Will in-person conferences make a comeback after a year of virtual shows?

Photo: RetailWire
Jul 08, 2021

Surveys show an eagerness to return to in-person trade shows and market appointments, but also an expectation that virtual meet-ups are here to stay.

A survey of nearly 500 company decision makers in the U.S. and U.K. taken in December by FTI Consulting showed 46 percent plan to increase their trade show budgets to above pre-pandemic levels. Twenty-seven percent expect to keep budgets the same.

“Respondent sentiment indicates an eagerness to resume trade show participation to increase awareness of their companies’ products and services, following an unprecedented FY2020,” FTI noted. “Trade shows remain critical platforms for networking, lead generation, branding and knowledge development.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that virtual events are going away. Sixty-two percent of those attending virtual events were more satisfied with those experiences than in-person events. FTI wrote, “While virtual trade shows have impactfully filled the void amid the pandemic, they will likely remain and grow in a post-pandemic world.”

A dimmer view of virtual events was seen in a survey of 343 exhibitors across trade shows last August from event solutions company Tradeshow Logic. Forty-three percent of those who had participated in a virtual trade show indicated they wouldn’t do so again.

Virtual shows scored best for education/thought leadership, with 62 percent indicating they met or exceeded expectations. Only 33 percent, however, felt networking met or exceeded expectations at virtual shows and below-par scores on the same basis were seen for new product promotion, 37 percent; and branding, 48 percent.

A recent survey of 500 global fashion brands and retailers from wholesale management platform Joor found 89 percent of retailers plan to use virtual buying this summer, despite the return to in-person market appointments.

“While brands and retailers are keen to return to in-person showroom appointments, neither group is willing to give up the efficiency and extended reach of virtual selling,” said Kristin Savilia, CEO of Joor, in a statement obtained by Footwear News.

Twenty-two percent of brands in Joor’s survey are committed to a fully virtual market, while 16 percent of retailers are conducting only virtual appointments. Of brands hosting in-person meetings, 80 percent are meeting people in showrooms and 42 percent are going to trade shows.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Have virtual events proved themselves as a complement or replacement for in-person trade shows and market appointments? What’s your own experience with both types of shows and what do you expect to see going forward?

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"In-person conferences, like brick-and-mortar retail, will always be with us. But we will never go back to the way it used to be. And that's a good thing."

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25 Comments on "Will in-person conferences make a comeback after a year of virtual shows?"

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Neil Saunders

Yes, because not everyone wants to sit at home in front of a computer. Never traveling. Never meeting new people in person. Never seeing new things. Never experiencing new places, sights and sounds. Anyone who suggests that the whole world will go completely digital – in conferences, shopping, or anything else – does not understand human motivations.

Bob Amster

They were a good replacement during restrictive times. Only those in-person conferences that potential attendees consider truly worthwhile will survive. Professionals like to meet and chat with one another. Human beings are social animals. Conventioneers will be more selective from now on and will gravitate only to those events that provide a sense of personal as well as professional satisfaction.

Jenn McMillen

I think virtual is here to stay for the ease and reach but, as an extrovert, I cannot wait to get out and press the flesh again! Virtual is not a replacement for in-person relationship building.

Georganne Bender

My partner and I make our living as speakers and trade shows are our bread and butter. The pandemic has been tough but we have made it through and we are anxious to get back on the road in August. Virtual works for conferences but it will never be the same as attending a physical event.

The 43 percent of the 343 exhibitors who indicated they wouldn’t do a virtual trade show again are typical of the vendors we have engaged with as well: the independent retailers we work with share the same feeling. They want to physically get back to work choosing items for their stores.

What we see happening with trade shows is similar to what we are seeing in stores: people are comfortable buying certain things online while others require a physical experience. We may see a combination of physical and virtual in the future but in my opinion physical trade shows will be back.

Venky Ramesh

My take is that the frequency of trade shows will increase now that the cost barrier has been broken. If there was one event per year (like NRF), there will be one in-person and one (or more) virtual.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Interesting in that this just gives us one side of the story – the exhibitor side. From an attendee perspective, digital is certainly more efficient and from their company’s perspective, probably much more affordable. So we may end up exhibiting to each other rather than our target markets. All that said, I’d love to take a client out to dinner again. 🙂

Bob Phibbs

I am thankful I’ve had virtual conferences to speak at over the last 16 months. But the expectations and the reality are two different things. Yes it sounds great that a program can be seen whenever someone wants to see it but engagement rarely equals expectations. Just like online shopping cannot replace the in-store experience, half watching someone in a virtual environment while also checking email and chatting with people about something that has nothing to do with the program cannot engage in the same way as being in a room of people hyper-focused on the speaker. One isn’t better or worse necessarily but I can see conferences already booking me for next year as a great sign.

John Orr

There is a growing wave of want in terms of in-person experiences. Smaller, more focused virtual events have experienced a 2-5x increase in attendance over pre-COVID-19. The larger multi-day conventions, however, have delivered less traffic as many fit attendance in between their virtual daily work responsibilities. In-person events help to isolate the attention of attendees and lower disruption – which is what is starting to plague online virtual events of a day or more. Just as digital consumer behavior has grown, virtual event attendance has also and there will be a persistence in the value of virtual on our time and expenses.

Jeff Weidauer

In-person conferences, like brick-and-mortar retail, will always be with us. But we will never go back to the way it used to be. And that’s a good thing.

Rich Kizer

People like to go face-to-face in one-to-one conversations when making major deals. Idea generation blossoms, shared profit strategies are born. There is no way these connections can be reproduced at this effective level while looking at a computer screen.

Harley Feldman

Virtual events have earned their place among trade shows and market appointments due to the quality and low cost of attending them. However these sessions work best when the people involved already have a business relationship or processes for making deals. It is less effective for meeting people and establishing business relationships when people are meeting for the first time in a virtual environment.

