Once considered a ‘nice to have’, digital event technology has become a ‘must have’ for many organisations determined to maintain vital business connections during the pandemic.
However, data from a global Reed Exhibitions survey has shown that a post-COVID return to face-to-face events will be welcomed by attendees and exhibitors alike. So where does this leave the future of trade shows? The data indicates they’re set to ‘go hybrid’.
The Barometer Survey
When the scale of the global pandemic became clear in early February 2020, there was little in the way of formal, comparable data to help the events industry understand COVID’s immediate and longer-term impact on our customers, our events, and our global marketplace.
To fill this gap, Reed Exhibitions conducts a frequent COVID-19 Customer Needs and Mindset Barometer, reaching out to exhibitors and attendees from around the world across 201 events.
COVID-19 has not diminished the value of in-person events for participants who are committed to returning as soon as restrictions are lifted, according to the data. Rather, participants are increasingly open to the idea of engaging with digital platforms alongside face-to-face interactions, giving rise to the ‘hybrid’ trade show.
We are already applying these findings to Africa Travel Week (ATW) 2021.
In addition to the virtual show from 7-9 April, which consists of one-to-one meetings, content sessions and speed networking, ATW has lined up a collection of additional events throughout the year, which include: educational content webinars from May to August, Connect in the City Live from 1-3 September (a series of on-site experiences in the official host city of Cape Town), and a series of virtual masterclasses from September to November.
Digital event tools offer exhibitors a genuine opportunity to connect with their attendees, and do business, not only in the absence of physical events, but alongside them when they return.
Our survey found that 65% of visitors and 57% of exhibitors believe that digital will continue to work in conjunction with physical events after COVID-19.
For example, contactless technology is mentioned by exhibitors and visitors as an important way of making attendees feel more comfortable at an event, with 76% of visitors saying it would offer them reassurance.
In a post COVID-19 world, this technology will also speed up registration and entrance, and facilitate business connections and information exchange.
Rapid uptake of virtual shows
In the meantime, the appeal of virtual events – which offer remote buying and selling opportunities for attendees and exhibitors – is increasing.
A significantly larger portion of attendees currently find the idea appealing, compared with our June 2020 survey, and while exhibitors are less sure, they are coming around to the idea, especially as they see the benefit that hybrid trade shows will have to offer.
Our findings also show that a number of attendees who would like to carry out one or more event activities digitally are also looking forward to welcoming back in-person events as soon as they are viable.
Asked about their interest in specific digital tools, over half of the attendees (51%) expressed an interest in webinars. Encouragingly, the next two digital event tools of interest are live meetings software (43%) and a searchable database of content (42%), despite these tools being less widely available pre COVID-19.
Furthermore, attendees perceive virtual tradeshows to be beneficial specifically because they can control the conversation and ask questions, increasing their ability to get the information they are looking for.
As we look to the future, we must continue to transform our events to reflect changing customer behaviours and expectations. We must also aim to build on the enormous technological advances of the past few months and we look forward to using these to connect our industry in a meaningful way in 2021, starting with our virtual Africa Travel Week in April.
It’s another important step to making travel happen again.