Virtual, Hybrid, or In-Person: Business Leaders Weigh In on the Future of Events

The Future of Events in 2024: Virtual, In-Person, and Everything in Between

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically transformed the events industry in 2020, forcing the cancellation of countless in-person conferences, trade shows, and meetings. In their place, virtual events quickly became the norm as organizations looked for ways to continue connecting with customers, employees, and communities.

Fast forward to 2024, and it‘s clear that virtual events are here to stay. The rapid shift online accelerated the adoption of event technology and showed that many of the benefits of meeting face-to-face can be delivered digitally. Virtual events allow organizers to reach much larger and more global audiences at lower costs. Attendees save time and money on travel and can more easily fit events into their schedules. The data generated provides valuable insights on attendee behavior and preferences.

However, it would be a mistake to declare in-person events dead. There are still many compelling reasons to meet physically when it‘s safe to do so. Humans are social creatures, and the serendipitous encounters, side conversations, and relationship-building that happen at in-person events are difficult to fully replicate online. Hands-on demos, immersive brand experiences, and destination activities add meaningfully to many event programs.

So rather than virtual completely replacing in-person, what we expect to see more of in 2024 and beyond is the rise of truly hybrid events. These integrate the best elements of both in-person and online experiences into one seamless event. The in-person portion may be smaller than before, with the event designed to be engaging for both a live and remote audience simultaneously. Content is live-streamed or made available on-demand so virtual attendees can participate in their own way. Networking is facilitated through both face-to-face and digital interactions.

Advances in technology will make these hybrid experiences even more engaging and immersive. Augmented and virtual reality could allow remote attendees to feel like they are actually there in person. Artificial intelligence could power extremely targeted matchmaking and provide each attendee with a unique agenda. Live translation could make events more accessible to global audiences.

When in-person events do take place, expect them to be more intentional and experiential. Large expo halls and generic content won‘t cut it. Attendees will be looking for unique adventures they can‘t have anywhere else, for highly relevant and timely content, for meaningful connections with people who can really help move their businesses or careers forward. Exclusivity will sell.

Health and safety protocols will undoubtedly still be top of mind. Venues will tout their air filtration systems, room capacities may be limited, and elbow bumps may permanently replace handshakes. Contactless check-in, digital tickets, and spaces designed for social distancing will all contribute to making people feel more comfortable congregating.

Event planners will need to be prepared for all possibilities and have robust contingency plans in place. The ability to pivot quickly will be key, as will flexibility in contracts with venues and vendors. Effective communication with attendees to manage expectations and provide updates will be more important than ever.

Ultimately, the right mix of in-person, virtual, and hybrid events will vary based on the organization, the target audience, and the event goals. A large annual user conference might work best as a hybrid, with a smaller in-person program for VIPs and virtual access for the broader community. A sales kickoff meeting might be most impactful as an in-person incentive trip when key teams really need to build rapport. An investor day might work best as an immersive virtual experience to allow the company to effectively communicate with a larger investor base.

Regardless of format, the fundamental elements of a successful event remain the same. The event has to deliver real value to attendees and provide a forum for meaningful engagement. Content has to be compelling, relevant, and effectively presented. Technology has to work seamlessly. And perhaps most importantly, organizers have to really understand their audiences and design an experience that uniquely meets their needs.

In many ways, the disruption of the pandemic merely accelerated trends already underway in the events industry, like the adoption of digital tools and the importance of interactive rather than passive experiences. It also crystalized what people truly value about events – the learning, the networking, the relationships, the fun – and will force the industry to double down on delivering that value across formats.

The recovery of the business events industry will certainly be uneven and nonlinear. Corporate events will likely rebound more quickly than association meetings. Local and regional gatherings will be easier and safer to produce than large international ones. Some industries like tech and healthcare will have the budget to get back out there before others.

But make no mistake, people will always need to meet and events will continue to be an important part of how organizations deliver on their goals. It will just look a bit different. Hybrid is the future, and that future is now. Event planners and marketers who embrace that reality and focus on designing incredible hybrid experiences will be well-positioned for success in 2024 and beyond.

Those who get too comfortable with virtual or ignore the pent-up demand for in-person experiences will likely struggle. It‘s about delivering the right balance, being flexible, and keeping the attendee at the center of it all.

If there‘s one thing we‘ve learned, it‘s that the events industry is incredibly resilient and innovative. Where there is challenge lies opportunity. So here‘s to the next generation of events – they might take a different form but will be more important than ever in bringing people together in meaningful ways. The future is bright.