Covid-19 and How it’s Changing the Event Industry ‒ One year on

Digital and Data

It has been over a year since we launched our Covid-19 Customer Needs and Mindset Barometer to help us track our customers evolving attitudes to physical and digital events. We look back on how exhibitor and visitor perceptions have changed during the pandemic, reveal how they have informed RX’s pivot to digital and hybrid events, and reflect on the power of listening to all of our attendees. 

Launched in June 2020, RX’s Covid-19 Customer Needs & Mindset Barometer is the largest and most ambitious research project ever undertaken by an event organiser. Over the past 12 months we received over 45,000 visitor survey responses and more than 10,000 exhibitor survey responses from participants at 201 RX events worldwide, all of whom were asked to reflect on their experiences of  in-person and online events over the course of the pandemic.  

“By continually listening to our customers, and understanding their concerns, RX has been able to evolve and upgrade our events and technology platforms to meet their changing needs – be it for webinars, online content, virtual meetings, contactless technology, or, as soon as conditions allow, a safe and secure return to face to face business” said Layla Northern, Global Head of Digital Customer Insights. “We have also gained valuable insights which are helping us to reshape our event brands to meet the future needs of our global communities, year-round.” 

Growing customer confidence – and the importance of face to face 

So what do the latest findings tell us? Compared to data collected 12 months ago, customer confidence is significantly more positive. Over two thirds of visitors and exhibitors now believe the economic outlook in their industry will improve or stay the same over the next 12 months. 

Correspondingly, the number of exhibitors and visitors sharing that they are currently impacted by the pandemic has fallen. Concerns about sales, spending, cash flow, government restrictions and travel budgets have all reduced significantly, although travel restrictions continue to provide a notable challenge to exhibitors.  

One statistic that has remained steady or improved for both exhibitors and visitors over the entire course of the tracking survey is their belief in the unique value and importance of face to face events. 74% of visitors and 64% of exhibitors agree that trade shows offer them something that is unavailable elsewhere. And over three-quarters of our visitors feel trade shows offer them learning experiences that they can’t get elsewhere.  

Visitor comfort with the idea of attending trade shows has increased significantly, with concerns about long haul travel, public transport, staying in hotels, and attending large indoor events, all showing a strong and steady decline over the past year. Exhibitors are also more comfortable with all aspects of attending shows. 

Asked about their future spending, over half of exhibitors in the latest wave of results say they will prioritise the biggest international shows in the calendar year, then attend more locally for other events. This suggests that while industry-defining events may be as strong as ever, for smaller shows, organisers should continue to adopt more flexible solutions, such as hybrid events, to help customers overcome ongoing barriers.  

Building business – face to face, and online 

From the very start of the Covid-19 Research Barometer, customer responses have strongly supported our case for developing digital and hybrid events– wherever in the world they are. 

By highlighting specific and ongoing health and safety concerns, the research was also key to the early development of RX’s robust Global Health and Safety framework, launched in June 2020 and regularly updated to reflect changes in local thinking and practice. 

Together, these developments have been pivotal in reassuring customers to return to face to face events, and providing viable, virtual alternatives for those unable to do so. In the first half of 2021, as conditions allowed, RX ran 87 face to face events in markets including China, Japan, Russia, Australia, UAE and the US. We also continued to provide valuable content and connections to remote customers across markets via  digital standalone events. The second half of the year has seen the return of physical RX events to the UK, France and Germany, and we expect to deliver a larger number of F2F shows, representing a significant degree of return to normality, before the end of the year.  

Now that we are seeing significant levels of Covid-19 vaccine roll out and in many geographies lockdown rules have been relaxed, RX is taking the opportunity to review and refresh our customer tracking study. “With the increase in the return to F2F shows as well as hybrid shows, we plan to evolve our research study to determine what our customers need from our in-person events and digital platforms going forward, as we move to this new phase of the pandemic” explained Layla. 

The power of listening  

Reflecting on the wider significance of the Covid-19 Customer Barometer Research, Layla said: “As a business we have had a really strong handle on our customer needs and behaviours throughout the pandemic. I'm not aware of any other organisers who have undertaken such major research in this area, let alone tracked it across a full 12 months. The fact that we made a commitment to really listen to our customers throughout the pandemic has been received very positively.” 

At the end of each survey RX provides space in which customers are invited to share the issues that keep them awake at night. “Deep in the worst moments of lockdown, when many of our customers were fighting for survival, we expected them to share their grievances, and some of them quite understandably did. But the majority thanked us for running the survey, and for taking the time and effort to ask them for their point of view. That’s the power of letting your customer be heard,” said Layla. “Most importantly”, she added, “many also told us they couldn’t wait to get back to business again at our shows.”  

Covid-19 and How it’s Changing the Event Industry. Part 1. December 2020. 

Covid-19 and How it’s Changing the Event Industry. Part 2. May 2021.