COVID and Events: Uh-Oh, Attendance

Events are coming back.  At least, they are beginning to come back.  For 2022.   2021, not so much.

However, just as you thought our international collective nightmare of COVID, DELTA, and all things variant is winding down, and just as search traffic for keywords related to event planning is starting to tick back up, and just as clients are getting excited to plan their 2022 event, there’s another problem on the horizon:  attendance.

Bay Area Greenscreen photo booth
A participant at the Bay Area Travel and Adventure Show greenscreen experiential photo marketing event

The events that have been held for fourth quarter of this year have all reported light attendance.  In some cases, attendance is off by 80%.  Yes, that is a correct number — event planners have told me that only 20% of the people who usually attend their events are coming back.  Worse, registrations aren’t off — meaning people (especially international travelers) are signing up for events, even paying the registration fees, but when push comes to shove they don’t show up.

  (The third episode in our mini-cast about COVID and Events.  Click HERE for all the episodes.)

That may sound ideal:  my dad always thought his dream client was one who gave him money and never asked for anything in return — but most events don’t make their money on registration fees.  They make their money on sponsorships, vendor partnerships, and all kinds of other money that flows in when a huge group of people with a collective interest meet in a defined place and time.  Those registration fees are the tip of the iceberg — and their is no iceberg if the crowd doesn’t show.

This is a problem across other industries, too.  Hotels are struggling to put heads in beds.  Business travel is off.  Air travel is off.  Planes are flying out empty.  Flights are getting cancelled.  Food prices at airports (and hotels) are rising as restaurants at airports (and hotels) are closing — or remaining closed.

How far off the mark is travel?  Cruise Companies expected a strong return in third and fourth quarter of 2021 — but DELTA killed that.  Some cruise lines are expecting billion dollar loses.  Ouch.  Reuters has done extensive reporting on the return to business travel, and their conclusion?  It may never return to 2019 levels.  Perhaps (and this will take years Reuters says) it may come back to about 90%.  Uh-oh.  Southwest just reported their third quarter of 2021 was 17% off 2019 levels.  Notice we aren’t even MENTIONING 2020.   Marriott, coming off of historic 2020 losses — actually struck and optimistic note in their latest earnings report.  Hard to do when, during April of 2020, they had a 20% occupancy rate.  The hotel chain still struggles, with the last quarter reported showing about a 50% occupancy rate worldwide — though it is higher in markets that are having an easier struggle with DELTA.

Bottom line:   travel remains lethargic.  And with people skittish about traveling, they aren’t jumping on planes and booking hotels to attend live, in-person events.  Not yet.

This past weekend’s Bay Area Travel Show was well attended.  Given there was a historic “cyclone bomb” of rain, an NFL game directly across the street from the convention center (resulting in travel headaches), and COVID restrictions — moderate attendance was a relief.

Things will come back.  But event professionals should keep hard realities in mind right now.  And just because show registrations may look strong, you may want to tamp down expectations, at least for a while, scale back just a bit, and turn your eye towards yet another hopeful New Year.