With lockdown restrictions in England ending on 19 July, business events are set to make a post-Covid comeback as we move from Zoom back to the room.
The Press Gazette British Journalism Awards will return as an in-person event this year, to be held in London on 8 December. The awards went virtual for the first time last year as a result of coronavirus restrictions.
This year’s ceremony will mark the tenth anniversary of the BJAs, which were set up in 2012 to celebrate journalism in the public interest.
When Press Gazette spoke to event organisers in January, “hybrid” was the word on the industry’s lips as it looked to capitalise on the gains made in the virtual space while delivering on-demand for a return to in-person events. The term describes an event with both elements.
Six months on, we’ve spoken to eight media event organisers including Future, New Scientist and Informatech to find out how they’re viewing the return to physical events and what lessons they’ve learned from lockdown.
There’s a general view that this year will mark the definite return of in-person events albeit on a smaller scale than before the pandemic, and that it may take a year or two before revenues are back to full health.
Some publishers have been more cautious than others, postponing large events to next year as people show signs of anxiety about returning to crowded spaces.
There is also an expectation that different sectors will recover at different speeds depending on the impact of Covid on trade. Different countries will return to in-person events at different speeds depending on the success of their vaccination programmes.
‘Hybrid’ is still the approach, although some are avoiding the term. But now the focus is how to deliver quality digital content, not simply inviting everyone on to Zoom or Teams and hosting from the living room, with digital guests able to interact the same as those attending in-person, while networking at physical events might take on more prominence.
Future: 'Long Covid' for events will see smaller return before back to full health
With the first lockdown in March 2020, magazine publisher Future first postponed its events then cancelled them altogether, deciding that it would not run any events in the UK or US until September 2021.
In a normal year, Future would run about 50 live events. This fell during the pandemic with events revenues down 75% at the group, according to global head of events Jonny Sullens. Like many others it increased its virtual events, running one-and-a-half-times as many as pre-pandemic.
Future is sticking to its timetable, with its first UK in-person event set to be the Music Week Awards on 14 September. Sullens said he expected guests would have to show a negative Covid test or proof of vaccination to gain entry, and that most adults will have had both jabs by then.
“We feel pretty positive about September,” said Sullens.
But he added: “We know that some of the large events won't be quite as large as normal, but a lot of our events are local market events, i.e. there's not that many companies or delegates travelling internationally to be at them, and I think those events will take longer to come back...
“I guess you could call it Long Covid for events – for a bit longer they're just not going to quite have the scale as previously, but it won't be long until we're at previous heights because the demand is there.”
Sulley said the return would present “lots of opportunities for businesses like ours because the landscape has changed, people have moved events around, some events don't run in quite the same format that they used to”.
He estimated 2023 for a full return, but said: "A lot of our events will get pretty close to previous revenues in 2022.”
New Scientist: Research shows people not 'comfortable' returning to large events yet
New Scientist was forced to cancel its biggest annual event, New Scientist Live, during the pandemic. The event, which is hosted in London's Excel Centre, normally attracts some 40,000 visitors over four days.
Although the specialist title has increased the number of virtual events it runs, from 19 in 2020 to 36 this year, about half of its events revenue comes from sponsors and exhibitors which has been "very challenged", said head of events Adrian Newton.
He said the brand, which was bought up by Daily Mail owner DMGT earlier this year, is tentative about returning to in-person events this year, with the full return of New Scientist Live pushed back to October 2022.
“Whilst according to the current Government roadmap, live events, large-scale events should be able to be run come this autumn, we recently did quite a large piece of research amongst both our exhibitors and our potential visitors just to really understand how they felt and what the appetite was,” said Newton.
“It was mixed, but there was a significant enough proportion that said they probably still wouldn't be comfortable participating in a large event yet, to the point where we've taken a decision that we don't think we could run something of the scale and attendance that we'd want to do for it to be a New Scientist Live.”
New Scientist will however host its first large scale event in January with New Scientist Live North in Manchester, which will be a “hybrid” event with a combined audience of about 5,000 people a day, split roughly in half between a virtual and in-person audience.
Said Newton: “It's overlaying what we've learned from the virtual process. So we will stream the content live from those stages and people watching will be able to interact, like pose questions in the chat in that same way that people on the show floor will be able to ask questions as well.
“But how we bring the two together is that we're going to have a single stage – if you imagine something a bit by like the way the Top Gear studio works, you are talking to a home audience but you still also have a live audience around you.
“That is how we're thinking of bringing the two events [virtual and in-person] together, because otherwise you're effectively [running] almost two separate events… So that's very much our model and we're working with our production partners on how we deliver that.”
