I think it’s safe to say that when forecasting 2020, not a single event industry pro believed a global pandemic and the mass shutdown of their businesses were on the horizon, forcing many of us to, yes, pivot. As we continue to battle COVID-19 surges across the country, many of the makeshift, ad hoc methods that were put in place at the start of the pandemic have now developed into best practices and standard operating procedures for event marketers.
And TBH, the start of 2021 will probably look a lot like the end of 2020. But with the availability of a vaccine imminent, the future of events is starting to look brighter. So we asked some industry experts to peer into the crystal ball and share with us what they saw. From the rise of hybrid events to mindful vendor hires, here’s what to expect in the coming year and beyond.
1. Virtual experiences aren’t going anywhere.
We’ll still be grappling with gathering restrictions and limited capacity guidelines well into 2021, but even when in-person events return at a large scale, companion digital and virtual experiences will still be expected and necessary.
“When IRL is back, so will the expectation that an alternative digital experience will be available to a broader audience. Not always just a stream, but digital spaces, explorations, games, and experiences that allow IRL and virtual audiences to play together. …We have yet to see consumers fully embrace this, but the pandemic may have been that push that makes this a fully-realized format,” says Austin K. Johnston, founder and CEO of AKJOHNSTON. This means event producers and planners need to up their hybrid event game and think beyond a livestream broadcast.
Ryan Costello, CEO of experiential marketing company Event Farm, says he sees an upside to this though. “These events will open up many new possibilities for increased overall audiences and interesting sponsorships with two venues—IRL and virtual.”
2. Guests will be craving in-person experiences even more.
On the flip side, Johnston says he believes that “low-tech, high-touch experiential is here to stay. …Tech may be attractive now that people know how to use it, but for the same reason, there will be a higher value placed on the avoidance of tech. I would predict an uptick in environments completely void of tech and screens to counteract the hangover of tech usage from 2020.”
Cannonball Productions CEO Kate Levenstien agrees, saying that “events will be back and when they are, I think the industry is going to see a massive boom. People are thirsting for community and gathering. People’s senses have been deprived by a void in events. They want to see the lights and hear the music at live concerts. They want to smell and taste delicious flavors at BBQ and beer festivals. They want to feel a high-five and hear the cheering as they’re finishing an IronMan.”
3. Swag earns its name.
Johnston predicts that we’ll be able to say bye-bye to the “cheap junk” found at past conferences, now that folks are receiving a “more tailored and purposeful approach to branded items.” While there had been a recent shift toward more conscious, sustainable gift giving, the COVID-19 pandemic may have been the tipping point, with more curated gift sets and brands delivering boxed experiences with well-thought storylines. “Luckily, we think this is a trend that moves people away from a meaningless branded pen or tote,” he adds.
4. The great outdoors will continue to be the go-to venue.
As we continue to navigate the health and safety measures required for indoor gatherings, outdoor events will become even more popular, with event planners looking to “provide experiences that bring indoor luxuries outside,” explains Annie Perezchica, senior vice president of events for The Brand Guild.
Levenstien echoes that sentiment, saying that “outdoor venues just became a whole lot more vital to producing safe events. While there are a lot of challenges with hosting events outdoors (e.g. weather, permitting, sound), there are many upsides especially regarding COVID-19 (e.g. better airflow, pretty environments, abundant space for distancing and activations).”
5. Touching will be off limits.
“I think we will continue to see contactless innovations make events safer, smoother, and more interesting,” Perezchica says. “New technology will allow guests to interact with their environment in different ways—everything from no-touch event check-ins that include a health screening to DJ playlists with a custom scent activated by QR code.”
And that applies to food too. Because of the health and safety concerns surrounding COVID-19, “event planners are leaning towards micro-presentations and single servings for food at events or parties of any size,” instead of buffet-style offerings, says Suzanne Halperin, vice president of catering and banquet brand operations for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.
6. The vaccine will be a game changer.
“With the recent news of a successful vaccine soon to be released, I believe our meetings, conventions, and events will return to some normalcy starting in Q3 2021 and beyond,” predicts Sonia Fong, vice president of conventions sales at Greater Miami CVB.
“With the advancements of rapid testing and the COVID-19 vaccine, event organizers and venues will likely require proof of vaccine through a tracking app, or mandate on-site rapid testing prior to entering an event,” Levenstien says. “I believe this will be the way we return to ‘normal’ at full capacity.”
For example, Ticketmaster recently announced the development of SmartEvent, a new suite of technology tools that aims to help fans safely return to live events. According to the company’s release, they are also working with event organizers and venues as to how and when to integrate COVID-19 test results as a criteria for entry to live events.
7. Event programs will be scaled down.
In addition to overall smaller events with less guests, Costello predicts that “event agendas will be maximized for smaller sessions” and that conferences and the like are “less likely to have large format general sessions and keynotes.”
8. More events will follow a hub-and-spoke model.
On a related note, Levenstien predicts that organizers will attempt to host the same number of guests using different methods such as adding on additional days and limiting the number of attendees to a specific time slot for entry/egress. “The hub-and-spoke model will also be utilized for conferences and large-scale events with micro events occurring around a focal event.”
9. Planners will be more mindful when it comes to selecting vendors.
When planning events and hiring vendors, “it’s becoming a priority to incorporate diversity and sustainability,” Halperin says. “Think spotlighting Black- and LGBTQ+-owned businesses as well as amenities that are eco-friendly and working with local vendors as much as possible.”
10. Plan B will be even more important.
“For planners, we don’t know what the future holds so there will be more emphasis on not just having a ‘rain day’ plan but fully fleshing out events with Plan A and Plan B,” explains Sofia Figueroa, event manager at Square. Adding to that, the company’s planning process now includes having two scenarios for each event—in-person or fully virtual.