I was fortunate enough to attend several in-person events over the last few months, and I found myself pondering the ways I’ve changed as an attendee, and how the event experience looks today. It’s not only me — I think all attendees have changed. And not just since the beginning of the pandemic, but over the last six months as well.

The industry has moved beyond feeling excited to be back to in-person events. That was the big trend in 2021 and early 2022. Now, people are thinking critically about the events they truly want to attend. Their expectations are even higher, and not just in the sense of production value. Attendees today value their time more than anything else. 

We’re seeing these same macro trends across multiple industries. For instance, consider the explosion of online grocery shopping. People love how much time it saves.

As we approach the 2023 events season, we have to really think about the deep value proposition to register and attend our events. With everyone optimizing their lives right now, you can no longer design an event that simply scratches the surface of event production and engagement. It has to fulfill a niche need, or it has to be so good it becomes the one event your audience can’t miss out on.

The stakes are higher than ever for in-person events. With anticipated budget cuts, a looming recession, and changes to attendee expectations, it has never been more important for events to demonstrate the “wow” factor, while also driving ROI for all stakeholders. 

Rethinking event budgets

If I had to pick one thing that’s top of mind for every event planner right now, it’s definitely budget. Event professionals are trying to figure out how to deal with rising costs without raising ticket prices. They’re wondering, “Where’s my budget being spent, and what’s the best way to maximize my budget?” Planners aren’t just worried about their budgets; they’re rethinking them entirely. People like to say, “Think outside the box.” I’d recommend that you smash the box completely and start new. 

Instead of trying to move things around to free up some of your budget, start at the top and don’t be afraid to go a different route. For instance, maybe it means choosing an entirely different venue to reduce costs. Or, instead of trying to find ways to lower your catering budget, maybe you bring in food trucks and ask attendees to pay for their meals. It could also involve re-evaluating your event models. Many planners today are shifting to multiple, regional events throughout the year and taking a fresh look at how their larger events fit into their overall digital strategies. 

Ultimately, the events that continue to grow and stick around are the ones that constantly pose these questions throughout the planning process: “Why do I host this event?” and “How is this experience totally different from other events?”

Navigating attendance changes

In the Fall of 2022, Webex Events launched a survey for the Event inspiration: trends and ideation workshop that found lower event attendance to be a major concern for event professionals.

When it comes to lower attendance, instead of just trying to increase attendance numbers, consider how you can lean into this new experience. Focusing on getting back to pre-pandemic numbers can be a slippery slope. You may spend more on the event and end up with the exact same results.

With a potential recession on the horizon and businesses slashing their budgets, you need to be prepared to adjust and move. The future of events is not necessarily about trying to become the biggest conference, but instead creating more intimate experiences. It’s about depth rather than breadth. 

If you want to grow event attendance, consider how event marketing looks different today. Prior to the pandemic, inbound marketing worked really well for us. But if you’re seeing diminishing returns, you have to think innovatively about your marketing. 

Focus on creating a word-of-mouth strategy. If you build an amazing experience, attendees will talk about it, and you won’t have to push hard for registrations. Your event will grow and sell on its own.

One trend that emerged in the last year is that you absolutely have to prove the data and ROI of your events. With budgets getting tighter and executives looking at the bottom line of events, you need to be able to analyze and make decisions based on the data. 

Get into the weeds with the data, or chances are you’re going to get blindsided with potential budget decreases, or you might end up poorly planning your next event because you didn’t consider what the data says.

I’m also seeing event professionals figuring out how to incorporate digital and virtual events into their entire event strategy. While we might’ve moved away from virtual-only events, digital is still a very important part of a larger events strategy, whether it’s a series of webinars leading up to your event, or live streaming part of your in-person event.

Leveraging event tech to enhance in-person events

Event technology is far more commonplace at in-person events than pre-pandemic times. Previously, maybe you’d have an event app with the schedule, directory, and a list of speakers. Now, people absolutely expect the ability to look at the attendee list and quickly connect and message each other.

We’re really fortunate with how we can use event technology to reach more people than ever before. If you have an in-person conference with 500 attendees, you can turn it into a hybrid experience and reach thousands of attendees. 

Event tech also allows us to expand diversity and enhance inclusivity in new ways, and host events in new locations with new attendees. I’ve been doing more international events lately because it’s easier than ever to get an AI-generated captioning system. The translation systems today keep getting better and better. In fact, I was able to plan a recent event in a country where I don’t speak the language. Event technology allowed me to engage with vendors and attendees. It was so seamless and easy.

Event technology also enables us to collect more data during in-person experiences. Prior to the pandemic, if you wanted to capture a wealth of in-person data, you had to use Bluetooth low-energy RFID tracking. It was usually something you implemented if you had a bunch of extra budget. 

But then we went to virtual events, and suddenly we knew everything about where attendees went, what they did, and the sponsors they spoke to. When we went back to in-person, everyone wanted the same amount of data. Now the technology enables it.

Incorporating virtual practices to in-person events

If virtual events taught us anything, it’s that boring content is going to be boring no matter the format. If you planned an unengaging virtual presentation, attendees were quick to tune out. You want to apply the same strategy to your in-person events. It’s not like all of a sudden everyone loves flat slide decks now that we’re going back to meeting in-person. Remember, people value their time like never before.

Virtual events also taught us that it can be challenging to get people to network and talk to each other. With the return to in-person events, we’ve taken some of those learnings, and I’m seeing less of the big networking happy hours. Instead, organizers are creating engaging experiences to bring attendees together in more meaningful ways. For example, escape rooms provide a fun way to get attendees to engage and connect in person. I’ve also seen event professionals leverage tools like Braindate, which is a crowdsourced platform that empowers attendees to connect over topic-driven conversations.

With virtual events, organizers jam-packed every single minute with content. It made sense because if you gave attendees an hour break, they may not return. As we get back to in-person, we need to build in more space to give attendees a break to connect with others and process their learnings. I think attendees are tired of being over programmed at their events. 

As you plan for the year ahead, consider how elevating the event experience requires a look back at what worked, what didn’t work, and why. Plan for the unexpected, experiment with new ideas, and dig into your own data for learnings to lean on in 2023 and beyond.