When Will Large Events Come Back?

February 5, 2021

For months, I have been listening to my colleagues and friends in the event industry and everyone has had the same question rolling around in our minds: when can large-scale events come back? At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought it would be Fall 2020 but clearly that didn’t happen. With the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine underway, many are seeing it as a sign of hope that we could be back in convention centers and ballrooms later this year.

However, I have another thought on the timeline and here it is:

If planned and delivered following the federal and state recommended COVID guidelines, there is absolutely no reason that business events including conferences and conventions could not return today. 

Yes, this is a bold statement. However, based on my conversations, the current concern surrounding the return of live events is not based on the “how to do it safely” as there are highly skilled event professionals ready, willing and able to make events happen with minimal risk to the attendees’ health. The concern is around fear of the unknown impact on the planner (and client's) brand, which I am seeing manifest in two ways:

  1. If their customers and prospects view the delivery of an in-person event to be negligent
  2. A COVID case or cluster is linked back to attendance at their event

If we begin to see organizations that are considered industry leaders host in-person 2021 event dates and they are transparent about what protocols they are going through to avoid contributing to the spread, I believe many more will follow.

Events that are of a social nature, including concerts and parties, could also be delivered as we’ve seen done in Europe a few times in the past year. However, the measures you’d have to put in place to ensure they are COVID-safe would significantly affect the attendee experience, so I wouldn’t recommend it just yet. Attend a concert where you can’t freely sing at the top of your lungs and dance like nobody's watching? Hard pass on that one for me.

How to Protect Your Attendees, Staff and Brand

It all starts with documentation. Given the perceived risks associated with gatherings, ensuring your event insurance company has an in-depth understanding of your event scope is critical. This will enable them to provide accurate guidance as to what level and type of policy is required to cover both yourself and your event.

Of equal importance is the need to consult with your legal team to ensure all of your terms and conditions and event policies and procedures are current, comprehensive and enforceable. Given that we’re in uncharted territory, if it’s not already standard procedure, I strongly recommend engaging your legal team to review each and every supplier/vendor contract prior to signing — no matter how large or small. Just like with force majeure, there is no existing blanket rule or law with regards to supplier/vendor liability. Frank conversations and detailed contract inclusions are a must to ensure everyone is legally covered.

In addition, very clear messaging along with your comprehensive COVID-safe guidelines should be made available to all registered attendees AND adhered to onsite.

Takeaway on Timing

I think we can all count on live in-person events returning to our lives in the second half of 2021 if not sooner. That being said, they will not look like we once knew them, at least for a while.

Large-scale events will be transformed into smaller, targeted and localized experiences. (Think: a modern twist on a traditional roadshow.) Until consumers have the confidence to travel again, and check in and out of hotels, organizers are going to have to travel to them. Any elements that could be considered high risk or negligent, like an attendee party or networking reception, should be replaced with a creative solution that meets COVID guidelines but still enables attendees to enjoy the benefits of an in-person experience over that of one online.

After 12 months of reflection and reprioritization, I predict executive retreats held in remote unique locations will also be a huge hit.

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