Return of Events and the ROI You Should Aim For

As marketers, we can all appreciate the role events and trade shows play in bolstering the sales pipeline and improving brand awareness. We sponsor lunches, introduce keynotes, design display and hanging banner ads, build out exhibitions, and arm sales reps with the necessary intel to strike up meaningful conversations for ongoing prospecting and discovery.



It’s been nearly two years since the $15.6 billion dollar industry came to a halt – dropping to $4.09 billion in 2020 and $7.04 billion in 2021. The shift from in-person to virtual was a difficult one. Though easier to execute and more affordable, no one truly enjoyed the virtual experience - it just can’t replicate the kind of interactions held in person. Audience attention was competing with email on another screen, important meetings were often booked over virtual exhibit hours, a child at home likely needed help with their Zoom login for school, and people were trying to squeeze in a workout or dog walk in between a larger-than-ever number of work calls.


One major perk is that companies that invested in virtual conferences maintained continuity with their beloved trade show organizers. It’s just that more often than not, they found themselves with little to no leads at the close of the show.


In 2021, we saw in-person events pick up again but not in great volume. Should we anticipate the same experience this year? Event directors and organizers are optimistic for 2022 and see the industry returning to normal by 2025. However, there’s still ample caution when it comes to travel and many would-be conference attendees lack confidence, comfort, and familiarity with the new trade show scene, an unfortunate impact of the last two years. At the same time, there is a revitalized appreciation of how powerful these shows are for organizations that are trying to win the hearts and minds of potential buyers. In fact, the New York Times recently wrote on this topic noting that canceling the Consumer Electronics Show in January would “hurt thousands of smaller companies, entrepreneurs and innovators.”


With continued caution across the country, it’s hard to find where your company fits in the trade show mix. Here are our recommendations on how to handle events in 2022 and what ROI forecasting should look like.


Invest in the right events for your business.


Do you tier events on level of importance and opportunity? If not, you should. This year, focus on your tier one events and develop thoughtful strategies to maintain a strong presence without breaking the bank. Keep those tier two and three shows in mind, but consider waiting to add them back into your marketing strategy in 2023-2025.


Err on the side of a smaller budget.


Do you really need that 20x20’ or 30x30’ booth this year if attendance rates are lower than average? If you do, that’s great – move forward with it. If you’re questioning whether that’s the right choice, go down a level. A 10x10’ booth still offers networking opportunities and at a much lower cost.


Reforecast your ROI and reset expectations with sales teams.


Let’s say you invest $25,000 in a conference and anticipate your usual rate of success will net you 25 high quality leads. That’s $1,000 cost per lead (CPL) - a figure that has historically excited companies that are closing deals well over $20,000. A worthwhile investment. However, with fewer attendees and just as many exhibitors, you may find your competitors are hungrier than ever to capture the attention of the newly limited number of prospects. With that in mind, is your expected rate of success the same as pre-COVID? It shouldn’t be. That’s why we suggest lowering overall spend so that your CPL average doesn’t skyrocket to $5,000. Cut that investment by ⅓ or even ½ to stay closer to your anticipated ROI from prior years.


Keep sustainability in mind.


Given the unexpected cancellation and downsizing of so many shows in 2020 and 2021, you probably have a surplus of swag you’ve been holding onto since 2019. To keep costs down in 2022, use that old swag! Even if it’s not the exact swag you’d like to pass out this year, you should do it. It’s a company’s responsibility to reduce waste and maintain ethical sustainability practices. If you’re out of swag, take a look at locally sourced options that are likely to ship on time and are manufactured with higher quality. You can also consider “gifting-as-a-service” to combat the norm of buying in bulk but still give your prospects something they will actually keep and not throw in the trash 2 weeks later.


Stay safe and have fun.


Returning to in-person events and trade shows is likely unavoidable for most companies. Maintain social distancing and mask requirements to ensure your customers and prospects feel safe and comfortable interacting with you. This might also be a good year to try something new, something that before seemed far-fetched or out of place in your exhibit; it might capture higher engagement and bring some joy to a probably worried prospect. There’s a lot you can do without spending thousands of dollars, you just need to get creative and think outside the box.


2022 may not look much different than 2021, but more trade shows are likely to return. Be smart with your budget, level set on goals and objectives, redefine the prospecting experience, and continue to put your best foot forward. If you find you need help figuring out what to do, let our team at Wheels Up Collective know. We love working on events and have an ample inventory of innovative ideas for nearly every industry.