Fearing Omicron wave, marketers less likely to attend upcoming in-person conferences

A man sits in the crowd, wearing a surgical mask, at an in-person event.

Marketers give it a 50/50 chance they will attend an in-person event, conference or trade show in the first half of 2022, a new MarTech survey has found. It’s a statistic that should scare any event organizer who had hoped this two-year uncertainty for in-person gatherings was nearing an end.

Respondents to MarTech’s Event Participation Index gave the likelihood they would attend an in-person business event in the first half of 2022 a 5 out of 10. That outlook improved slightly for the second half of 2022, when marketers gave the likelihood a 6 out of 10.

Marketers gave it a 7 out of 10 likelihood they would attend an in-person event in the first half of 2023, but the pandemic has shown us just how much can change in a year.

This past survey marked the eighth time we have fielded the Events Participation Index, and there’s a clear pattern in the data. When asked about the likelihood of attending events more than 6 months away, respondents were always more optimistic. But each time those far-away dates got closer, their comfort level fell.

For example, respondents in March 2021 gave the likelihood of attending an event in the first quarter of 2022 a 7 out of 10. But marketers give the entire first half a 5 out of 10 when asked again this November.

It’s not surprising, given the rise of new variants like Omicron and the reluctance by many to get vaccinated against the virus. But for event planners, it just means the optimism your registrants have today may not be there come event time.

The chart below shows the likelihood respondents gave for attending events within three months of the time the survey was fielded. It shows that we are indeed out of those darker periods where in-person gatherings were either canceled or not remotely feasible. But it also shows that we’ve yet to see a period where likelihood crosses 50%.

That hesitancy is also playing out in budgets. About 78% of the 220 marketers who took our survey said they are budgeted to attend only a small number of events in 2022.

“I think event producers should expect continued reduced attendance and plan for smaller, regional events,” one respondent said. “I think events need to shift away from the model where exhibitors need to commit a year or more out. Perhaps more pop-up type events that are more nimble and have more allure because of the intimacy and the opportunity for deeper connections.”

Virtual events or bust?

Just because potential attendees are wary of in-person events, that doesn’t mean they are all-in on virtual events. Respondents gave the likelihood they would attend a virtual event in the first half of 2022 a 6 out of 10 chance. What’s interesting is that was the same likelihood they gave for the second half of 2022 and the first half of 2023.

It suggests that just as there are likely people who will never feel comfortable at an in-person event, there are others who either do not see the value in virtual events or are “fatigued” by the sheer volume of virtual events that are available now.

“Virtual events are convenient, but they aren’t the same. I don’t want to sit on a virtual conference all day; the times are always weird and it’s too easy to skip a session if I have a project due,” one respondent wrote.

However, that comment represents the minority. Most respondents suggested that organizers continue to focus on hybrid and virtual experiences, especially if they need to once again cancel in-person shows.

“I prefer virtual events as an attendee,” wrote one respondent. “Limiting travel expenses and time has allowed me to attend more events than ever before. Some in-person is nice, but prefer this to be after an initial relationship is established and the goal and value of the offerings are clearly established.”

Our data also supported that. When asked whether they would prefer to attend events in-person or virtually, 27% said they preferred to attend in-person only, 34% said they preferred to attend virtually and 39% said they would prefer to attend in-person and access virtual components.

“I think people will expect hybrid events to become the norm,” wrote one respondent. “In-person attendance may stay a bit lower than historical numbers and virtual attendance will increase overall attendance significantly. Event hosts will play with pricing to figure out the ideal gap between in-person and virtual prices.”

No clear path for event organizers

Salesforce last week held its Dreamforce NYC event in New York, but concerns over the new Omicron variant led the marketing technology giant to step up safeguards, according to an email sent to attendees before the event that laid out the protocol.

“Complete an onsite rapid test through testing partner Senneca on December 9. Testing hours are 7:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. ET. COVID testing may take up to an hour so please arrive early and plan accordingly. Look for your Dreampass in your email once your vaccine record and tests are verified. You must have your Dreampass to enter the event space. Bring your favorite mask and be prepared to wear it while you’re onsite.”

While these safeguards certainly add a new hassle to in-person experiences, people are generally in favor of protocols like this if it means they can attend conferences. For example, more than 70% of respondents to our survey said organizers should mandate that attendees be vaccinated.

In fact, despite the Delta variant wave this year, marketers did attend in-person events in 2021. About 30% of our respondents said they attended up to two in-person business events this year. About 16% said they attended up to five events, 4% attended up to nine, and 4% said they attended 10 or more.

Of course, that also meant 46% attended no in-person events this year.

So what are organizers to do? Many companies are moving ahead with in-person conferences in 2022, as of now, but our data suggests that attendance at least for the first half of the year will continue to be below pre-pandemic levels.

If anything, the data we gathered highlights how deliberate companies need to be in making decisions on holding events. There is hope but also plenty of concern on the part of audiences about in-person safety that will certainly affect attendance. Meanwhile, just because virtual is cost-effective, that doesn’t mean audiences, particularly those who valued events for networking purposes, are going to accept virtual as an alternative to in-person.

“I think they should expect a pretty even split in their audience of folks who choose to take part in only virtual sessions versus attending in-person. Even for myself, I much prefer attending in-person but am starting to heavily use any virtual content, especially post-event,” wrote one respondent.

“I think two things are equally true,” wrote another. “Some people miss in-person events, but others have appreciated the time and money saved by attending virtual events. The companies that do virtual well will have an advantage going forward. Teleconferencing companies have made it easier for things like break-out sessions, replicating the networking benefits that come from in-person events.”

Events Participation Index timeline

  • August 2021: Delta variant has marketers less eager to return to in-person events this year
  • April 2021: Most marketers expect to attend in-person conferences by early 2022
  • February 2021: Marketers say COVID vaccines create hope for quick return of in-person events
  • September 2020: Marketers hopeful for late 2021 in-person conferences
  • July 2020: No in-person events until 2nd half of 2021, marketers say
  • June 2020: Prospect for in-person conferences fades for 2020
  • May 2020: Many marketers unlikely to attend in-person conferences until COVID-19 vaccine

About The Author

Henry Powderly is vice president of content for Third Door Media, publishers of Search Engine Land, Marketing Land and MarTech Today. With more than a decade in editorial leadership positions, he is responsible for content strategy and event programming for the organization.

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