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Event Horizon

by Saul Leese

Trade shows have almost ceased to exist during the pandemic and their future is uncertain. Virtual events are neither as useful nor as lucrative as the physical model, so what next?

The events industry is worth £70 billion annually to the UK economy and employs about 700,000 people, according to the 2020 BVEP UK Events Report. Its extended influence on research and UK and international trade is near-unquantifiable but it is undoubtedly a very strong and positive one. Given that its recovery will be behind the curve of its client businesses, sponsors and (B2B) visitor base, the industry’s survival will depend on bridging measures — including national government assistance.

Cooperation with other national as well as local governments will require adaptable, coherent strategies and models that are mindful of timelines of relaxation and realistic H&S measures. It will probably involve some hybridisation of events in the short-medium term. Different regions will have differing priorities, which will have to be addressed early because of the length of time it takes to put an event in place.

Where can the events industry go from here — ‘here’ being a constantly moving location?

Professional events, especially B2B, have been particularly hit hard by the pandemic because of their human-interactive nature and the need to plan, book and coordinate live events at specific venues. Virtual models are not as lucrative for the organisers or as productive for exhibiting companies as they offer limited scope for personal networking. Hybrid events are likely to be the bridge back to an adapted near-normality.

With the ease and confidence of close personal contact are no longer assured though, previous models are being redesigned to make engagement safe. However, the point of the live event is being blunted by the process of making it work again.

The importance of events to the industries they serve cannot be washed or wished away however tempting it may be for companies to drop them from the business calendar. Then again, adaptation to new ‘normal’ is inevitable.

Another normal

Once events get going again, social distancing, one-way routes, disinfection and fever-detection procedures are all likely to feature. Additional hygiene measures might include UV-sanitised entrances, deep cleaning and even UV robots.  For example, Scott Hitchin, Managing Director of Derby-based Evolve Automation, says his company can supply body temperature robots which read attendees’ temperatures as they enter a venue. His company also supplies a range of hygiene robots which can clean and sanitise venues.

The industry should adopt international standards in order to instil confidence back into our target groups says Matthias (Tesi) Baur, Founder and Senior Consultant in International Business, Exhibitions and Digital Transformation at MBB-Consulting Group. He also wants event industry experts to determine which H&S options are most effective and should be adopted.

There is broad agreement that personal interaction will not be absent from the post-pandemic events format.  “Face to face is not dead,” asserts Stephan Forseilles, CTO and CDO of international trade show organiser Easyfairs. “We’re social animals and we yearn for the live experience. This being said, we’ll have to provide an even more compelling on-site experience to convince people to attend physically. We have to dare question our traditional formats, innovate and try new ones.”

The quality of the experience is essential to any new format. This means that a purely digital event will not be the norm and is likely to be the exception following a touch-starved lockdown. “I don’t believe in ‘virtual events’ where people go around in a 3D environment with avatars, except in very specific cases,” says Forseilles. “I think hybrid will be the norm for the future, in a scenario where the onsite and online complement each other — where you can experience the full content even if you aren’t able to attend the whole event but where the live experience and the networking are so good that attending will still be a must.”

Baur believes that events will no longer be restricted to three days and will have a digital complexion. Hybrids can include matchmaking, product showcasing and educational content or content in general: “These are three aspects of an event that can be delivered without being attached to a physical event.”

Survival also entails the confidence of local and national governments as much as of exhibitors and visitors. That confidence will only come with some firm ideas about the events of the future and how they differ from those that broke down just before the end of the old normal. There is a growing need to add detail to an event-specific roadmap of recovery and a picture of what an acceptable event may look like — one-way arrangements around halls, catering hygiene, distancing, transport links and so on.

Confidence and doubt

A nagging concern amongst organisers is that their exhibitors and visitors may not have the same enthusiasm for trade shows than hitherto, and could look for alternative ways to connect.

