April 2, 2021
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Two Big Numbers to Look At For 2022 Event Planning

With every jab of a vaccine, we get just a tiny bit closer to returning to a semblance of normalcy here in the United States. Other countries are working on rolling out their vaccinations as well, moving fast to try and get ahead of this virus.

For context, according to the CDC, just about 100 million people have already received their first dose. That means within the next three weeks, a little under a third of the country will be fully immune.

With that in mind, people are starting to think about travel. I know I am. I am really excited to go somewhere, even if that just means going down the street to meet a friend for lunch (if you’re in New York, hit me up if you want to get a coffee sometime in May or June).

An offshoot of that excitement to travel is pent-up energy toward events. It’s nothing new. Ever since Covid hit, publishers have been thinking about when they’d be able to return to events. I wrote about it in March, with some publishers thinking about smaller, hybrid events to launch.

Therefore, I do think the hybrid approach is going to become increasingly important for this. The strategy here should be two-fold.

1. Bring together a group of high-quality guests, perhaps curated, and allow them an opportunity to network with each other.

2. The rest of the people should be able to consume the content in a virtual sense.

This generates ticket revenue and digital sponsorships dollars. It also lets us start experimenting with some of the precautions we have to take with regard to bringing people together.

The issue with this approach is that it’s not going to generate the type of revenue that many companies are used to. When you’re only getting a small number of people together in a room and then the majority are virtual, there’s only so much you can charge.

One way around this is to make the physical experience as high quality as humanly possible. This way, you’re able to get away with charging a considerable amount of money for tickets.

But none of this takes into consideration two critical numbers that will decide a lot of how events do going forward.

  1. What will the travel & entertainment budgets look like in 2022?
  2. What will marketing budgets look like in 2022?

Said another way, what do budgets look like for attendees (T&E) and prospective sponsors/exhibitors (marketing)?

On the attendee front, I think we need to be careful assuming that everything is going to rubberband right back to where it was in 2019. We have to remember, before Covid, we didn’t really know any other way of doing things. Therefore, sending employees all over the world to attend conferences was just accepted behavior.

But during 2020, none of that happened. Suddenly, people weren’t losing days of work to attend conferences. Additionally, there were no airlines, hotels, meals, etc. that companies had to pay for. You have to imagine that CFOs were jumping for joy seeing the costs drop.

How does that change in 2022?

I would be shocked if budgets returned to any semblance of what they looked like in 2019. They just don’t need to. But the big question we have to ask ourselves is how much will return?

I look at it as a percentage of 2019’s numbers. If only a quarter of T&E returns, it’s likely going to be a slow return to physical events even when we are all vaccinated. That obviously won’t stop a bunch of event companies from trying, but we’ll see fewer people attending these conferences. If, however, we’re pushing over 50% T&E, things might start to look more promising.

One way to help ascertain what things are going to look like is to simply ask your audience. Executives that read your publication likely have insights into what T&E might look like next year. If you can convince them to share that information with you in a survey or through 1:1 conversations, it could give you the data you need. If it’s drastically different, you know what to work with.

If we turn our attention to the marketing side of things, I have always doubted the true ROI of sending large teams out to attend events as sponsors. But even if that did work, we have to ask ourselves whether that remains the most cost efficient way of doing things.

According to a report put out by eMarketer in August 2020, total b2b ad spending in the United States was expected to be $21.42 billion, down from $23.71 billion in 2019. That should not be surprising. However, there was another interesting number that jumped out. In 2020, eMarketer also estimated that b2b digital ad spend would rise from $6.64 billion in 2019 to $8.14 billion in 2020, with it expected to rise by nearly $1 billion more this year.

This should come as no surprise to many of my readers who saw some of their best years from an advertising perspective. My guess is that the money that companies budgeted for events in 2020 was simply reallocated to digital advertising if not reabsorbed altogether.

With a heavy reliance on 1st-party data, b2b companies can drive high-quality leads in a more inexpensive format than attending an event and throwing up a booth. If this remains true, we may see less interest in these sorts of events and a doubling down on digital advertising.

Both of these are a worst-case scenario, of course, but it’s important to look at this. My fear for many publishers is that they are going to rush back to launching events thinking that we’ll just return to what everything was like in 2019. There’s been a paradigm shift. What once worked won’t work anymore, so we need to be smarter.

One possible way to increase the probability of success is to focus on more geographies. Prior to Covid, forcing everyone to fly to one city for the event was a common practice. In previous years, events that I was a part of would see 50% of their attendees come from overseas. Everyone flew to New York for Blockchain Week NYC; it was just what you did.

But going forward, I would wager that hosting more frequent, but smaller-scale events in key cities around the world will help events capture the right number of attendees. The big reason is that there is a reduction in travel costs.

Consider an executive coming from Japan to an event in New York. The business class ticket, alone, would cost $5,000, if not much more. Suddenly, attending an event is a five-figure burden. But if the event is in Tokyo, their travel costs are dramatically reduced.

I also think there could be some value in trying to host events in more alluring locations. Would an event in the Caribbean draw more people than one in New York because more people want to get away? If T&E budgets are reduced and people can only attend one event per year rather than a few, the best location could win.

We’re all excited about a return to events. It could add a major revenue component to our businesses. However, we simply don’t know what T&E and marketing budgets are going to look like in 2022. Even when we’re all vaccinated, if the budgets don’t return, our events will flop. I certainly don’t want any flops.

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