2023 may be remembered as the year that the events industry returned to a level approaching full strength, evidenced on several fronts:
- Like-for-like trading above pre-Covid peaks for many leading players;
- Return of large-scale Private Equity (PE) transactions to the sector; and
- The retreat of virtual to near 2019 levels across most commercial event brands and verticals.
As we anticipate the year ahead, it is hard to ignore macro-economic uncertainty. However with the industry still recovering at pace and marketer budgets trending positively, we expect this to be felt more in specific verticals and markets, rather than industry wide.
Partly due to the volume of backed-up deals that Covid placed on hold, we expect M&A activity to dominate industry headlines in 2024. Following the PE-led delisting of Hyve Group in May 2023 and, more recently reduced volatility in interest rates, conditions for further PE investment into the sector appear more conducive than at any period since 2019. At least 5 of the top 40 global portfolios look poised to transact during the year, with new PE cash likely creating an additional accelerator effect through M&A bolt-on activity.
However, standing back from the headlines we see the year ahead as a period of accelerated innovation across the industry. We have featured some examples of these in the first edition of our events newsletter.
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
Formerly, worst-case scenario planning for events businesses typically focused on the impact of macro slowdowns, the most pessimistic of which were orders of magnitude more favourable than the disruption of 2020-21. Now, having lived through the worst-case scenario, the industry – perhaps counterintuitively – appears have emerged with a less risk averse approach.
Diversification in events strategies
We have previously explored a trend towards increased diversity in M&A strategies. This can now be seen as part of a broader innovation in overall approach to growth: across both organic and inorganic strategies, we increasingly see a move away from the prior consensus that the expo model trumps all others as the best vehicle to exploit a market opportunity. This in turn has led to diversification in approach. For example, we see some businesses doubling down on digital engagement, while others have pursued innovative face to face formats or business models (such as subscription). Some have opted for a media-agnostic vertical focus, while others have prioritised customer voice, overhauling legacy customer taxonomies to drive a customer-led approach to decision making.
The apparent lack of uniform preference among industry leadership masks a common theme: B2B events leaders now see their organisations as critical enablers in a business vertical or community, with a mandate to find, create and deliver the optimal route to drive connections and information exchange.
This represents a rapid and significant shift from the industry orthodoxy pre-2020. What might have been perceived as high risk “bets” only five years ago have become innovative, evidence based strategies, delivering highly attractive returns. We have featured some examples of these in this first edition of our newsletter.
If innovation is the future for events, why did virtual exhibitions fail to consolidate their 2020-21 gains? The answer was in fact visible in the data as early as April 2020: marketers were unequivocal that their ROI from virtual formats could not justify continuing budget once live events reopened, and so it transpired.
On the flip side, customers, communities and markets can tell us what they do need. An increased appetite to build, enrich and interrogate customer data to drive strategy may ultimately prove one of the biggest changes brought about by Covid.
2024 – the year of (accelerated) innovation
As we contemplated the gloomy headlines in February 2020, an industry CEO shared a prediction: that a profound and permanent change was coming to the industry. I disagreed, pointing to the fundamentals of the business model and customer value proposition. However, the prediction has proven prescient: as the industry has recovered from lockdown at pace, the resulting diversification of strategies has unearthed multiple pathways to growth. In parallel, operational initiatives and investments of a scale and ambition that few would have contemplated previously have been undertaken.
As the 4th anniversary of the suspension of business gatherings approaches, these initiatives are now delivering significant returns, and we expect these – and further innovation – to accelerate in 2024.