October 19, 2021
By Mike Fletcher

In September, the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers (ABPCO) surveyed 350 association congress attendees about their confidence levels in returning to in-person events.

Just under half of respondents (47%) said they were happy to attend live events, a figure which rose to 75% if the individual was fully vaccinated. Yet 71% of respondents stated they wanted flexible cancellation terms for registration fees should they be unable to attend due to Covid.

At the time, Heather Lishman, ABPCO’s association director focused on the positive, declaring that only 15% of double-vaccinated people wouldn’t want to get back in a room with fellow delegates to experience the networking and knowledge-sharing opportunities a live event provides.

During an on-stage discussion at Cvent CONNECT Europe 2021, moderated by Fast Forward 15 Founder, Faye Sharpe however, panellists warned that despite there being an obvious appetite to return to live, the high percentage of people who wanted greater assurances that they could cancel last minute was indicative of faltering confidence levels, yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

For panellist Jonathan Read, Co-Founder and Commercial Director of Tobacco Dock, this is reason enough for the Government’s long-awaited Live Events Reinsurance Scheme, which now offers cost indemnification if an insured event has to be cancelled, postponed, relocated or abandoned due to new UK Civil Authority restrictions in response to Covid-19.

“Venues can’t keep taking the brunt of cancellations if international delegates aren’t able to access the UK for example,” Read told the audience. “Some 94% of our venue enquiries is currently for in-person events so the demand is there and a vast majority of audiences know that it’s safe to return. However, planners need to be able to plan for a greater number of ‘what if’ scenarios to ensure confidence in live continues on an upward trajectory.”

Despite the ABPCO survey also stating that 93% of respondents want to get back to live because they miss the networking and social interaction of an event, panelist Calum Di Lieto, Editor of C&IT at Haymarket Media Group believes that the pandemic may have changed the psychology of registering for an event, with people now happy to cancel or switch to being a virtual attendee last minute and blame it on Covid.

“Greater registration cancellation flexibility would simply exacerbate the fact that there no longer appears to be the same moral or social obligation to attend in-person we once had,” he said. “The issue now is not really about bolstering confidence in attending live events, it’s about giving your audience a concrete enticement to follow through with their registration commitment and actually be in the room.”

One audience member suggested that more flexible remote working conditions may be contributing to the erosion of the social contract between a business event and a delegate who registers, but then decides not to attend if the conference falls on a day when they’re working from home.

“Hybrid will become the norm for events just as it will for workplace environments so planners will need to provide more flexible and accessible options,” panellist Christianne Beck, a global events and in-house experiential expert for Shell said. “However, virtual attendee engagement is declining and online ROI may not match the same objectives as live so both formats need their own individual strategies and on-demand content will be key.”

Tobacco Dock’s Read agreed, asserting that now is the opportunity to reset how events are structured by re-assessing audience sizes, experience drivers, formats and metrics for success.

“We can’t go back to simply doing what we did before. Attendees need to see that as an industry, we’ve changed it up by challenging everything we thought we knew,” he concluded.

Di Lieto concurred. “It’s the agency’s role to instil greater confidence in their clients, which will in turn filter down into the attendees by planning for Plan A and making it truly engaging,” he said.

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Mike Fletcher

Mike has been writing about the meetings and events industry for almost 20 years as a former editor at Haymarket Media Group, and then as a freelance writer and editor. He currently runs his own content agency, Slippy Media, catering for a wide-range of client requirements, including social strategy, long-form, event photography, event videography, reports, blogs and ghost-written material.
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