Between more mild variants of the COVID-19 virus (like the omicron variant), and increasing vaccination rates around the world, it seems as though things are finally beginning to approach some semblance of normalcy.
Masks are coming off; offices are filling up; and it’s looking more and more likely you’ll make it to that summer concert you bought tickets to last year. As more people feel comfortable returning to social life and public gatherings, in-person work and industry events will almost surely make a comeback soon after. At engineering.com, we’re seeing this trend beginning to play out, with many in-person engineering and industry-related events already scheduled to occur sometime in the latter portion of 2022.
However, while we might be back on the trade-show floor sometime this year, it might not look exactly like it did in 2019. After all, we’re living in a post-COVID, or COVID-normalized world now, and things may never be exactly as they were pre-2020 ever again. Read on to learn more about the state of industry events today, and how best practices for industry events are changing forever!
The State of Event Organization Today
It should come as no surprise that in-person industry events were hard hit by the pandemic and subsequent health and safety gathering restrictions. Large gatherings of people from all across the country/world under a single roof sounds like an ideal environment for a virus to spread because, well, it is!
In the early days of the pandemic, many in-person industry events were outright canceled or indefinitely postponed. Northstar Meetings Group, a business event planning organization, has surveyed professional industry event planners since the pandemic began. In summer 2020, they found that at least 60% of business events had been postponed or rescheduled to a later date. Those events that hadn’t been re-scheduled or canceled had been adapted into virtual events (more on this later), but the vast majority of events were simply shuttered for the time being.
However, these were the very early days of the pandemic, and once we all came to understand that this was going to be our new way of life for the foreseeable future, many professional events were moved online. By September 2020, 90% of respondents to the Northstar survey reported that their events had moved online entirely.
Within the engineering field specifically, our survey data has largely demonstrated the same drawdown in the usefulness of in-person industry events since the pandemic began. In 2019, our annual survey of professional engineers found that nearly a quarter of respondents relied on in-person industry events for engineering-related information. In our most recent survey from this year, that number had declined to just over 10% of respondents. This isn’t to say that in-person events themselves are not effective, but that they became an ineffective tool for information during the global pandemic.
However, as previously noted, we are now seeing this trend reverse. Northstar’s most recent survey - conducted in March 2022 - found that 64% of respondents were planning some sort of in-person industry event to take place sometime in the coming 3-month period. What’s more, only 11% of event planners reported having to reschedule their upcoming events, which is considered near-normal levels of rescheduling.
Clearly, in-person events are due for a comeback this year, but we’re not exactly sure they’ll look the same as they did before.
A Desire for In-Person Events and Webinar Fatigue
Before jumping into what we see as the future of in-person industry events, we should note that the relaxation of gathering restrictions isn’t the only reason that in-person events are making a comeback. The fact of the matter is that many professionals want to attend in-person events again and are making a push for their return.
We already noted that prior to the pandemic, roughly a quarter of engineers felt in-person events were useful tools for acquiring the latest information related to their industry or trade. The fact of the matter is that a large number of people enjoy traveling for business, and also find the gathering of minds, expertise, and technology at something like a trade show to be incredibly useful for their own professional or personal improvement.
This brings us to the topic of webinar fatigue. Increasingly, we’re finding that many of our contacts feel overwhelmed by the number of webinars on offer today. Put simply, it’s a numbers issue. The pandemic has caused a surge in the sheer number of webinars on offer; for example, ClickMeeting published a report detailing the number of webinars being offered on their platform. Between March 2019 and March 2020, the number of webinars on offer increased 500% - from 60,000 webinars bringing together 870,579 attendees to nearly 300,000 webinars with 3,203,035 attendees. And that’s just one platform - a fraction of the total webinars happening around the world!
While webinars offered an immediate way to accommodate so many of those looking to attend in-person events, their usefulness as a one-for-one replacement of in-person events is lacking. Many studies have found that virtual events and webinars just “aren’t the same” as their in-person equivalents. From the host’s perspective, only 51% of event-based marketing teams feel satisfied with their virtual events platform, and 2 in 3 (or 67%) find it “difficult to articulate a brand” via a virtual event alone. From an attendee’s perspective, nearly three-quarters (71%) feel virtual events just can’t mimic the in-person experience.
At the same time however, this doesn’t mean that webinars are ineffective tools. Webinars and other online methods of event organization offer a number of benefits: access to a larger audience, relatively low setup costs in comparison to in-person events, easier scheduling for speakers, etc. Webinars have been incredibly successful over the last few years and our survey data shows 60% of engineers report their usage of webinars increased in 2021. We aren’t seeing a decrease in the effectiveness or utilization of webinars, but rather a desire from some event attendees to get back to in-person events and business travel. It’s because of this that we feel the future of industry events will be hybrid.
