an in-person meeting

Report: In-Person Meetings Are Back, But Challenges Remain

According to an Omnipress survey, many meeting planners are sticking with hybrid and virtual formats, while they also work to bring more attendees and exhibitors to in-person events.

In-person conferences have bounced back from the doldrums of COVID-19. But a new report finds that the return to in-person has not been as robust as hoped, and many leaders are concerned about their value proposition.

According to Omnipress’ 2023 Conference Industry Report, released last week, an increasing percentage of organizations held in-person conferences in 2022: 49 percent, compared to 37 percent in 2021. But the percentage of those hosting hybrid meetings exploded, from 18 percent in 2021 to 47 percent last year, suggesting that meeting planners aren’t all-in on in-person events. (The report is based on a survey of 200 executives and meeting professionals from multiple industries, including associations.)

“Shifting attendee priorities, post-pandemic economic recovery, and staffing issues have made it harder for some attendees and their organizations to justify the time away and the expense,” the report said. “This puts even greater burden on planners to make their event truly worth attending.”

According to Omnipress Director of Marketing Tracy Gryzbowski, associations are hedging their bets about in-person meetings until they feel more confident that their offerings will attract attendees and exhibitors. 

Organizations are looking across their entire portfolio of events and thinking maybe not everything has to be in-person.

Tracy Gryzbowski, Omnipress

On the attendee side, she said, “It’s one thing to be excited about getting back to in-person, but what we say we want to do and what we actually tend to do are different things.” 

The challenge for exhibitors and sponsors can be even steeper. “During the pandemic, they were forced to find other places to put their marketing investments,” she said. “It’s a lot of pressure to convince them to come back, or come back at the level that they had previously.”

Those concerns, along with fears of inflation eating into profitability, have prompted more associations to consider hybrid or virtual options for their events. Sixty-four percent of respondents who reported using hybrid formats said they would continue to do so; though only 4 percent of organizations hosted a virtual-only conference last year, 60 percent of those said they’ll do so in 2023. 

“I think that [organizations are] looking across their entire portfolio of events and thinking maybe not everything has to be in-person,” Gryzbowski said. “Maybe they save in-person for that flagship conference and look at ways to make some of those other smaller meetings more accessible through virtual options.”

In-person meetings scored generally higher marks from survey respondents in terms of attendee and exhibitor satisfaction, as well as exhibitor and sponsor revenue. But offering different meeting formats presents an opportunity to attract international, first-time, and young professional attendees. Forty-six percent of attendees said attracting young professionals to events is “extremely important.” 

The Omnipress report said that a trend of fast-tracking younger leaders can have an influence on the mix of speakers, topics, and formats in future conferences. “Young professionals recognize they have a lot to learn, but they also feel like they know a lot as well,” Gryzbowski said. “In a lot of cases more than some of their older peers, because they have a very different set of experiences and they want to share that perspective. They want to see that perspective represented.”

(gremlin/iStock/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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