As 2022 comes to a close, we’re reflecting on the many lessons learned in this year of transition—when live events came back with a vengeance, when attendees’ mental health and wellness dominated the conversation, and when event hosts and guests alike debated the lasting power of virtual. Here are the biggest trends we've seen this year—and the lessons event professionals learned along the way...
1. The power of face-to-face is undeniable.
“People want to be together,” observes Cheryl Gresham, the CMO of Visible by Verizon. “As we all begin to ebb and flow 'back' into live events, brands need to ensure that they're taking learnings from the pandemic and applying them to marketing at events. Be helpful, be supportive, and know that your customers' behaviors and habits may have evolved and you need to meet them there.”
For Gresham, she’s noticed the renewed value of shareable moments and memories in 2022—even leaning into something as simple as a great photo op. “For our partnership with Live Nation, we popped up at several EDM festivals with an amazing group photo experience—festival-goers could pose underneath a custom-made archway, take a photo, and get it sent to their phones immediately for resharing,” she cites as an example.
Jovanca Maitland, the founder and CEO of JANE Events Consulting, emphasizes that “events are a lifeline to brands and consumers. We create emotional connections and moments that are impactful in different ways to everyone in attendance,” she says. “[In 2022,] I was reminded that events—whether in person or virtual—will continue to be a necessary line item, so keep pushing those budget-keepers who need us.”
2. But some virtual components are here to stay.
While many event professionals and attendees alike are pushing to return fully in person, it’s hard to deny the lasting power of hybrid and virtual events—and the possibilities that come as the metaverse becomes more accessible. In fact, a September 2022 survey from event management platform Bizzabo found that 68% of respondents also plan to have a virtual component at their next on-site event.
What’s more, the same survey found that 27% of respondents are still hesitant to be back in person due to pandemic-related concerns—an important block of potential attendees who shouldn’t be ignored. Hybrid and virtual components give guests a choice to attend in the way that makes sense for their time, budget, and comfort level.
Further reading: How Hybrid Events Have Evolved—and 9 Ways to Prepare for What's Next
3. Event attendance has changed.
Guests who are interested in attending an event in person may need an extra push. Rachel Russell, the assistant director, field marketing, for EY, predicts that attendance will be impacted for the long term as a result of the pandemic. “People are prioritizing time with loved ones, and attempting to work fewer hours for their mental health. While I used to prepare for a 30% no-show rate at events, I have seen as high as 50% post-COVID,” she notes.
The key is to incentivize attendees with experiences, Russell continues. “If an attendee is leaving their family and traveling, they aren’t thrilled to sit inside a meeting room for eight hours. It is crucial to host events at appealing destinations and incorporate time to get outside and enjoy that city."
Personalized experiences help too. "Coming out of the pandemic and back to in-person events, the biggest lesson that I have learned is attendees want a connected experience tailored to them," says Jordan Saenz, the senior global events manager for Unity Technologies. "More than ever, event marketers are needing to meet attendees where they are in their journey while creating a personalized experience—an experience where the content, interaction, and technology is connected to tell a holistic narrative every step of the way. A connection is desired where the attendee can relate to the experience in a personal way, and tell their own story through the experience."
4. It’s no longer just about content.
For content-heavy programming, virtual is a great option, allowing attendees to tune in at a time that’s convenient to them, or rewatch the programming over and over to absorb the concepts. But for attendees coming in person, Nate Nicholson, the founder of MillStone Event Services, argues that “great content is not going to drive attendance. It has to be an experience that includes great content. Otherwise, they could sit at home and get a lot of the same information on YouTube."
Guests who do attend in person are looking for a focus on community and connection, with opportunities to network and learn collectively. “Are they getting an opportunity to workshop and push new ideas forward, are they getting real-time help on their specific situations?” Nicholson asks. “We need to create experiences that will attract and retain an audience—beyond a fascinating keynote speaker or brand name.”
Michelle Nicole McNabb, the founder and director of events of Emenee Marketing 'n' Events, agrees. “My unpopular opinion is no longer an unpopular opinion: I don't agree that ‘content is king,’” she says. “Although great programming is important, the format and way people consume information and content have evolved, and we're starting to incorporate accordingly and emphasize other aspects and components of why our audience actually participates and in which capacity.”
