Combating Event Uncertainty in 2021

Call it zoom and screen fatigue, or simply burnout from over a year in quarantine, but many are anxious for a return to handshakes, hugs, networking and the feeling of being connected to those around them. However, the stream of online and virtual events, panels, speaker series and performances is never ending. Due to this increase in virtual events, the number of people able to contribute to any given conversation increased significantly in the past year; all anyone needed to participate was an internet connection. This has created a sense of global community, expanding from every corner of the world and constantly growing. As we start to think about what the world’s biggest events and stages could look like, it is evident that the benefits of virtual connection and access are strong and now well-established. Event organizers need to ensure they have contingency plans in place, especially with the uncertainty of the pandemic and its end still in question.

Hybrid elements of most major global events are here to stay so that the audience and participants can remain diverse and accessible, involving a mix of in-person and virtual participation. This hybrid model is vital to maintaining quality, engagement, and accessibility at large. The biggest challenge, however, will be to ensure that a two-tiered or hierarchical system does not emerge.

In a two-tiered system, the masses will be logging into an event online, participating—to the extent they can–from their corner of the world, while the more select groups are those who can afford to travel or be sent in person to the event. These select groups will be able to take advantage of those face-to-face benefits and more natural networking scenarios. To avoid this kind of system taking shape, intentional space—both virtual and physical—and intentional programming design must be further implemented. This involves putting forth an emphasis on the meaningful forms of digital inclusion that we learned to embrace during the pandemic.

Other issues to consider:

  • Global disparities. As the U.S. vaccination efforts have skyrocketed and the U.S. Center for Disease Control has loosened restrictions for those with the vaccine, the dawn of the end of the pandemic has started to feel more palpable. In the U.S. and a few other wealthy nations, about one-half of all adults have received at least one vaccine dose. Therefore, economies are re-opening and travel rates are rising, whereas much of the rest of the world will require many months, perhaps even a year before vaccination rate reaches a level sufficient to suppress the virus. This imbalance stark and noteworthy when speaking of a “post-COVID-19” society because the being beyond the pandemic is not a global reality. The disparities around vaccine distribution, ventilator capacity and overall public health resources are massive and cannot be ignored.
  • Inequality of experience. As hybrid events continue to become the dominant post-pandemic format, event planners face challenges in engaging both audience groups equally. A recent survey reported that 57% of audiences are more likely to attend the in-person option of a hybrid event. Therefore, connecting them with virtual attendees through the right venue and integrated technology would be the most effective strategy for attendees to achieve similar values and takeaways. Without a balance to ensure a standardized experience regardless of preferred platform, event planners may see a decline in attendance, engagement and overall success.
  • Associated costs. Creating successful hybrid events comes with increased expenses to execute, with A&V, venues and hybrid platforms requiring significant budgetary expenses. This should be viewed by organizations as an important investment. While virtual events remain widely adopted and are more cost-effective, many audiences find more value in attending physical spaces as certain elements are harder to replicate online.
  • Limitations of in-person capacity. Safety precautions for in-person events must continue to be taken into consideration as health organizations and governments relax lockdown measures. Event planners must account for traveling, accommodation and face-to-face meetings when managing these physical spaces to minimize the potential transmission of COVID-19. Following local and business guidelines regarding the capacity of attendees can result in an exclusive in-person version with limited spaces available.

Even as major global events are working to get in-person programming on the calendar, the uncertainty of virus variants and their potential for outbreaks remain. The World Economic Forum recently announced the cancellation of the in-person Davos planning meeting in Singapore, which was scheduled to occur in-August 2021. Many global convening organizations are taking cues from one another when establishing revised standards from global gatherings. Thus, this decision by WEF will dictate far-reaching implications for other major events schedule this year such as COP26 planned for Glasgow this November. As other large-scale events for 2021 and 2022 begin to take shape, it is essential for organizers to come prepared to execute backup plans and virtual components while efficiently communicating with participants, audience members and those in the larger, broader event community.