Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2023

10 Data-Driven, Actionable Insights for the New Events Normal

Ken Holsinger, SVP Data Solutions, Freeman Company, has spent the past couple of pandemic years diving deep into data to gauge what consumer sentiments are these days. And, more importantly, he’s been distilling them down into actionable insights that will help planners navigate the changed landscape of in-person, hybrid and fully digital events moving forward.

Here are 10 of the actionable insights he shared during a recent ConferenceDirect IndustryInsights online event:

• We are not going back to 2019. While planners may pay lip service to the new normal, the reality is that a lot of meetings are coming back pretty much the way they were prior to the pandemic, Holsinger said. “Whether or not we wish we could go back and just forget the last couple of years, we can’t. We’re in danger of missing out on some of the learnings we’ve had. We’re especially in danger of not understanding the new audiences and new opportunities that are coming our way.”

• People are re-entering society, en masse, to find positive experiences. Just look at the example of the NFL playoffs, which actually surpassed its 2019 numbers. And it’s not just sporting events — people are coming back to eating out in restaurants and going to the theater, he said. Even at the peak of the Omicron variant, the latest Spiderman sequel was one of the highest grossing movies of all time. “Even while variants are peaking, people are ready to move forward with living their lives.”

This holds true for travel, which is back to 87% of pre-pandemic normal, and working in the office, which is back to 88% of 2019 levels. And in a prediction guaranteed to warm a planner’s heart, Blackstone’s 10 Surprises of 2022 includes that group meetings and convention gatherings will return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022. Holsinger thought that may be a tad optimistic: “We’re certainly seeing trajectory, though we’re maybe not quite there yet,” he said. “Not necessarily because of a lack of enthusiasm, but due to the realities of who is able to come back to events and at what levels.” Which leads to his third insight…

• Not everyone is coming back to our events yet. Last summer, when Delta had subsided and hopes were high that the end was in sight, the total number of professional attendees and exhibit staff was still just over half of pre-pandemic normal, he said, with professional attendees coming back at 64% and exhibit staff at 26%. We can expect to see that lower percentage of exhibit staff to rise somewhat, but still lag, he added.

That trend is evident in the data from October 2021 to the present. Total numbers are up from 52% to 68%, driven in large part by the 81% return of professional attendees. While exhibit staff numbers were up from 26% last summer to 48% this spring, that lag is part of why Holsinger isn’t quite on board with a return to full normal this year. “A lot of exhibit staff was downsized over the pandemic, and they haven’t brought those back,” he said.

But that’s not necessarily bad news, at least from an experiential standpoint. “We are seeing that less staff in these booths is actually providing a better experience and higher net promoter scores for the attendees and the exhibitors. Everyone’s having good conversations. If we’re honest, I think we were sending a few too many people to our tradeshow booths prior to the pandemic.”

• Your audience is different. Not only is the entire audience not coming back, but those who are also may be younger, less loyal to a specific industry or profession, and more digitally savvy. Attendee age for virtual events held during the pandemic skewed seven years younger, which is a significant swing we should pay attention to, he said. The “Great Resignation,” when more than 47 million — 9% of the entire U.S. workforce — left their jobs only accelerated that trend. With furloughs, retirements and job shifts, more than 70 million people shifted their work lives in recent years. “As a marketer, that means 70 million bad emails,” he joked.

Just over half of the over-55 workforce has left the world of employment. While some may return, expect a younger audience to move into your conference space, he said. And that younger audience — he reminded that Millennials aren’t actually so young anymore — tend to have a digital-first mindset.

“The shared trauma we’ve all gone through globally means a marketing reset: different audiences, different expectations, different upbringings and skill sets,” he said. “We need to learn from what we did digitally during the pandemic, not just set it aside because we’re all so excited about meeting in person again.”

• Diversity, accessibility and sustainability are more important than ever. When Freeman looked at the priorities among organizations it serves, world events and the economy/supply chain were top of mind for the short-term (between 90 and 120 days), though talent acquisition and retention are quickly overtaking world events and inflation concerns, especially in the event space, he said.

But longer term, the top concerns were the same as they were prior to the pandemic — diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and sustainability. For example, attendance across the entire events industry was about 70% male to 30% female before the pandemic, with some variation across different verticals. During data collected March 2020 through June 2021, about 40% of attendees at the virtual events being offered were female, “which tells us there are people in the space that have not been able to come to our in-person events,” Holsinger said.

More recent data reflecting the July 2021-to-present time period found an even higher percentage of women were taking advantage of virtual events — 47% female to 53% male — while women still were not coming back to in-person events in increasing numbers, with the female-to-male ratio of those attending live events since August 2021 still at just 25% women to 75% men.

• Changing audience demographics mean we need to reprioritize the values reflected in the event experience. Instead of catering to the baby boomer mindset, as most did pre-pandemic, planners need to now look at what’s important to the new attendee demographic — and how the pandemic experiences have shifted those values.

For example, the majority of Americans say mental and physical health is more important now than it was pre-pandemic, as is family. Even travel is more important now to more than a third of Americans.

This means that attendees prefer shorter duration events now, with most liking the idea of a three-day meeting. Pre-pandemic, the ideal was more four to five days, especially for the male attendee. Women, who have generally preferred shorter meetings even before COVID, are saying that the length of the event is the biggest factor keeping them from attending.

No one will attend a hybrid event. While the definition of what constitutes a “hybrid” event remains controversial, “the reality is, it’s confusing,” Holsinger said. What we do know is that some things — education sessions and keynotes — worked well for fully virtual events, while networking and exhibits did not fare as well.

So for the in-person component of a hybrid event, people are looking for the connectivity with each other and vendors, not necessarily the 90-minute keynote.

“We’re recommending planners pull back on those because [attendees] want to go out in the lobby and connect and network,” not sit in the general session room. While this trend may not stay long term, “pay attention to the in-person connections we missed during the pandemic, and I think you’ll see a much better result,” he said.

• Travel is going to remain in flux, but trends are looking up. Corporate travel organizers are seeing a rapid change in employees’ willingness to travel, which went from 54% in January to 82% in March this year. And “bleisure” is back, so location is key. This is an exciting opportunity to extend the experience beyond the meeting itself, especially for corporate groups that are now working remotely. “Use your event as an opportunity for them to connect in a deeper way with their work colleagues they no longer see on a daily basis,” he said.

• Politics is everywhere now. There’s no escape from the growing political divisions — even at events, he said. “The younger audiences who are coming to our events say they want companies that align with their values. They want CEOs to speak on issues they care about. This is not your parents’ workforce where you don’t talk about politics in the workspace.”

However, this creates a delicate line for event planners to walk. A destination that was fine when you booked it may have since promulgated a law that doesn’t align with your attendees’ values. A speaker that one day was perfectly acceptable may take a stand that isn’t acceptable to your group. “It’s important for us to understand our audience and what they care about,” he said. Expect the politicization to get worse as the mid-term elections draw near.

What should you do, if anything, about the metaverse? “Should we hate it? Is it a threat to us as meeting planners? Should we go all in on it? I think we have to look at all of this in context,” said Holsinger. We’ve moved from the decentralized early Web to Web 2.0, which has been very centralized and controlled by a few organizations. Now we’re in a social, cloud-based era where the web is blockchain–driven, privacy based, decentralized, encrypted, collaborative and secure — all of which holds opportunities for meetings, he said. “Imagine attendees being able to securely share private information through blockchain, then retract the key at the end of the event so they can secure their own data.

“Being able to secure and privately handle your attendees’ data is a critically important thing for you to begin to understand,” he said.

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