Tech Industry

What to expect when you go back to conferences and conventions

CNET Now What learns how trade shows can be better when they return.

We're all getting very used to attending events and conferences via Zoom, Webex or Teams. It works, but it's not the same as getting on a plane to attend a highly produced event where your focus is singular and you're surrounded by thousands of other people who agree being there is essential. Now what?

"There's really no substitute for being face to face," says Bob Priest-Heck, CEO of Freeman, a company whose name you may not know, but which is the largest producer of events, conferences and expos you do know, including CES. "As soon as it's safe to do so, we're going to see an integrated approach using digital events for reach and using in-person for quality and depth." 

Major conference

Before the pandemic, conferences and events were highly polished. How can some of that be brought to their often dowdier online versions?


That may expand event attendance overall while also rarifying the air at the top, the in-person side. "I would argue we're using the medium of digital for a different purpose than in-person," says Priest-Heck. "I believe the in-person event becomes more exclusive." That's a concept that has been attractive to some big shows in the past as their success threatened to swamp their focus. Exhibitors generally want the right people to come by their booth or stage, not necessarily the most people. 

Events having an online component is nothing new, but Priest-Heck says the pandemic has expanded awareness of how the digital side relates to the in-person side. "Even pre-COVID, we knew that virtual events are the No. 1 marketing tool for in-person events. Once I sample the content online, I want to have more, so registrations go up" for the in-person version, he says. 

But if you attended an online version of a formerly in-person event this year and felt it was unsatisfying, you're not alone. Some events early in the pandemic were essentially shovelware, moving their in-person programming online by rote. "But we've all been growing and really recognizing why people are there," says Priest-Heck. "The vast majority of people who attend digital events are going for content, not so much for networking, so we have to program that medium differently."

Networking at a conference

In-person is for networking, online is for knowledge. It's not quite that simple, but there is a growing realization that we don't make new connections online nearly as well as in-person.


When will in-person events really resume? Freeman's proprietary research suggests a phased return in summer and fall of 2021, varying by attendee more than by the structure of the show: Health care professionals mired in crisis response may be slower to return to the conference circuit, for example, than auto marketers, ready to sell again on glittering show floors as soon as conditions warrant.

Freeman's Bob Priest-Heck shared many more insights with CNET's Brian Cooley about the path back for the events business. Hear them all in the video above.


Now What is a video interview series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers that covers trends impacting businesses and consumers amid the "new normal." There will always be change in our world, and we'll be here to discuss how to navigate it all.