Events being given the green light is only part of the puzzle when it comes to the recovery of the industry — the other part is getting attendees to show up. When you are finally able to plan an event, will people be willing to travel to it?
Germany and China were the first countries to officially allow the resumption of B2B trade shows. China's first exhibition since the start of the pandemic took place earlier this month, and in Germany, trade associations successfully lobbied the government into distinguishing trade shows from "mass gatherings," and the annual IFA trade show in Berlin has already been scheduled for September. Austria has just joined them, allowing congresses of up to 1000 people.
While this could certainly herald good news for the industry, there are still many factors to consider in the organization of these events — namely, will attendees show up?
According to recent Skift research, Americans are eager to travel: 27% said they would travel within three months after the outbreak, and another 28% would travel in four to six months.
However, the situation is complex. Just because certain activities are no longer forced to be closed, doesn't mean that everyone will rush back to normalcy at the same time. A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll revealed that over 60% of Americans believe it's still too early to reopen the country.
The reality is that many people will still be unwilling to travel and resume normal activities despite being permitted to. So, what factors will determine when travel opens back up? And will attendees actually be willing and able to travel to a live event when it does?
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Criteria for Attending
In order for travel and events to resume — first and foremost — it must be deemed safe. "Safe" is far from an absolute term, with each country and state determining its own acceptable risk of starting to reopen the economy, and what guidelines will be put in place in order to do so largely independently.
Many areas have now started reopening, but there is still widespread hesitance to travel. Jason M. Lemkin, Trusted Advisor at SaaStr, recently discussed certain prerequisites that need to be met for people to begin traveling to events.
Once governments and health officials consider it safe to travel, the next condition is that people must actually feel comfortable with the potential risks involved and consider it safe themselves. Until speakers and attendees feel safe traveling, regardless of the official restrictions, they'll stay home.
The final criterion is that the relative benefit of traveling to an in-person event, as opposed to attending virtually, actually outweighs the risk. In an age of online events, virtual will provide an alternative with real value, becoming the new baseline for measuring the merit of organizing and traveling to live events.
Another factor adding to the complicated travel recovery timeline — especially international travel — is the lack of cohesive lockdown regulations around the world. For example, Sweden never implemented any sort of lockdown, but most other European countries have closed their borders until next month.
Even within the US, states are following different timelines for reopening and have discouraged interstate travel, although most have begun easing lockdown restrictions in some way.
The discussions in the EU around opening back up for visitors in time for the summer season indicates that the recovery timeline for some countries may be much earlier than previously expected and that travel restrictions in these places will likely soon be lifted if all goes according to plan.
In the meantime, restrictions in other places — like the US travel ban — remain in effect until further notice. Most international travel will likely remain extremely limited for at least the next few months as most non-residents may still be restricted from traveling to and from certain parts of the world.
Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, many countries have imposed supervised quarantine or self-quarantine regulations. This means that, even if visitors are able to enter the country, they must be isolated for 14 days.
Obviously, this isn’t very conducive to live international events. If attendees are ordered to quarantine for two weeks upon arriving at their destination, this will weigh heavily against their disposition to come for the sake of a conference in which they could otherwise have an albeit more limited role virtually.
But exceptions to these restrictions are beginning to arise as part of some reopening strategies. For example, while France is enforcing the quarantine for anyone (including French citizens) coming from outside the EU or the UK, travelers entering from these zones will not be subject to quarantine, and would therefore be able to attend an event more easily.
In order to facilitate travel, certain countries have begun introducing the idea of travel bubbles, also called travel corridors: specific regions that will lift travel restrictions with each other and only allow unrestricted travel within the region, likely based on proximity or mutually successful suppression strategies.
Australia and New Zealand announced earlier this month that they would be opening up to one another and allowing travel between the two countries once flights become safe. In order for the travel bubble to take effect, the 14-day quarantine restrictions in both countries would first need to be lifted. Currently, various Australian states have quarantine orders in place, much like US states, so even domestic travel is limited.
Europe is following suit, with the first European travel bubble implemented between the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Citizens and residents of these three countries are now able to travel freely within the region and are not subject to the quarantine regulations that are being enforced for those entering from outside the region.
Several other countries are working out similar agreements, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Croatia as well as Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. Greece just waived the 14-day quarantine mandate for UK tourists, and both Italy and Spain will be reopening to EU visitors next month.
It's likely that other countries and regions will implement similar agreements and that unrestricted travel will be limited in scope until more areas get the virus under control and relax lockdowns successfully.
What Are People Saying?
As travel slowly becomes possible again, there are two major takeaways to consider when determining whether attendees will travel to events: people's comfort level and perception of safety, and the distance they would need to travel to attend the event.
Skift's March US Travel Tracker found that almost two-thirds of Americans expected their first post-coronavirus trip to be by car, less than 100 miles from home. This indicates that most people will be looking to travel somewhat locally when they do start to travel again.
In a recent Twitter poll by Skift CEO Rafat Ali, 66.5% of respondents said there's no way they would travel to a business event in August or September. Only 20% said they'd be willing to fly, and 13% would be willing to drive. Interestingly, the same poll on LinkedIn received different results: 39% of respondents indicated that they would be willing to fly to an event in Q3, while slightly less than half (48%) said there was no way they'd travel.
Are you willing to travel to go to a business event/conference in Aug-Sep?
— Rafat Ali, Media Owner & Operator (@rafat) May 14, 2020
Although the latter is more optimistic, it still echoes the same sentiment: the majority of people don't feel comfortable with the idea of traveling in the next three months. That said, there are attendees who will be willing to travel once they're able, but due to ongoing travel restrictions, it will be more feasible for many people to travel locally rather than internationally — at least for the time being.
Budget will also be a factor. Skift's research indicated that 44% of Americans expect their travel spending to decrease following the pandemic. Hybrid events will therefore become incredibly important in order to make up for the lowered capacity of initial in-person events and to increase the event's reach to anyone who is interested but only able or willing to attend virtually.
All of this generally points to a trend toward smaller local events for the foreseeable future. Jeremiah Owyang, Founding Partner and Industry Analyst at Kaleido Insights, recently conducted a Twitter poll revealing that only roughly 4% of planners expect large events to make a comeback this year, while over 80% don’t expect to see them until 2021 or 2022.
Any surprises? Y'all forecast large business conferences won't happen for two years, closely followed by 2021. pic.twitter.com/5oOxcFapZe
— Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang) May 17, 2020
The easing of restrictions in many regions and the official go-ahead from China, Austria, and Germany to resume trade shows is incredibly promising for the events industry, but we're still far from a full recovery. The reopening of the world's major economies will be marred by uncertainty and experimentation, just as the rest of the pandemic has been.
Revenge attending may help certain events get back on their feet, but it's not something that can be counted on, especially in the early days as travel remains restricted. Event attendance will come down to how well countries continue to manage the virus's spread as well as how risky attendees perceive travel to be for the foreseeable future.