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The future of events is hybrid — here’s how to get the perfect balance of virtual and in-person events in 2021 and beyond

According to our latest research, in-person events will overtake virtual events in popularity by 2022. Explore the findings of our global report, including what they mean for your region, and why a 'hybrid' event model will be most successful going forward.

A hybrid event model that combines both online and offline options for attendees is likely to be the most effective way to engage prospects and customers moving forward.

That's the finding from our latest report on the future of events. Our study of 11,000 people around the world found that while the majority still favor virtual events, there's a growing hunger to get back to in-person events over the next 12 months.

What attendees want from your events in 2021 and beyond

What attendees want from your events in 2021 and beyond

Events need to be hybrid – online and in-person – if you want to appeal to the masses

Though there’s currently a strong preference for virtual events, hybrid events will be necessary for capturing all audiences in the future. As of May 2021, 59% of respondents prefer virtual events, but only 41% would still prefer to attend a virtual event in 2022. This preference varies around the world. Countries such as the UK (71%) and France (76%) are leading the charge for a return to in-person events after 2021. In the US, however, this drops down to 57%.

Preference for in-person and virtual events beyond 2021 varies by region and country:

  • Europe: 69% prefer in-person vs. 31% prefer virtual beyond 2021
  • Middle East: 46% prefer in-person vs. 54% prefer virtual beyond 2021
  • United States: 57% prefer in-person vs. 43% prefer virtual beyond 2021
  • Latin America: 49% prefer in-person vs. 51% prefer virtual beyond 2021

Again, creating regional and local strategies will be key. This is how expectations for online events in the next 12 months vary around the world: In terms of expectations, many are predicting that the future will be hybrid events. Of our respondents, 29% expect to attend only virtual events within the next 12 months, and 51% expect to attend one to five in-person events.

  • The Americas: 22% expect to attend only virtual events
  • Asia Pacific: 36% expect to attend only virtual events
  • Europe and Middle East: 35% expect to attend only virtual events

Though in-person events are rated and valued highly, the majority of respondents would not travel internationally for an in-person event – so businesses will need to offer flexibility and localize their events strategy.

It's clear attendees prefer the experience of in-person events. Some 69% of people said they were keen to return to face-to-face events, with the same number saying they valued them more than virtual events. Our study found people rated the in-person experience more highly (highest CSAT 4.23) than their virtual alternatives (highest CSAT 3.84), too.

  • The United States (75%) and Latin America (79%) value in-person events far more than Europe and Middle East (64%)  and Asia Pacific (63%)
  • The Americas  is the highest ( vs. Europe and Middle East 64% and Asia-Pacific 63%.)

Here’s how preference for in-person events breaks down by region:

However, 10% of those surveyed said there was nothing that would make them feel comfortable attending an in-person event at the moment. Additionally, comfort levels only extend to local events – only 12% would travel globally for an event, but 43% would be happy to travel within their country of residence. Businesses will need to provide various options for attendance to make sure they reach the widest possible audience.

For working parents, virtual events will still be preferable after 2021 - don’t alienate your audience by switching completely to in-person options

In 2020 a higher percentage of working parents attended virtual events than those without children, in every region around the world. And it's a trend that’s likely to continue with working parents 12% more likely to choose a virtual event over an in-person event after 2021. The shift to digital events has opened new opportunities and made them more accessible than before.

However, in-person events are definitely on the horizon – so offering hybrid events is the way forward

In our research, 67% of people managers said they would be open to sending their direct reports to an in-person event this year, and 60% of respondents globally would consider an in-person event an 'essential business purpose'. Beware if you’re in the UK or France though, just 49% and 33% agreed with this statement.

  • Managers in the Europe and Middle East region seem to be more apprehensive about sending their direct reports to in-person events, 57% would vs the global average of 67%

Hybrid models need to work harder to recreate the human connection with reservations about attendance still high in many countries and the mixed needs of audiences, hybrid events offer the best-case scenario for the maximum number of attendees.

We found the two key factors people miss the most from in-person events are ‘face-to-face networking’ and ‘interactivity’. The “connection” elements where people can interact easily with one another can be the hardest to recreate virtually, but with hybrid events a near-certainty, businesses will need to find digital solutions for those not ready to go back to in-person events.

