After a long solitary year of Zoom calls, no business travel, working remotely, and generally staying close to home, we are finally seeing a return to some of the business practices that we took for granted. The resurgence of in-person industry events is one of the best signs that we are getting back to ‘normal’ when it comes to business, even if certain restrictions and safety practices are still in place. In the digital marketing industry, more and more conferences, trade shows, and other in-person events are being scheduled in 2021, with several already being held in the U.S. and around the world.

Having an entire year without any real in-person events to attend, I gained more appreciation for the value companies and attendees gain by getting together with their industry peers. After already traveling to multiple events in 2021 and with a large number on the horizon for the second half of the year, here is a list of 5 significant benefits that in-person events provide. It’s not that virtual events or other marketing and sales outreach initiatives can’t deliver any of these benefits, but there are elements of the face-to-face interaction dynamic that simply aren’t the same when conducted remotely.

Meeting New Prospects

Anyone who has attended an industry conference or trade show knows that a big part of the experience is simply meeting new people. This happens when an attendee walks up to your exhibit booth, you strike up a conversation with someone at a networking reception, you chat with the person sitting next to you in a conference session, or any of the myriad of ways that people interact with each other in-person. If your goal at an industry event is to meet new prospective clients and partners, there is really no substitute for the in-person experience. Virtual events have done their best to replicate this dynamic, but I have yet to see one come anywhere close to delivering the same experience.

Reconnecting with Clients and Partners

While reconnecting and building on existing relationships with current clients, partners, and industry peers can be done through video chats, emails, phone calls, and other virtual channels, there is still nothing quite like meeting in person when it comes to creating a connection with people. If your business is built on long-lasting relationships, then seeing people face-to-face is essential. Have you ever experienced the situation where working through a challenge over email, conference calls, or other distance communication channels seems to take a lot of back and forth, with no resolution in sight? How many times has an in-person meeting tended to resolve things very quickly, once you sit down with each other and figure out a solution fairly easily? Personally, I’ve experienced this many times over my career. One of the biggest benefits of large industry events is that you may have the opportunity to meet with numerous clients and partners all in one place over a few days. It isn’t uncommon to get more accomplished during those meetings than in multiple calls and emails.

Getting a Handle on the Market

Another significant benefit of attending an industry event is the insights you gather around what is happening in the market. Sometimes these insights are more general impressions that companies are optimistic about the future (or not) and other times they may be specific to interest in new technology or concerns about new regulations. It’s hard to attend a reasonably sized industry conference and not pick up on a lot of this information, even if you aren’t looking for it specifically. But, if you have a goal of gathering this type of information, then the events are real gold mines, with so many smart industry professionals in one place. While virtual events can certainly deliver planned content (sessions, presentations, panel discussions, etc.) quite well, more general information can be less obvious for attendees to identify. Partly this circles right back to having impromptu in-person conversations with other attendees, that simply aren’t as easy or organic when they try to force them during virtual events.

Brand Building

For marketers, in-person industry events offer huge opportunities to drive brand awareness, market positioning, and introduce new products or services to the industry. Companies that leverage exhibit booths understand the impact that having a physical presence in an exhibit hall can have on market perception, as well as generating new prospects from visitors. However, many conferences also provide opportunities for companies to have team members become presenters, participate in panel discussions, or otherwise deliver thought-leadership content to attendees. If part of a company’s brand positioning is to be a true leader in the industry, presenting at key industry events can be a powerful way to send that message. There are also opportunities to sponsor aspects of the event or related networking activities. In every case, these initiatives help position the company’s brand in the minds of attendees. While virtual exhibit booths and other virtual sponsorships can be beneficial, they often lack the impact of real-world brand building.

Driving New Business

Finally, events can move the needle when it comes to driving new business. Even in industries with longer sales cycles, involving multiple touchpoints or decision-makers, an in-person event can often be the place where new business deals are completed. There are any number of times where a conference attendee has walked up to my company’s exhibit booth and started the conversation by saying “I know what you guys do, I need your service for my company, and when I saw you were exhibiting I thought it was time to meet and start working together.” Sure, prospects like this became aware of the company’s value proposition from some previous marketing initiative (or a previous event), but the final driver for making a decision occurs at least in part due to the fact that the company is attending and exhibiting at this new event. Add the fact that numerous new prospects that become introduced to the company at the event may end up turning into customers either sooner or later and this is a real benefit of in-person events.

None of this is to say that virtual events don’t have a long-term role to play in many industries. However, they still struggle to deliver on many of these specific benefits.