Newton said virtual events had been broadcasting in almost “a studio-style televisual presentation”. Virtual tickets typically sell at about 30-50% of the cost of a live ticket.
“I think it's also important that you very much play to the strengths of different mediums,” said Newton. “The thing about live is that it's an opportunity for people to actually meet their science heroes, it's the book signings, it's the workshops, it's the interaction."
He said being clear on the difference between the two (in-person and digital) and "not trying to pretend it's the same thing" was also important.
“Where does a virtual, online, digital event, whatever you want to call it, sit? Is it really an alternative to a live event, or is it actually an alternative to watching something on Netflix or equivalent...
“If we just put an event that's a recording out on-demand, we'll sell a certain amount of tickets, not a huge amount. If we were to have pre-recorded it but said this is a live event taking place at this time, we'll get a much higher take-up.
“If ultimately the actual viewer experience is the same, but it's perceived as being a live event, that seems to have a very powerful impact on demand.”
Taking 2019 as a benchmark, Newton expects it will be “a couple of years before spend, industry levels get back to that”, but the recovery would vary by sector depending on how it has been impacted by the lockdown, with travel likely to take longer to rebound than technology, for example.
Informatech: Covid-19 crisis led to innovation and swift change, China business back to 90% strength
Informatech, part of British publishing and exhibitions group Informa, runs more than 100 international events each year, among them the Black Hat information security series, the Game Developers Conference and The AI Summit series.
Its international outlook meant it was well-placed to spot the pandemic and its potential impact on business.
“When the pandemic first hit we were fortunate enough that we've got a huge business in China, so we could start to see how this was starting to materialise – the scale of it – and potentially what that might mean,” said Carolyn Dawson, MD at Informatech.
“We probably took the most cautious approach of many companies in the sense of 'right, let's look at what this means for our business if we run no events at all in 2020'. Initially, we said we'll just have to stall and run things later in 2020, but then we that quite quickly transpired that no it's not going to quite work out like that.”
Informa revealed in September that it had cancelled more than £1bn of physical events revenue for 2020. The group reported total revenues of £1.7bn for 2020, down from £2.9bn in 2019 – a drop of 41%. It has said 2021 will be a "transition year" for the return of physical events.
As well as the obvious difficulties, Dawson said the pandemic also brought opportunity for change.
“There were things we were wanting to do – we could see the integration of media and events, we could see the need for 365 engagement, we could see what our users and our people in our communities wanted. And actually, if nothing else, the crisis led us to be more innovative and faster in that approach.
“We had events people selling events, we had media people selling media. We wanted always to have people start to sell both, because actually our customers were starting to purchase both in an integrated way. In the pandemic, without anything else to sell, we were able to give our teams new opportunities to innovate and learn…
“We've very much had a kind of bunker spirit to us and just dug in and learnt from our media colleagues really quickly, and that actually really helped in our virtual journey.”
Informatech's events went digital, with physical shows that were free mostly staying free online and revenue driven by sponsorship. Dawson said they were getting “good paid-for revenues” as well.
Echoing Newton's comments at New Scientist, she said the important thing had been maintaining quality, saying “high-calibre speakers, but also production values and an engaging experience are absolutely critical”.
“You can't just turn something on and make it look like essentially we're all still in our lounges hosting events. You need to have an element of production values. We noticed that really early on, that keeps your engagement higher and ultimately that's really what people are looking for as well, so that was really important.”
Although “hybrid” is something of a banned buzzword at Informatech, Dawson said the company is thinking about “on-site” and “online” audience experiences and how these differ and come together.
She said the return to events would be staggered internationally, depending on international travel restrictions and vaccine progress. The group’s business in China is “already back operating I would say nearly at 90% in terms of audience and behaviours on site in terms of distancing etc.,” she said.
“We have an event in Africa later this year, we've already taken the decision to make that virtual because their vaccine progress is a lot slower and it's also a very international event.
“We don't know, because I would say it still needs to be fairly fluid, but our expectation is that perhaps international travel will be a little bit more progressive in Q1 next year.”
She said it could well be sooner in the UK, but “it all comes down to Government regulations, and we only know about those when we’re told”.
As for what might be different with the return to in-person events, Dawson said: “We saw after the recession in 2008/2009 that there was a slight shift that events were always about events and networking, and suddenly experience became more important in the return.
“Not all events are going to return. There are going to be fewer of them in the market. I think this is interesting now to understand the dynamic of content consumption and networking at the physical events, and how to make that experience really meaningful.”
Centaur Media: 'Hybrid' future
Centaur Media chief executive Swag Mukerji said that the group’s initial decision was to postpone all events. Upon launching virtual events however, they discovered these “could be as accessible and popular as their face-to-face equivalents”.