Offering some blend of virtual and physical gathering spaces for an industry event - what we refer to as “hybrid” events - is already becoming the norm for many industries. Hybrid events take the pressure off of those who want to attend but don’t feel comfortable gathering in-person quite yet, while also offering those who feel comfortable a physical venue to gather with colleagues and experts. In essence, it’s the best of both worlds.
Many large organizations have already adopted this event planning strategy. For example, in the first year of the pandemic Apple moved all of its events online. However, in 2021 they announced they would move to a hybrid model, with a small group of developers, students, and business executives attending in-person, while everyone else can attend and engage in keynotes, forums, Q&As, and developer talks virtually. This year, they’ve already announced they’ll be doing the same.
Unique Aspects of Hybrid Events
Hybrid events are not just in-person events live-streamed to an online audience. Rather, those who attend a hybrid event virtually are given the same sort of access to Q&A periods, break-out rooms, discussion groups, etc., that they would at an in-person event, but in a virtual environment. This way, virtual attendees can feel as close as possible to actually attending an event without physically being there.
It can be beneficial to think of the virtual component of a hybrid event as an “experience,” rather than just a live-stream. In fact, the best hybrid event organizers plan out content or discussion groups that are exclusively available to virtual attendees. This way certain aspects of the event can be designed with a virtual audience in-mind, rather than having virtual attendees be something of an after-thought or add-on to the “real event” taking place in-person.
For example, your event could have dedicated discussion groups and seminars that take place online. Those who attend the event in-person can still engage within these groups, but they must do so through the event’s exclusive online platform. This ensures that virtual attendees will have the same level of input and access to others within this particular gathering space of the event.
Mastering Hybrid Events with ProjectBoard
There are a growing number of platforms that enable this kind of event, but for the engineering space specifically, we can’t neglect to mention our own platform ProjectBoard.
We launched ProjectBoard a few years ago, but its usefulness and growing popularity within the engineering, academic, and business communities has exploded since the pandemic began. The platform allows an organization to design their own online gathering and group workspace within which they can host certain interactive aspects of their event. Your virtual and in-person attendees can engage with one another on specific projects, tasks, or simply discussions, in a way that is fully customizable by the event host.
For example, Youth Science Canada (YSC) is using ProjectBoard for most of its regional fairs and events across Canada in 2022. While you’ll have to register for one of their events to gain access to the internal workings of their specific event platform, you can view some of the publicly available information on their platform site here. Within this online space, attendees can work together on specific projects or topics, provide feedback to one another, upload working or finalized documents and designs, and link their project to others within or outside of the platform.
Much like industry gatherings, customer user groups have been heavily impacted by an inability to gather in-person. Where users of a particular software or technology once gathered to discuss, troubleshoot, or ask for support from one another, these meetings have since moved online. This is another area ProjectBoard can help bridge the gap between virtual and in-person. For example, a single instance of ProjectBoard could host numerous sub-discussions on specific technical problems that users are encountering. Once users work together to find a solution, that discussion on how they came to their conclusion will be documented, categorized, and stored virtually for as long as the ProjectBoard instance exists. Users no longer have to deal with collating notes after an in-person discussion or exchanging word documents after a virtual discussion. They can interact with one another either in-person, virtually, or both via the ProjectBoard instance, and have all of their work documented for future use.
The power of ProjectBoard lies in its ability to be customized to meet the needs of almost any engineering-related organization. If you’re interested in learning more about how your hybrid or online event can benefit from using ProjectBoard, click here to contact us.
The Future of Industry Events
In-person industry events are here to stay. The data demonstrates that engineers and other professionals want to gather with one another at industry events, and they long for these sorts of gatherings they’ve been deprived of for the last few years. But online event activities like webinars are also incredibly useful, and we don’t see their success fading anytime soon.
Hybrid events, when done right, truly offer the best of both worlds for event attendees. By maintaining a strong online component to the event, you’ll benefit from a potential worldwide audience not bound or restricted by travel. You’ll also benefit from having all the event’s information and discussion documented virtually, giving that content a second life, potentially, as it can be shared with others down the road. And by hosting an in-person gathering, you’ll be giving those who do feel comfortable traveling what they’ve been asking for - an excuse to get out of the office!
If you have any questions or comments about hybrid events or how to manage a return to in-person events in 2022, then feel free to leave a comment below and we’ll engage with you there.