Conference landscape for 2022 – what’s in store?
It is nearly two full years since the Coronavirus and Covid 19 came along and decimated the business events sector. Actually the historic meaning of the term “decimated”, being to reduce a group by one-tenth, is an understatement. The effects of the pandemic have been far worse. All businesses in the sector – from hotels and venues to professional management and service suppliers - have suffered immense financial losses. According to research conducted by BECA (Business Events Council of Australia), 96% of all events scheduled to take place in 2020 were either cancelled or postponed until 2021 or 2022. Approximately 60% of events scheduled to be held in the first half of 2021 were also cancelled or postponed.
Some businesses in the sector have ceased operating and those left have in most cases been forced to reduce staff levels and overheads. Now the delta variant has come into this fatigued and weary scene, prolonging the misery and throwing into doubt plans for opening-up.
Delta notwithstanding, it seems that interstate and international borders will gradually open up early by 2022 and this opens the door to travel and greater opportunities to physically participate in conferences and business events. The big question is will the delegates come, or will the fear of contracting the virus keep them at home even when they are able to travel?
Recent evidence suggests they will come, though it is likely to take all of 2022 to get physical attendances at conferences back up to 2019 levels. When domestic borders were briefly opened earlier this year, interstate air travel rapidly resumed to the point where some services were running at 90% of pre-covid levels. Bookings at holiday destinations recovered very quickly. Here at CCM, we noticed very good physical attendance numbers at all of the conferences we actually held in 2020 and again so far in 2021. For example, the 2020 World of Drones Congress was attended by physical delegates from every state in Australia except Victoria which was in lockdown. At the Asia Pacific Cities Summit two weeks ago physical delegate numbers were excellent, especially considering that the borders were closed thus preventing all interstate and international delegates from attending. There is every reason to suspect an increase in physical delegate numbers as borders open.
Interestingly, the willingness by delegates to virtually attend conferences is definitely waning. Despite the many initiatives to give virtual participants networking and engagement opportunities, the general consensus is that virtual attendance is no substitute for being there in person. Of course some point to the vastly reduced time and costs of virtual attendance – no airfares, accommodation, meals or ground transport costs and often a reduced registration fee. Others look at the significant reduction in benefit and the vastly superior opportunities for networking, meeting like-minded people and forming relationships that only physical attendance can provide.
So here are our predictions for the Australian conference scene in 2022:
Increasing vaccination rates, improved treatments for those who contract Covid-19 and Covid-safe travel protocols will see more people willing to travel to attend conferences and events;
The hybrid-conference is here to stay, probably for ever, as offering virtual participation remains a good option for those who cannot travel;
Registration fees for virtual attendance will continue to increase, so that they better represent the true cost of providing such registration options. This will mean a virtual registration will cost the same as a physical registration, less the cost of catering.
Conferences will find ways to provide additional benefits and rewards for delegates who actually attend in person.
Numbers will gradually recover as confidence grows, but we don’t see 2019 physical attendance levels returning until Q4 2022, or later. That said, regular and annual conferences which have not been held since 2019 should expect to see pent-up demand in 2022;
Whilst hotels, venues and suppliers will be offering good deals to stimulate business, clients will be disappointed if they expect fire-sale prices. All services that supply conferences have very high human resource inputs, which makes drastic reductions virtually impossible. Added to that is the fact that all of these businesses have endured a two-year revenue collapse and desperately need cash flow;
Booking terms for venues and services have changed. You will find most venues are very flexible about permitting date changes for covid-related reasons, but refunds are a thing of the past. Instead, when postponing a booking you will be able to carry deposits forward to a new date. There will also limitations on the number of times transfer of payments to new dates will be possible. Pre-covid, many suppliers of professional services were happy to receive payment for their services immediately prior to the conference or even on completion. This has changed. In recognition of the fact that much of the work, and therefore a large portion of the suppliers wage costs, will be performed well in advance of the event, progressive payments will now apply. Expect to see project schedules with task completion dates tied to progress payments – and these payments won’t be refundable in the event of cancellation for any reason, Covid included;
Sponsors and exhibitors are likely to be very motivated to reconnect with physical delegates at conferences across most sectors. Many sponsors have experienced lack-lustre results with digital engagement at virtual conferences and limited success with virtual exhibitions. At CCM we have noticed a definite increase in interest by sponsors in events that provide physical access to delegates. In some sectors, sponsors who had been waning in 2019 seem to have renewed willingness to engage with conferences. We have even had sponsors and exhibitors acknowledge that they had underestimated the value of conferences and only found out how important they were as a result of the pandemic.