My experience with virtual shows is that it is difficult to meet the person who is the best at addressing the products or issues that I am looking to have addressed. In-person conferences can have a similar problem, but the relevant players are typically close by to find and you can meet them quickly in person.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Virtual components of shows will flourish along with the revival of in-person conferences. We seek a sense of normality, which means more face-to-face events that reaffirm existing relationships and create new ones. However people may not look forward to fighting crowds at airports, queuing for transportation, and feeling like sardines in a can every time they enter an elevator.

Gary Sankary

I absolutely think that in-person shows will make a comeback, but I suspect in more of a hybrid way. Virtual access has opened up these events to larger audiences. This is a good thing that I don’t think many of these shows want to give up. At the same time businesses are always hesitant to send groups of employees to trade shows due to budget and time out of the office concerns. There is value in both models. I expect to see more shows that have key sessions streamed for larger audiences, while at the same time hosting engaging events for attendees to participate in.

Peter Charness

Given that last year had zero, any number of in-person conferences will constitute a comeback. From a business model standpoint, many on the vendor side saw travel expenses go from a considerable number to zero last year, and adding back in pre-pandemic travel expense just won’t be financially feasible. Let’s face it, there were more than a few conferences that vendors attended for fear of being missed, not because the event had high ROI. So comeback? Sure. At pre-pandemic levels? I don’t see it.

Dick Seesel

While at Kohl’s, I attended the JCK Fine Jewelry show in Las Vegas every year. If I were to choose today, I would absolutely opt for an in-person trade show instead of a virtual event. There is no substitute for being in person — not only because of the face-to-face relationship management, but also because of the ability to touch and feel actual merchandise. And I’m guessing that the exposure to new products, ideas and relationships is tougher to navigate in a virtual setting.

Ian Leslie

Like anything else, it probably depends on the vertical. Shows focused on digital products and digital technology will return to being in-person shows but perhaps never at the same level. Shows that rely on more touch and feel will have more of a need to go back to in-person.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Both virtual and in-person events should be part of anyone’s marketing portfolio, and smart brands will rethink the strategy and purpose for both types of events.

Lee Peterson

No doubt. We’ve got five lined up through the end of the year. As we’ve seen, humans are anxious to get back together, but even if that feeling is short lived the idea of meeting someone in person and just talking things through will not fade, especially after COVID-19. You don’t know how good the water tastes till you can’t have any!

Ryan Mathews
Like other BrainTrusters, I’ve also spoken at virtual conferences during the pandemic and I have to say I found it simultaneously more challenging and ultimately less fulfilling than delivering a presentation in front of a crowd, so I’m probably pretty firmly in the “compliment” camp. That said, I think we need to look at which conferences, which industries, and what content is being presented to make a firm decision, in other words, “it depends.” Most of us have earned a living directly or indirectly on the trade show circuit, and – if we were being honest – we would have to admit that if a high percentage of those shows disappeared, nothing would change. The trade show industry is just that – an industry – and an army of folks make their living doing little past staging, addressing, and/or attending shows, large and small. But let’s talk about value to the attendee. Is there a benefit, other than being able to write off a vacation and some freebie meals from suppliers, to attending all the… Read more »
1 year 2 months ago

Another issue is the current state of the travel industry. Travel is less pleasant at present than it was 2-3 years ago as many hotels continue to have limited services, airlines seem to be a mess of delays and cancellations, and rental cars are a bit limited and seem to have doubled or tripled in price. The road warrior who was used to getting a low mileage sports car or luxury vehicle and a hotel suite upgrade to an executive floor with a free comp full breakfast spread is no longer getting either of those things consistently, even with the highest loyalty at a given program, and this definitely causes a decline in the travel experience. Part of the experience of attending these shows was the travel aspect. If that goes downhill, is it going to be worth it?

Kai Clarke

Yes, yes, yes. In-fact we might see an even stronger shift to in-person conferences as companies return to a new “normal” in their trade events and market appointments.

Joe Skorupa

I can see a vendor and attendee split on the benefits of in-person trade shows. In-person, vendors get 100% of the attention of the people they are talking to, which is not the case for virtual trade shows. End-user attendees to virtual trade shows get to learn important information and multi-task or even if they don’t multi-task during a presentation, they can quickly jump back into work instead of returning home from a trip with a huge backlog of tasks and unread email. I think virtual trade events on feature-rich tech platforms will evolve and improve while in-person shows will not return to pre-pandemic levels.

1 year 2 months ago

There are a lot of reasons for in-person to come back, but I am not seeing it come back 100%. And if it only comes back 50%, is that enough for these shows to even be viable?

Brian Cluster

Physical conferences will come back. Virtual is great for content sharing and thought leadership and marketing messaging, but the magic happens in the interactions. I’ve been to too many virtual conferences where questions are ignored, never followed up on or there is not enough time for the panelist to answer a single question. I don’t think conferences were supposed to be monologues, but opportunities for a rich dialog of industry learning. Furthermore, virtual hasn’t figured out ways to enable random connections and to foster real networking. Both will co-exist but physical conferences going forward have to be more than just a show and tell, but to really enable the human connection, collaboration, and learning to be successful.

Brian Numainville

From an education perspective, I think that the virtual aspect of a show can expand and draw more people in, especially those who either can’t travel or really only benefit from that aspect of the show. Not a replacement for in-person relationship building but if I am only in it for the education, might be a great way to expand the attendees for those sessions (and revenue) of a show. As a speaker, I’m looking forward to getting back in front of a live audience. As as others have said, it just isn’t as energizing presenting to my computer screen!

"In-person conferences, like brick-and-mortar retail, will always be with us. But we will never go back to the way it used to be. And that's a good thing."

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