Event Management

Events Are Back: But Where Are All the Attendees?

Skift Take

Events are back, but the attendees are slow to return. What’s behind the low numbers?

When 2022 kicked off, it felt like the golden year had finally arrived for the event industry. As vaccine numbers continued to rise and employees made their way back to offices, massive gatherings seemed to once again have massive appeal.

“Omicron was just a temporary setback for most event planners and organizers,” Ken Sterling, executive vice president at BigSpeak, wrote in Inc in February. “People want to reconnect, engage and learn with their colleagues—even with precautions.”

However, as the second quarter of the year approaches, the verdict is still out on whether that level of pent-up demand will prove the norm. Some event professionals are welcoming back smaller audiences.

“I think we have to accept we’re going to see lower attendance at in-person events, for some time,” Tamar Beck, CEO of Gleanin, recently wrote on LinkedIn. “Particularly those large, mega events where people used to attend from all around the world. Some events will never get back to their previous attendee numbers.”

From somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 attendees at CES to a 20 percent decline in attendance at SXSW, numbers from the first wave of 2022 events underscore that it’s not quite time to officially declare that the event industry is back. And while the pandemic isn’t over, Beck pointed out that issues with attendance figures aren’t simply about health concerns, corporate spending policies, and travel shutdowns.

“It will be far harder to attract attendees (and get them to show up) because the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way most people value their time,” she wrote, “and so their willingness to take time out, even for a day, is less than it was.”

While the new normal may not feature record-breaking numbers anytime soon, it’s not all doom and gloom for the event industry. If attendees continue to be slower to return than we all hope, organizers can take proactive steps to reevaluate their value propositions, reshape their experience design efforts, and remember the role that digital can play in their success. Here are four considerations to help navigate the near-term future of attendance.

1. Emphasize Attendee Quality Over Quantity

Many events have operated with a bigger-is-better marketing strategy. However, it may be time to sunset the historical approach of touting “more than 50,000 attendees” or “the industry’s biggest buying event.”

“We’ve also been so focused on saying, ‘Well, there were 200,000 people at our events,’” Cathy Breden, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, said in a recent interview for the EventMB podcast. “That’s great, but what was the quality of the buyer?”

Instead of thinking about the size of the crowd on the show floor, it’s important to think about key demographic information that matters to exhibiting companies and sponsors. What role do attendees play in their companies’ purchasing decisions? What percentage of the audience is in the C suite?

And in addition to highlighting the quality of attendees, it’s wise for organizers to underscore the quality of interactions. How many one-on-one meetings are booked? How many qualified leads will exhibitors have to follow up with when they’re back in the office? Rather than looking at trade shows at large branding events where people are there simply because others are also there, it’s wise to look at shows as places to have meaningful conversations and nurture essential relationships.

2. Focus on Fun – Not Just Business

After two years of staying away from planes, plenty of professionals in a wide range of industries recognize a lesson that spells trouble for everyone involved in the travel industry: Lots of business can still get done without ever getting on a plane.

“While companies recognize that travel is crucial to business success, they will seek to hold onto some of the cost savings brought by the pandemic pause,” a report on the return of business travel from Deloitte states. “The embrace of tech platforms for meetings and collaboration will mitigate the need for certain trips, and these platforms will continue to evolve to better meet some of the needs that travel used to fill.”

With that in mind, the event industry will need to think about what cannot be delivered via a WiFi connection: fun. Consider the live music industry, which was equally devastated by the pandemic but is already on a path to a robust recovery. Live Nation’s CEO Michael Rapino outlined a “roaring era” for concerts and other productions after the company projected that two-thirds of its festivals would increase attendance relative to 2019 levels, with average ticket prices also going up by approximately 10 percent.

While going to a trade show or annual conference might not seem to have a lot in common with going to Coachella, the challenge for a host of either event is the same: Create an experience that helps people smile and reminds them of why life can feel so much better when they’re not sitting at a computer.

3. Double Down on Your Digital Strategy

Still, no matter how compelling any type of live event is, some people simply won’t be able to make the trip. And while plenty of event industry veterans may be ready to close those Zoom windows, there is no turning back from screen-based engagement. As participants have become increasingly comfortable with logging into an online platform instead of walking into a physical building, the future of bringing people together will involve digital tools.

“For many shows — especially for associations — there’s a registration fee, and that registration fee can be substantial,” Breden said. “And if there is lower attendance, the associations need to make up that revenue. That is where I think that there are opportunities around digital.”

Consider a show that used to attract 20,000 face-to-face participants that might only attract 15,000 this year. With a continued focus on digital engagement, the organizer might be able to make up the gap — and even attract a bigger audience. If another 10,000 participants log on to consume educational content, watch new product demos from exhibitors, and chat with other viewers, the event has expanded its reach.

Organizers will need to spend time determining the appropriate price tag for these digital experiences, too. It’s no longer about giving away content in the hopes of eventually inspiring those content consumers to pay for the face-to-face experience. Instead, digital events should be viewed via the lens of potential revenue drivers and community-building tools.

4. Design a 365-Day Community

Before the pandemic, one of the main shortcomings of events — particularly trade shows — was a structure that made buying, learning, and networking limited to a once-a-year occurrence. However, earning education credits, meeting new prospects, and making purchasing decisions can bring value all year long.

While the concept of a 365 community isn’t new to the event industry, actually creating one has been somewhat of a rarity — until now. In May of 2021, IAEE launched Market Hub, an online marketplace that helps facilitate buyer-seller connections across all the days on the calendar. Breden said that she has noticed other organizations following suit.

“The trade show is not the endpoint,” Breden said. “It’s just a touchpoint throughout the year.”

To make the most of those touchpoints, Breden believes that some organizations will need to train new muscles for their sales staff.

“The sales staff are going to be selling across all different assets to their exhibitors and their partners,” she said. “So it’s a shift in thinking and it’s something that may need some reskilling and upskilling of their sales staff.”

Shifting a mindset and retraining employees is never easy, and the current business environment and geopolitical climate may make those adjustments even more challenging. However, event organizers who proved to be resilient enough to make it through the past two year will be able to navigate this wave of uncertainty.

“People are going to be more discerning about the events that they do attend,” Breden said. “But overall, I’m very excited that it seems like the worst is behind us. In the long term, we’re going to come out better. It’s going to be different, but I think it’s going to be better.”