James Reader, non-executive Chairman and founder of Smarter Shows, explains that events must continue to provide all the value for money that they did in the past: “A challenge we face as an industry is achieving a status of ‘significant importance’ within our communities at a time when prudence and caution is likely to reign and budget belts are tightening. Our shows cannot be a discretionary spend and must provide mission-critical content and client-facing value. Only the strong, bold, brave and innovative are likely to survive.”

Toby Walters, CEO of Elite Exhibitions, stresses the importance of maintaining constant communication: “Over the past five months since COVID-19 started to spread across Europe and the USA, we have made it our duty to keep all of our exhibitors up to date with how this might impact our events.

“We have found that picking up the phone and informing them to any changes has had a very positive response and helped to ease any pressure or anxiety around participation. We have also found that posting video announcements onto various social media platforms has been extremely well received and often reaches a far wider audience than email.”

The way ahead

What can companies do right now and is there a route to secure recovery to follow?

“The short-term challenge for many companies in our industry is simply to survive!” says Forseilles. “Second, the medium-term challenge is to operate COVID-safe events whenever it is authorized again. From social distancing to disinfection, there are many measures to be put in place and new skills to master. Those will also significantly increase the cost for organizers.

“But the biggest one is the long-term challenge: as the post-COVID world will not be the same as the one before and people will rethink the way they travel and attend mass events, we need to reinvent our core business to adapt to the next normal.”

Baur has three messages for the industry: Stick together, stay in business (while preparing to come out of the crisis) and innovate. “Stick together. It is time to help each other in the industry. If the business model of the event is damaged, it is damaged for everybody. This is the time to teamwork. The next message is stay in business. Get through this crisis. We don’t know how long it will last but our product is important for our industries, so get through the crisis while preparing to come out. Even if you had a great event before the crisis, the USP before the crisis will not be enough anymore. You need to work on a new USP and also on a hybrid format. The third message is innovate and change. Our lives and events will be totally different. We don’t know how different it will be, but it will be different.”

… Baur points out that the events industry has not needed constant innovation like other industries such as the motor or software industries because the face-to-face networking model has remained consistently relevant, but now companies must innovate including those which have not been keen on doing so in the past.

Army dreamers

“The British Government were never really interested in our industry,” says Baur, who puts this down to a lack of understanding of a sector that looked small as compared with property or finance and was confused with consumer events. However, not only will B2B events be more secure and safer to revive after lockdown but their revival will play an important role in stimulating the British economy as a whole by getting business and trade moving again more quickly. He urges the government to provide the trade industry with a platform to develop and express an industry-by-industry concept and a strategy to identify and develop the role these events could play to really help the country.

Germany has historically had a more positive and appreciative attitude to trade shows. Ironically, it was the armed forces in the British sector that helped the German economy to get on its feet after WWII by supporting and allowing trade shows, such as in Hanover: “So the knowledge of what an event can do is there. We just need to remember it,” Baur continues.

Confidence, for all stakeholders, will only come with some firm ideas about the events of the future and how they differ from those that broke down just before the end of the old normal.

Unforeseen consequences may be positive or negative and, while predicting what the current pandemic will mean to businesses may be risky, opportunities will not be absent. Companies that have gone into semi-hibernation will certainly not be able to reap rewards if all they expect is punishment. Plus, those who implement short-term reactive measures as open-ended policy are not going to be able to take advantage of change when the tide turns.

Rationalisation is often a one-way decision because it would take twice as much effort to return to where one was and restore confidence which, once lost, may never return.

Most important is the be ready for a recovery that is inevitable and a new normal not so different from the old, just adapted for use. Cynicism and defeatism have never achieved anything positive in this world and criticism very little. There is not much certainty in business except that bubbles burst and everything else bounces back. The events industry will bounce back.

About the author:

Dr Frank Millard is a technical journalist, events PR & marketing specialist and commentator. He also develops brand management and business resilience strategies. He has worked for and/or with and advised various international events companies covering a broad range of industry and business sectors. Frank has a deep interest in geopolitics, history, business practice/opportunities, sustainability and the psychology of communication. He has appeared on radio and television and had his doctorate published. He is also a contributor to the prestigious London Magazine. He lives with his wife and son in Surrey.

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