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Back in February 2020, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona canceled its gathering due to rising cases of COVID-19. The event, which would have drawn more than 100,000 attendees, became one of the first major shows to pull out during the early days of the pandemic.

Rather than schedule the 2021 version in March as originally planned, World Mobile Conference organizers chose to move the upcoming event to late June in anticipation of welcoming crowds in person again, all while promoting face masks and social distancing.

However, not all companies are taking that approach. The huge Consumer Electronics Show (CES), opted to keep its January 2021 date and instead go with a massive virtual conference.

Such decisions will need to be made by all conference organizers, big and small, as they navigate 2021 and attempt to run their events. If vaccinations prove effective and the pandemic wanes, an important development to watch will be whether conferences, particularly in-person gatherings, recover in the latter half of 2021.

There are also two X-factors to watch for:

  • Will companies still see the need to let employees travel to conferences, or instead will they look for virtual shows that keep workers home and avoid road expenses?
  • Will conference organizers plan hybrid events that offer both in-person gatherings and remote sessions to appeal to the largest audience?

Whatever happens, events will need to adapt, and organizers will have to work harder to lure people from their corporate desks and home offices.

Winter conference season won’t rebound in 2021

The pandemic altered plans for hundreds of gatherings in 2020, with the turning point beginning in late Q1. According to new data from ZoomInfo, each of the three months in Q1 2021 trails behind the same months in the prior year.

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Figure 1: January-through-March conference activity in 2021 trails the same period in 2020. Source: ZoomInfo.

It’s clear that conference producers are not confident yet in their ability to attract crowds even as vaccinations roll out for COVID-19. The lack of events in early 2021 trickles down to other industries, such as airlines, hotels, and tourism. It also hurts sales and marketing efforts that center on meeting customers face to face.

It’s also interesting to note that while some companies that run conferences adjusted in 2020 to run virtual events, those online offerings do not match up to the numbers of prior in-person gatherings.

Noticeable decline in total events

In fact, comparing meeting totals in Q1, the numbers are stark.

Conferences tracked in the ZoomInfo platform’s Events feature show Q1 2021 has 57% fewer conferences scheduled compared to the same quarter a year earlier. That drop is even more pronounced considering how many shows were scrapped at the last minute in March 2020, which likely skews 2020’s numbers.

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Figure 2: The new year has 57% less events scheduled for Q1 compared to 2020. Source: ZoomInfo.

Looking in particular at March provides an interesting comparison. That month in 2020 was when many things started shutting down due to the pandemic, while in 2021 it may be the month that things start reopening more fully thanks to vaccinations. Conferences in March 2021 look to be down 55% compared to that month a year earlier, so even as hope rises about the pandemic ending, March events don’t look strong.

As of this writing, April 2021 has less events scheduled than March 2021, although some conferences for April may still be in the planning stages. That being said, the combined numbers for March and April 2021 are better than those for January and February 2021.

If the numbers continue to build up, 2021’s events will eventually top those in 2020 for May and beyond if people become more comfortable gathering in crowds.

Outlook for conferences isn’t certain yet

Little seems clear for the conference industry as 2021 debuts — other than, as with many aspects of corporate America, conferences will never be the same after the pandemic.

If in-person events rebound, things will look different and organizers will have to adjust how they run shows. However, if digital-based events take precedence, associated industries like hotels will continue to suffer unless they find new business or leisure customers.

In many ways, employers and their workers will determine the future path of conferences.

About the author

Scott Wallask

Scott Wallask is Director of Content at ZoomInfo, the leading business contact database and sales intelligence solution.

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