The Conference Producer Perspective Part 2: What’s Ahead for 2021

As 2021 unfolds we are all cautiously optimistic that life will begin to resume some sense of “normalcy”. Many of our clients have been asking, what does this mean for the conference world?

We surveyed dozens of conference producers last quarter to find out how they envisioned conferences evolving in 2021. In a nutshell, they’re hopeful we’ll start to see the return to some physical conferences this year while they take advantage of the benefits virtual conferences provide to audiences, speakers, and producers themselves.

The Emergence of the Hybrid Conference

No one knows exactly when we will find ourselves back in conference halls with thousands of attendees from across the world. But most of the conference organizers were optimistic that we would be moving towards live events as we enter into the second half of the year. In fact, some conference organizers such as Code Conference, VivaTech and Mobile World Congress have even gone so far as to announce their intentions to hold live conferences in June.

Regardless of when we’ll start returning to physical conferences, the overwhelming majority of conference producers echoed the same sentiment – that virtual conferences are here to stay, even when we start meeting in person again. This means that we will begin to see a hybrid conference model emerge- one that combines both physical and virtual components. Conference producers have realized that there are significant benefits to a virtual model. For instance, with the time commitment and cost of travelling to conferences eliminated, conference producers have been able to attract more prestigious speakers and larger pools of attendees to many of their virtual conferences.

In our survey, we asked Will in-person and virtual events co-exist post-pandemic?

Some responses include:

“I think both will co-exist. Both are very interesting ways of working. …we might see a migration between two types of events; where local conferences (with ‘local speakers’) will tend to be more in-person, and where international conferences (with speakers from overseas) will take a digital form. Seeing a French CEO at a Conference in California might be rarer moving forward . From an organizer standpoint, it is easier for us to invite a busy CEO to participate virtually because it only takes 50 minutes and has no associated costs.”

 “The biggest change post-pandemic will be the resurgence of in-person events. It will likely start out small and well-socially distanced, but live events will inevitably come back…  That said, virtual is here to stay. For us, virtual events will remain a complement to our in-person offerings.

“I would be interested in exploring how to produce an in-person event that could be accessed as a virtual event as well. But could we have in-person and online attendees both see and participate at the live event? It’s technically doable, of course, but would it become too complicated in practice? We’ll see.”

“I expect that when in-person conferences become viable again, we will have to offer co-existing options for a while.”


The Key Topics for 2021

In addition to looking at what form these conferences will take, we also asked conference organizers what they expect will be the most important topics at the conferences they produce in 2021.

While there will certainly be discussions focused around pandemic and post-pandemic response, we consistently heard some recurring themes beyond the pandemic re-emerge including the future of work, technology adoption, sustainability and the environment and the search for equality.

Following are some of the responses we received from conference organizers:

“…managing widespread talent, the new global virtual reality, and climate change.”

 “I think all the topics will be very interesting because the current crisis acts as a call of action for virtually all industries. On the long-run, I think that the Economic Resilience / Healthcare Resilience and Climate Resilience trio will be leading the conversations.”

 “Representation and inclusion, healthcare, the “post-pandemic” world, food security and agtech.”

 “Everyone I’m speaking with is excited about the new future of work — what will work look like, what will offices look like, what will talent acquisition and development be like if employees are no longer expected to come to a particular location to work? And what will it mean for the future of cities and their business districts?”

 “I think it will largely be the same topics… organizational culture, well-being, D&I issues, and agility. It is already clear that people are sort of sick of hearing about the pandemic directly, though return to the workplace will presumably get another big push.”

 “Managing Hybrid Workforces, Mental Health, Employee Engagement, Financial Planning, Risk Management, Crisis Management, Pandemic Preparedness”

 “Given the current timeline, most conversations in 2021 will center around what society will return to as restrictions — e.g., remote work and limited travel — become optional rather than necessary. The biggest question is mostly around how we will work and what a shift to remote will mean for infrastructure and mobility. Another string of topics will center on the pandemic’s economic impact on a national level but even more so its socio-economic impact, as the K-shaped recovery has amplified previous issues around inequality.”

 “I’d want to hear from winners so to speak—people who have figured out unique solves for their business, new technologies and new behaviors have emerged and I want to hear from those who are on the cutting edge.”

Conferences Will Continue to Evolve This Year as External Conditions Change

We expect that at least for the first half of the year, conferences will continue to look similar to the last 3 quarters.  We do anticipate seeing some continued innovation from the most forward-thinking conference producers, however, as they strive to find ways to create value for their virtual audiences and their sponsors with more interactive experiences. We know that whatever the year brings the most forward-thinking conference producers will remain resilient, creative, and innovative, always finding ways to create value for their audiences.