From our respondents, the most popular ways to achieve it were:

  • Live Q&A sessions (21%)
  • Chat functionality (15%) polls (15%)

Your virtual event technology will need to be able to support these needs as we move to a hybrid strategy, so investing in platforms that can provide this connection will pay dividends when it comes to the event experience.

  • Event attendees in Germany had the highest preference for networking (23%)

6 tips to make your hybrid events strategy a success

Make virtual events as engaging as live ones

A key finding was that on-demand event content is not popular. 71% of respondents would prefer live virtual events over pre-recorded or on-demand options, indicating that though the experience might be virtual, it shouldn’t feel secondary to in-person. A live digital event can have a greater payoff for engagement and interactivity, so don’t be afraid to move on from on-demand webinars where possible. 92% of our Qualtrics events in the first half of 2021 were live – a 16% increase on last year.

Move away from celebrity speakers and focus on area experts

Just 13% of people said celebrity speakers were important to them at virtual events. That compares to 18% who said topic and area experts were most valuable, so make sure you’re providing insights that can’t be found elsewhere by people who know what they’re talking about for maximum engagement.

For example, we’re taking steps to align our keynote speakers directly to our brand and make sure the content is tailored to the audience, adding in subject matter experts and thought leaders where suitable.

Change up your timetable

The most popular day to attend events is dependent on location.

  • United States - Wednesday
  • Europe, Middle East, Latin America, and Caribbean - Friday
  • Asia-Pacific - On-demand / Friday

While Mondays were least favored with just 10% of respondents wanting to start their week at an event. Meanwhile, when it comes to on-demand content, just 12% said they wanted to watch it during working hours.

In Europe, our in-person events were typically hosted mid-week, and even when we went digital this continued . But in light of our research, we’re currently testing virtual events to see what our attendance rate and engagement levels are like. If they’re good, then Friday events are here to stay.

Make your event as accessible to attendees as possible

Provide opportunities for attendees to attend in-person and online with multiple ticket options that suit different preferences. Not everyone will be able to or want to attend your event in-person through 2021 and beyond, meaning businesses will need to provide flexible options for participants.

This might even involve holding small, intimate event experiences with a limited number of attendees and then stream it virtually to engage a wider audience.

Create a seamless omnichannel experience

Whether it’s in-person or online, the event experience needs to be seamless across every channel. Ensure you’re finding ways to meet your audience’s expectations. And if you feel like you can’t meet those expectations, don’t try. This thought process has led us to make confident decisions on the viability of in-person events in certain locations. And if you do go ahead, whether it’s interactivity or networking, invest in a platform that makes this possible for online participants.

Never stop iterating

For most organizations,  and a lot of attendees too, a hybrid events model is a new way of engaging. So there’s likely to be some testing and iterating over the next 12 months as you perfect what the future of your events looks like. Try to put your attendees at the heart of your decisions, with ongoing event feedback at every stage from understanding the registration process, ticketing, and then gathering event feedback from attendees on the day. This should help you to spot what’s working, what isn’t, and identify new opportunities for your next event to help boost engagement and perfect your hybrid model going forward. 

Research methodology

Date of study: April 2021

Responses : 11,000

Here’s a breakdown of those responses:

14% C-Suite / executive level

8% business leaders

40% managers

38% individual contributors

Gender: 53% Male, 47% Female

Country: United States, Brazil, Mexico, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Germany, United Arab Emirates, Australia, Singapore, Japan.

Family status: 66% of our respondents had children.

Design and improve your hybrid event experience with real-time insights

Topics research

Qualtrics // Experience Management

Qualtrics, the leader and creator of the experience management category, is a cloud-native software platform that empowers organizations to deliver exceptional experiences and build deep relationships with their customers and employees.

With insights from Qualtrics, organizations can identify and resolve the greatest friction points in their business, retain and engage top talent, and bring the right products and services to market. Nearly 20,000 organizations around the world use Qualtrics’ advanced AI to listen, understand, and take action. Qualtrics uses its vast universe of experience data to form the largest database of human sentiment in the world. Qualtrics is co-headquartered in Provo, Utah and Seattle.

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