The Lawyer magazine’s In-house Financial Services 2020 event received a Net Promoter Score of more than 45, similar to what it would have achieved if taking place physically.
Good attendance rates encouraged the group to switch the Festival of Marketing from a two-day physical event to 80 online sessions held over five days, attracting more than 3,900 delegates.
The group settled on hosting this year’s Festival of Marketing in a hybrid format and will be launching “two new wholly virtual fringe events, to capitalise on the increased demand”.
Mukerji said it was “very likely” that future events will be held in a mix of face-to-face and hybrid formats, as “many participants view digital events as more efficient and accessible than purely physical events”.
He concluded that Centaur’s challenge going forward will be to “retain and build on this digital format while maintaining the advantages of live event sessions that can also be held on a virtual platform”.
RELX: Events outlook 'uncertain'
RX, the exhibitions division of information giant RELX, is anticipating that its first live event in the UK this year will be drinks industry exhibition Imbibe Live, due to be held at the Olympia in London on 13 and 14 September.
In its own research, RX found that as of March 2021, the economic outlook is improving. “Businesses are feeling more robust, belief in the value of face-to-face events remains strong, and exhibitors and visitors are increasingly comfortable about attending live events,” it said.
It found that although users are becoming more comfortable with the digital world, they are also more discerning in what they choose to attend.
RX’s three largest business areas – STM (science, technical and medical), risk and legal – made up 95% of revenue in 2020 and have started this year well. But its exhibitions have continued to feel the impact of the pandemic.
“This year we have held 56 physical events, primarily in Japan and China, with one held in the US in March,” an RX spokesperson said.
“Government restrictions have prevented most events from taking place in Europe and the Americas and have constrained the scale of many events elsewhere.”
They concluded that the outlook for future events remained “uncertain” and was dependent on evolutions in the pandemic.
S&P Global Market Intelligence: Return to in-person conferences set for 2022
Stacey Cloney, director of digital and events at S&P Global Market Intelligence, quoted a 240% increase in webinar attendance between 2019 and 2020. The group plans to “return to in-person with a hybrid component” next year.
Cloney said that although there is a travel boom going on in the US at the moment, “the bigger question... is how willing companies will be to have their employees travel and attend events”.
The group is planning to return to in-person events for its 2022 conferences, but only following guidance from its global security team which tracks the latest restrictions in countries where they plan to host events.
During the pandemic, Cloney said S&P had found that although virtual events reach wider audiences, it is harder for them to capture the audience’s attention, due to Zoom fatigue, multi-tasking or distractions at home.
To counter the issue of engagement, their content strategy has therefore included on-demand replays, video snippets, transcripts and blog posts to give attendees multiple options for accessing events in their own time.
“When we do return to face-to-face events in the future, we will continue to share event content virtually, so we continue to engage with our clients who are unable to travel to in-person conferences,” Cloney said.
The Drum: Have to be 'relevant' to compete with rival online events
The Drum also intends to continue running a “hybrid approach”. Its events managing director Lynn Lester noted that the key to successful online events was understanding the audience’s motivations for attending, which can range from “inspiration to education or connecting with others to entertainment”.
To The Drum, online events have been a learning experience. “There are a lot of online events out there, so you have to be pretty good and relevant to compete”, said Lester.
The brand’s next B2B awards will be filmed in front of a small audience and broadcast live to the world. “Remote guests will also be able to get involved with interactions through our chat function and being invited to talk live during the show,” Lester went on.
She said this method “offers the best of both worlds - a face-to-face experience for a small group, whilst remaining inclusive, ensuring people, regardless of level in an organisation, can participate from anywhere in the world”.
Commercially Lester said The Drum’s pandemic events had “fared very well” with more competition entries and sponsorship partners.
She pointed out that “whilst in-person events mean you miss out on significant revenue from ticket sales, you are also saving a huge amount in terms of direct logistical cost”.
However, she added that “whilst you save theoretically on the time staff would be away delivering events, there is possibly more work that goes into running a virtual/hybrid event than that of in-person. It's a lot more complex than people think it is.
“As my mum used to say, you just learn to 'cut your cloth' accordingly.”
Springer Nature: Crisis offers chance for rethink on conferences
Global academic publisher Springer Nature said they “cannot reliably anticipate when full face-to-face events will resume” due to travel restrictions, the risk of new variant outbreaks and variations in vaccine access.
A spokesperson said the plan was to address what full face-to-face events would be feasible when it is “safe and responsible to do so for attendees, staff and organisers”.
They added that they believed the current climate should be used to rethink how conferences can offer a platform for debate, interdisciplinary engagement and networking “however attendees wish to join”.
Editorial illustration by Eloise Fabre