What’s Ahead for Conferences in 2022

Well, the world certainly remains unpredictable, doesn’t it?  This time last year we thought we were on the path to mostly in person conferences after the wholesale shift to virtual or cancelled conferences in 2020.

In 2021 many producers employed a hybrid model – a combination of both physical and virtual components, so people who were comfortable meeting in person got do so, and people not comfortable participating in person could also participate. And many conference producers postponed their events to later dates – this made the Fall conference season, specifically the October timeframe, even busier than usual.

Producers were largely betting that delaying their events would buy safety.  That strategy mostly worked, for awhile…

This year we are already seeing conferences being postponed to later in the year, like World Economic Forum Davos, which moved from January to May, and RSA which moved from February to June. Other conferences are being shortened, like CES, which dropped its last day, or cancelled, like DLD. Some are moving fully virtual again, like all Wall Street Journal conferences for the first half of 2022 while other conferences are aiming for a fully physical return, like Collision in June.  Currently the most popular trend is hybridization.  Giving producers and audiences the most options, hybrid conferences are likely to be with us through most of this year.

Wired reported that at CES this year, things couldn’t have been “weirder”. The show was shortened by a day, it was hybrid, and several large companies including Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Intel backed out of exhibiting there.  More than 150 companies had marked their attendance as “digital only”.  All keynote presentations were livestreamed for remote attendees.

The pandemic is not just making conference planning difficult.  In its December 13 issue, Bloomberg Businessweek wrote an article about how Return to Office (RTO) is the biggest business consulting opportunity since Y2K.  Virtually every company, large and small, is currently trying to figure out what their work location policy will be.  No one can avoid thinking about this issue.  The article concludes that while there is a plethora of “expert” consultants offering all sorts of advice (often commanding hefty fees), “no one knows anything”.

According to Forbes “Returning to in-person conferences after almost two years remote is sure to be a healthy mix of excitement from feigning normalcy alongside outright trepidation as breakout groups and buffets are reintroduced amidst new variant headlines.”

“Conference sponsors are investing more than ever before in creating safe experiences for attendees to mix, mingle and develop business relationships. If you can attend, attend. But don’t be surprised if, after almost two years of isolation, the excitement is quickly outweighed by exhaustion.”

Conference producers will often require proof of vaccination for physical attendees and we can all expect to have social distanced seating and continue to be masked for the near future at any live conference.

According to event management platform providers Bizzabo  and Ungerboeck four main trends will shape conference planning in the first part of 2022.

  1. Hybrid events, which grew sharply in 2021, are here to stay, for now. Face-to-face events will be back in full swing come 2022, but there will still be a virtual element playing a part. In-person events will always reign supreme over virtual. By going virtual, attendee numbers increased substantially due to events being more accessible to attendees. Instead of visitors having to travel and being away from the office for longer periods of time, live content could be delivered virtually.  Until now, the cost to attend a virtual event was nominal, if not free. Moving forward, fees will be introduced to help cover the additional AV and streaming costs, and also to entice people to attend in person when possible.
  2. Event and venue safety is here to stay. Event safety measures aren’t just about spot cleaning and hand sanitizer stations. Pre-event preparation needs to cover what protocols are in place before and during the event, any restrictions around being vaccinated, attendee interactions and physical contact comfort, and limiting or reducing registrant/attendee numbers.
  3. More smaller events. In 2019, the average number of event attendees at the largest conventions and exhibitions was nearly 5,000 people. But the days of in-person events with thousands or tens of thousands of attendees jockeying for seats or VIP events are gone — at least for now.  There will be a rise in smaller, in-person events that use hybrid strategies to reach a wider audience. These micro events — like hybrid events — often cost less to produce and pose fewer health and safety risks.  With micro events, producers can offer more events throughout the year and close the attendee experience gap that arises over the year between annual events. Event content can be parlayed into on-demand resource centers that keep attendees coming back throughout the year to continue learning, connecting, and more.  As the pandemic persists, event professionals must embrace hybrid and virtual ecosystems, prioritize health and safety, and create event experiences that keep attendees engaged and coming back for more.
  4. Networking will be in high demand. Some people haven’t been able to gather in person for threeyears. The ability to connect face-to-face, to share experiences and learning, discuss how their companies are coping, and convey their future predictions is important to event professionals. In a recent Bizzabo poll 42% of event professionals said that the biggest driving factor to attending an event in 2022 is being able to network.

So, whether you’re the HR lead planning your RTO strategy or a conference producer planning your conference strategy this year, what are you to do?  That’s the big question. We think it makes sense to move forward with cautious optimism. But expect conference date and format changes, a push toward physical gathering whenever possible, and most events having an online component for the foreseeable future.

We advise that you keep going and retain patience – this uncertainty will all stabilize over time.   Check back here soon for more updates and trends on the 2022 conference landscape and remain optimistic!