5. DEI and sustainability are becoming non-negotiable.
The lessons of the pandemic may have also reduced audience's tolerance for a lack of diversity, particularly in the virtual world, where events can involve attendees—and speakers—from all over the world. Virtual options can also be a crucial way to add some much-needed sustainability measures to your event, since reports say that 70%-90% of an event’s carbon emissions come from attendee travel alone.
But these conversations aren’t only happening in the virtual space. “Fifty-six percent of the global population are millennials and Gen Z—and 73% of this cohort is passionate about climate and their support of purpose-driven businesses,” explained Marley Finnegan, the founder of Purpose Sustainability Strategy and Purpose Net Zero, in a recent conversation with BizBash. “America's future consumer is climate-conscious and aware. … The fact is, incorporating sustainability into your business actually means that your business is more likely to be financially viable into the future.”
Further reading: 9 Key Steps to Producing a Truly Sustainable Event
6. And so is your attendees’ mental health.
Discussions on attendees’ mental health have also moved to the forefront this year—even with something as simple as building in more breaks for your guests (and staffers!) that are out of practice with long event days. Physical and mental wellness sessions, and breaks where they can take a breather or catch up on emails, are becoming more and more essential.
Conversations are also shifting into ways to accommodate introverted attendees through more guided networking sessions and intentional staff interaction—and to accommodate the one in six event attendees with sensory-processing issues. Earlier this year, for example, the Overland Park Convention Center in Kansas opened a dedicated room with reduced lighting and noise for guests who may feel overstimulated and need a more secure environment. Also new this year, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with online therapy company Talkspace to bring accessible mental health support to both guests and employees.
Further reading: The New Rules for Wellness at Meetings & Events
7. It’s more important than ever to celebrate your team.
Another key lesson from 2022, when the term “quiet quitting”—where burned-out employees do the bare minimum requirements of their job—went mainstream? Recognize, acknowledge, and appreciate your teams.
“We spent a lot of our year celebrating our team and how much each individual means to us,” explains Robin Selden, a managing partner of Marcia Selden Catering. “We recognize more than ever that they are the heartbeat of our company and that making sure that they are happy, nurtured, and appreciated is the most important thing that we could do. In return, this team of amazing humans take ownership of our company and ensure that we are successful in everything we do.”
Further reading: 4 Steal-Worthy Ways Top Event Companies Celebrate Their Own Teams
8. Stay flexible.
As supply-chain issues and a looming recession—not to mention additional COVID surges—loom in 2023, perhaps the biggest lesson is to stay flexible. “It’s an ever-changing climate, and brands are looking for agency partners who can handle the volatility," explains Christine Capone, the president of creative agency MKG. "Brand priorities are constantly shifting based on the state of the world, their businesses, and trends in the marketplace. This is leading to shorter timelines to conceptualize, build, and execute meaningful campaigns."
In order to succeed, she adds, "marketers need to be comfortable with this evolution, and not hold on to the luxury of time and planning that once existed.”
Mimi Eayrs, the COO and partner at production company JWP, is taking away a similar lesson: to prioritize alternate plans and prepare for last-minute emergencies. "Whether a sponsor was added last minute, or your client had a change of heart, it feels great to be able to deliver in those moments. From printing a step-and-repeat within hours of the event, to pivoting the creative direction during load-in, or learning that rentals were misplaced, we must adjust on the fly all the time," she says, stressing the importance of strong industry relationships. "You realize how important it is when people have your back when it is most needed. And similarly, it's always great to be able to step in and help someone else in that position.”
Further reading: 9 Tips for Managing Event Client Expectations Right Now
9. Don't be afraid of change.
Tawnia Politis, a senior event planner at Redstone Agency, has learned not to fear change. “Having historical knowledge about an event and/or client, and continuing to do what was done, is simply not enough,” she argues. “Event professionals must be proactive where change is needed—even if met with some resistance. Planners must anticipate the uncertainties and complexities of the ever-evolving events landscape, and continue to go the extra mile in offering innovative solutions.”
Politis continues, “2022 has taught me that almost everything has changed post-pandemic in terms of general costs, engagement levels, and registration behaviors. This has made me, and my team, monitor events more closely during the initial planning stages to really assess what’s working and where change needs to be implemented. By continuing to adapt and offer forward-thinking solutions, my team has been able to elevate events and streamline procedures significantly.”