It’s a cliché, I know, but COVID-19 has had an impact like nothing before on the events industry, and scientific conferences have not been spared. The arrival of the pandemic put brakes on all substantive meetings and conferences, and save for a few hybrid events here and there, it has not been the same since March 2021. Fifteen months on we are still some way before some semblance of normalcy returns when venues and public gatherings will be allowed to operate at full capacity.
Why Events Still Matter
A major activity in the life of a scientist, regardless of the role or sector, is the professional event, such as conference or meeting. Events provide an important space for practitioners to present their work, gain new skills, and acquire fresh ideas that can help further their research/careers.
Events are also important for brainstorming, networking and making vital connections with other scientists and suppliers and can lead to new initiatives, papers and funding. This is why scientific events matter.
From an economic viewpoint, events are a global force, contributing $1.2 trillion to the global economy through direct spend by delegates, attendees and organisers, as well as the millions of jobs supported, directly and indirectly.
The most popular scientific events, ranked by aggregated attendance, are seminars and corporate events, conferences and exhibitions, trade shows and fairs, and product launches. Interphex (mainly US-based), CPhI (Europe, US and Asia) and AAPS (US-based) represent the most prominent events and meetings annually on the pharmaceutical events calendar.
A Change to the Hybrid Model
With the pandemic raging, travel halted, budgets tightened and venues ordered to close, the events sector was forced to rethink and remodel their operations. Smart event organizers saw virtual events as an alternative, opening up opportunities that had never existed in the events industry before. Organisers had a lot of trial and testing to do in order to transition online. And people were excited by the idea of attending virtually as the “new normal”.
Virtual events offered a much needed break for organisers and permitted meetings to continue. As the situation improved, some organisers moved to hybrid events, which allowed some delegates to meet in person whilst also communicating with others virtually.
The hybrid innovation has allowed companies to continue to offer and run events much more frequently, and so far, this does not look like a temporary shift.
And although the number of physical attendees is restricted, hybridization allows extension of the event’s reach geographically, making it more cost effective and a more inclusive experience for both planners and attendees, a real positive. Moreover, as the content can be recorded it can be reused over and over again, increasing its life span.
Hybridisation represents a fundamental change in how events will work in the future, and hopefully, now means even greater engagement by companies and attendees.
The only problem, though, is that virtual events are cutting out most of the supply chain. Suddenly, venues are no longer in as high a demand as was before. Neither are caterers, furniture rentals, sound and lighting engineers, cleaners, and exhibition stand builders. All of these roles are being scaled back with the increasing resort to virtual events.
What Returns and What Changes?
There is no doubt that physical events will bounce back. Science is after all a social endeavour, and as scientists we thrive through physical interaction with other scientists and other humans. Getting back to normal, however, will take a while, and during this time, scientific meetings and events will more likely look very different. Expect more sophisticated virtual participation options, smaller satellite events complementing larger gatherings, and targeted events as people carefully weigh benefits and risks of attending events.
This year, and probably most of 2022, travel will likely remain complicated. But as more positive shoots of economic recovery emerge and bloom, the sector will bounce back strongly. Below is how events professionals predict the industry developing:
Annual general meetings and conferences
The annual general meeting and conference has been and will still remain the main platform for meeting, networking and exchange. Pre-pandemic, the annual meeting and conference typically attracted 500+ attendees, convening centrally, and interacting closely. But in the age of Covid-19, conferences do not sit well with social distancing requirements. This has made them nearly impossible to hold – both logistically, due to travel restrictions, and as a matter of public health.
When they return, the annual conference and meeting will likely look very different. You can expect shorter, more sophisticated events, with more virtual participation options, greater use of event technology, mobile apps and social media. We will likely see event split between the main event (50 to 100 attendees) and many more break-out, intimate sessions of anywhere between 10 – 15 attendees.
With mass meetings being one of the proven vehicles of spreading COVID-19, it is understandable why people will be sceptical about attending live conferences soon. Therefore, smaller events with a manageable audience are the immediate future of the industry. You can expect to see smaller satellite events aimed at complementing larger gatherings. So if the main event is in London, you might have smaller hubs in Frankfurt, and Madrid.
For a long time now, many organisations have been questioning the ROI on tradeshows and conferences. So while interest in targeted events, such as roadshows, trunk shows and townhall meetings, had been growing, we will see interest in these grow. The advantages of roadshows is that they can either be stand-alone events or a series of identical meetings taking place sequentially in multiple locations and allow companies to take their message out and meet targeted audiences face to face. Think of it as the event going to where the audience is rather than the audience coming to the event.
Event technology is a term used to describe all of the digital tools, apps and software used in the events industry. Everything from check in & registration, to diagramming, to social media tools, and more can be considered event technology.
Acceptance of event technologies has been increasing over time and we now should expect event organisers and planners to increasingly leverage technology not only to manage COVID-19 risks but also to improve attendee experiences.
The pandemic has forced the event industry to adapt to various challenges at an unprecedented speed. This has even pushed event planners to innovate, as exemplified by increasing adoption of hybrid and virtual eventing.
Although virtual events bring the benefits of removing time and space constraints and increase participation, the need for social interaction cannot be dismissed.
Going forward, we can be sure to see changes in the way scientific events are delivered, including greater use of technologies, shorter, more intimate physical events and many other as yet to be implemented innovations.