Marketers hopeful for late 2021 in-person conferences

Marketers’ already low expectations that they could safely attend in-person events this year have bottomed out, according to our latest Events Participation Index, which isn’t surprising as the planet passed a grim milestone of 1 million deaths tied to COVID-19 this week. 

But despite concerns over second and, in some cases, third waves of the virus beginning to show, many of the 350 professionals we surveyed are hopeful that they can travel and attend conferences, trade shows or more in the second half of 2021.

As expected, sentiment about attending events in 2020 hit two out of 10, a new low since we started asking the question in May. Optimism ticked up to four out of 10 when asked how likely they would attend in-person events in the first half of 2021.

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But marketers gave the prospect of attending events in the second half of 2021 a six out of 10 chance, our survey found. 

That growing optimism could be tied to the expectation that an effective and widely accepted vaccine will be available soon. There are currently several in phase three human trials, and some are already yielding an immune response in test subjects.

Absent a vaccine, nearly 68% of those we surveyed said they will only attend virtual events through the first half of 2021.

Virtual or bust

The upheavals tied to COVID-19 have caused considerable financial strain for event organizers, especially larger trade shows, but many companies have been successful in converting their events to online, or “virtual” experiences.

“I was somewhat cynical about how well that would work,” said CabinetM CEO Anita Brearton in a recent MarTech Live session. “But, you know, I think it is working, and we’ve seen examples of companies charging for virtual events and doing well with that,” she said.

In fact, 67% of marketers we surveyed said they would indeed pay to attend virtual events. Though the vast majority of those said they would pay between $99 and $499 and only a very small number said they would pay more than $499.

“It’s all about the quality,” said Brearton, but it is also about the unique experience the virtual approach affords event organizers, she said.

“This ability … to do it live and record, but then also make it available to individuals at a time that works well for them,” she said, “that’s a part of the success plan.”

That too seems to have been confirmed by our data. Only 18% of those surveyed said they prefer virtual events to follow a traditional full-day programming schedule spread over fewer days like most in-person events do. About 35% said they prefer half-day programming spread over several days. But 47% told us that they would prefer virtual events offer just a few hours of programming a day spread out over a much longer time.

We will continue to field our Events Participation Index through this pandemic to gauge how the community is feeling about business travel and events. If there are questions you think we should ask, email

Meanwhile, see Brearton’s comments below:

About The Author

Henry Powderly is vice president of content for Third Door Media, publishers of Search Engine Land, Marketing Land and MarTech Today. With more than a decade in editorial leadership positions, he is responsible for content strategy and event programming for the organization.

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