When Will In-Person Events Return?

The 2021 Consumer Electronics Show is only a couple weeks away, and for the first time ever it will be held completely virtually.

Other tentpole events are on the horizon, too. Adweek’s Challenger Brands, one of the last major in-person events to be held in March 2020, will return virtually in February. SXSW–the first major event to close its doors in 2020 due to the pandemic–will also run an online show in March. The IAB will host its Annual Leadership Meeting virtually in March.

Then come the likes of Cannes, Mobile World Congress and Dmexco. But if people are willing to attend any of these events in 2021, should they be held in-person?

“It all depends on vaccinations,” said Bill Durrant, president of agency Exverus Media.

‘Does this really need to happen?’

Covid-19 vaccinations are slowly rolling out, so it’s still unclear when it will be safe enough to prop up a multi-day, indoor event that attracts thousands of people from around the world.

Christiana Cacciapuoti, executive director of AdLedger, said deciding whether to host an in-person event as the world is in the midst of recovering from the pandemic is about corporate responsibility.

“Does this really need to happen if scientists are saying that we don’t advise to have large gatherings?” asked Cacciapuoti. “It’s almost a form of brand safety,” she said, “to walk the walk of doing what’s right for the community.”

While virtual events offer a safe, flexible way to gather leads and share or promote content, it doesn’t quite allow for organic or spontaneous interactions that make in-person events attractive.

“Nothing is ever as effective as being in-person and building a genuine relationship with another human,” said Cacciapuoti.

Reaching the Black community (in person)

Along with navigating the pandemic, 2020 also saw companies address racial inequality following the killing of George Floyd. In-person events not only can offer a stage to address these issues, but they can also serve as places for BIPOC members of the ad industry to network and champion the work of their peers.

Alicia Ray, founder of the Ad Tech Collective, a network to promote and facilitate connections for the Black community within ad tech, said digital platforms allowed the group to grow while still staying safe.

Ray said the Collective has been hosting virtual “lounge and learns” and created Slack channels to foster communication, though it hopes to have some pop-up meetings at conferences later next year, as long as health and safety guidelines permit it.

“While we all crave and desire human connection in-person, we have certainly found that online connections have worked really well for us,” said Ray. “So, we’re thinking about different ways and different touch points that we can continue to leverage in the near future, in addition to hopefully getting together in-person.”

Most companies saw a financial hit due to the pandemic. Once events can be held live again, cash-strapped firms will have to decide whether these live shows are worth it.

“There’s going to be a much closer eye given to the actual business impact of events,” said Durrant. “What are boondoggles, and what are truly valuable to my business?”