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Tick Tock Tech: The Future of In-Person Events

April 12, 2022
By Alison McNally

Spring is in the air, at least here in New York. People are exiting the comfort and safety of their homes to venture back out into the world. My son is no longer required to wear his mask in school. I went to a game at Madison Square Garden. But am I ready to go back to a full-on trade show? 

Live in-person events are beginning to make a comeback. Overall attendance numbers are signifying an increased comfortability with in-person attendance, even when new variant waves surge. Despite a tense global mood, thousands flocked to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress (MWC) as it returned in pre-pandemic force February 28 – March 3. SXSW quickly followed – attracting music, entertainment and tech afficionados to Austin in mid-March. They too experienced larger crowds and a return to “normalcy” after years of disruption. While registration numbers did not match 2019 figures, organizers saw an uptick in sales in the weeks just before the event. Proof of vaccine and a negative COVID-19 test were required which gave attendees an added layer of comfort in attending.  

As variants continue to spread around the world and countries determine their own approaches to handling the pandemic, ranging from learning to “live with” COVID-19 to some countries announcing extended lockdowns through April, we find ourselves asking: are we really back to normal? 

Members of TRUE Global Intelligence (TGI), FleishmanHillard’s Research and Intelligence practice, peeled back the layers after CES earlier this year to discover what is motivating people as they consider returning to in-person events. In the one page summary, you can see that all roads seem to lead to uncertainty and co-existence.

How Americans are approaching in-person events:

  • Forty-eight percent of U.S. adults feel comfortable attending a work conference; and we only expect that number to grow. 
  • Compared to early 2021, Americans are 20+ percentage points more likely to feel comfortable attending a trade show or conference according to TGI research. We’ve already seen this represented in attendance at big events like CES, MWC and SXSW (so far). MWC in-person attendance grew from 20,000+ in 2021 to 60,000+ in 2022.
  • Location does matter, though – local is still an easier sell. It will be interesting to see if this trend shifts come the late summer or fall, although the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine could also have an impact. 
  • The decision whether to hold in-person events or utilize virtual and hybrid options is becoming increasingly dependent on individual preferences and not a single “tipping point” or industry standard. 
  • Media focus is shifting away from format, safety precautions and consequences, and returning to the big news of the event. Even as the first big in-person event of the year, CES 2022’s post-event coverage refocused on awards and speakers (and grew 58%!), while for MWC 5G, the metaverse and who showed off, drove headlines.

It seems that people are slowly emerging from their homes, more willing than they were in 2020 or 2021 to brave the airport or tradeshow floor. We plan to look again after other returning shows, but in short, it is safe to say we are learning to live with COVID-19. Time will only tell how this evolves but the data shows us that we are increasingly willing to live with the risk.