to climate change. This is a fundamental issue that resonates on a personal level with attendees who are actively shaping their lifestyle around their sustainability commitments.

Local sourcing, carbon usage, and sustainability concerns are likely to have a heavy impact on attendee choices. It can really matter when choosing between hybrid, virtual, and in-person events now that more of us have tasted all three flavors.

“Having made a personal commitment to reduce high-carbon travel prior to the pandemic, I’ve found the adaptations made during COVID-19 have helped me work and live in alignment with my values while actually expanding my options to engage in communities and experiences that are distant from where I live.”

– Shawna McKinley, director, Clear Consulting 


Greater choice means greater uncertainty

The fact is that the return to in-person is not as simple as it seems for attendees. Brandt Kreuger, technical producer for the event industry, points out that the decision to go back to an in-person event may be made at a wide variety of organizational levels, or it may be up to the individual to decide for themselves if they feel safe to participate.

Further, getting value out of participating in onsite events may also be a moving target. “Definitions of what makes a worthwhile event experience have already and will continue to change,” said Krueger.

As restrictions to meeting in person are gradually removed, the choices before attendees broaden. We may see an initial rush to in-person events. However, once the dust settles, attendees may well make choices that not all organizations will have anticipated. Ultimately, only time will produce the data that reveals all.