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International Confex: editor’s notebook

by Martin Fullard

Exhibition News editorial director Martin Fullard shares his observations from International Confex and the Event Production Show, which includes a renewed sense of energy for sustainability, to event managers turning their backs on virtual 

I do appreciate that it is my job to attend events for a living, therefore it should come as no surprise that I have been back on the circuit since mid-2021, when Step 3 (remember that?) was activated, and restricted capacity events were allowed to run.

By September last year, things were largely open again and that period until November was incredibly busy. I would stop short of saying it was normal, the spectre of the pandemic still loomed, as evidenced by the rise and fall of the Omicron variant.

It was only this week, however, that I truly felt the events industry was back for real.

International Confex returned to its usual spot in the calendar at ExCeL London, alongside the Event Production Show, the Publishing Show and the PA Show. Indeed, other non-Mash Media-run events also took advantage of the descended eventprofs crowd too, with the like of Fast Forward 15, isla, Micebook, and ICC Wales bringing people together under a greater umbrella.

It was busy, too.

You know I work for Mash Media, so you would expect the usual platitudes, but anyone who was there would agree that the aisles were full. I didn’t speak to many exhibitors this year, but I’ve heard some great stories of deals being done worth £180,000 and more.

A great buzz, a great reunion, and great deal of new opinions, too.

Here are some of my thoughts and observations.

Virtual insanity

I hosted a couple of intimate roundtable discussions over the two days and an unmistakable trend has began to emerge: organisers are turning their backs on virtual events.

I’m not too bothered if that upsets some people, if I’m honest, as with the power of hindsight the world of virtual events was somewhat a Wild West during the pandemic.

Let me add some context.

When the pandemic struck, a whole raft of new platforms entered the marketplace to compete against more established ones. At the last count, there are 819 of these platforms available, and despite their idiosyncrasies, they all do a similar job. Yet no two pricing structures are the same. In one instance you will be charged for each registration, a have to pay regardless of whether someone actually turns up, and in another you may own the system outright.

There has also been some very shady behaviour when it comes to data ownership.

Event managers were inexperienced in buying into the marketplace, and I have heard so many examples of nasty surprises and of servers which were incapable of hosting 3,000 online delegates.

There are absolutely some very good platforms and wider tech solutions out there – genuinely – but there are some poor ones too. Event managers tell me they felt their needs weren’t catered for, but rather they were told what they should have, like it or lump it.

That’s just plain wrong.

Today, the event managers are largely looking to return to live, in-person events. It’s what their bosses want, it’s what their delegates want, but chiefly, it’s what their budgets allow.

At my count, I spoke to 38 event managers – a good sample size – from the corporate and association world and they all broadly had the same message: “virtual did nothing for us”.

One trend I think we should expect to see is a bit of self-reflection from some of these virtual event platforms on how they deliver value to event managers. It should not be sales-led, it should be solution-led, with full transparency on cost and hardware requirements. It’s a hard truth, but the trust needs rebuilding.

Budget matters

As I mentioned last year, I’ve always been concerned that event budgets would be tight in the wake of the pandemic, and they are, even more so with the cost of living increasing at the rate that it is.

Event managers are returning to live, in large part without a hybrid element (depending on how you define hybrid). They are simply being told it is in-person or online over Zoom, not both, and certainly not a TV-quality style broadcast.

That’s not to say there aren’t any. I had two in-depth conversations with two big AV production companies, and they are booked up for the year, one can assume with clients from big ticket industries which weren’t overly impacted by the pandemic or major corporates with deep pockets.

But we must be careful not to frame the industry through the buying habits of giant multinationals: the overwhelming majority of events that happen in the UK are for regular organisations with regular budgets. They are the bread and butter of the UK’s £19bn conference and meetings sector and they matter a great deal.

There are some who seem to think every event will be a big budget virtual or hybrid production going forwards: they are wrong. Some organisations just want to bring people together in a room and leave it at that. Not everything requires a technological solution or so-called enhancement.

This doesn’t need to stifle creativity, there will always be scope for innovation and fresh thinking, and we must encourage more strategic thinking rather than a more tactical approach, but let’s not kid ourselves that basic in-person events with coffee and croissants are going anywhere, they’re back, and they work.

Sustainability

Another observation from my two days at International Confex was the focus on sustainability.

Pre-pandemic, sustainability was a fringe subject, it was a bit of an eye-roller. I understand that now: even two years ago very few of us had the knowledge and awareness of what it meant that we do now. It’s not just about plastic straws, but societal development.

I chaired a session on the subject with Shaun Hinds, CEO of Manchester Central, which is partnering with Conference News on a sustainability research white paper at the moment. Incidentally, you can complete the survey here.

Titled ‘Sustainable events: Play your part in shaping the future’, we are seeking opinions on the evolving role of sustainability in an events strategy, uncovering what has already made a real impact and where we can collectively make a difference moving forward.

Results will be presented back to the sector, providing tangible insight and guidance, to support our shared sustainability journey.

Most impressively, though, was that the theatre was packed, with some having to stand. I’ve chaired more on-stage sessions than I could ever remember, so I have a pretty good idea of when a session is landing with the audience, and this one did.

And that’s based on one reason: it’s no longer a tutting or finger-wagging exercise. In fact, we all seem quite content to identify our flaws. Even my colleague Liz Agostini, the show director, put herself in the stocks on stage and asked the audience to grill her on Confex’s sustainability credentials.

We have had the chance to rethink the purpose of events – even the normal ones – and there is a genuine enthusiasm to be leading the way. I won’t labour the point as I’ve just passed 1,000 words, but corporates are going to find themselves under increasing pressure to demonstrate their carbon footprints, and events and business travel are easy ticket items to snip. But since we all know in-person events are important so long as they have a purpose, the events industry is almost being driven by necessity to get on the front foot now. Everyone needs to be able to demonstrate their carbon impact, and that’s why it’s no surprise that a number of agencies are looking at becoming B Corps – which I’ll write about another day.

Security

Another observation I made at the show was that security doesn’t seem to feature very highly on peoples’ lists of concerns, and I find that a bit worrying.

You will all be familiar with Figen Murray, campaigner for Martyn’s Law, you may also hear it referred to as the Protect Duty, which is proposed legislation for increased venue security in the context of terrorism. Read more here.

Figen, in case you needed reminding, is the mother of Martyn Hett, one of the 22 victims of the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017.

She joined us at the Event Production Show on Wednesday to talk more about the Protect Duty, and her plea is simple: do not ignore it.

I joined up with her and the ICC Wales team at Somerset House on Thursday to talk more about it, and we here at Mash Media categorically support its principles. I will be sharing more about this separately next week.

It’s frustrating that more isn’t being done in the way of bag searches. While the Manchester Arena attack might seem like a long time ago, I ask you recall the terrible incident at Fishmongers’ Hall in November 2019. A small, 30-person event marred by tragedy. The momentum for change was lost as the pandemic began to emerge around that time, but we must not forget the potential threat any of our events could face.

I’d like to see more discussion on venue security.

Ukraine

My last point will be that around Ukraine. What is unfolding is detestable, a clear invasion which has brought nothing but death and terror to the country. There was a palpable sadness, encapsulated elegantly by Ukrainian-born Tanya Pinchuk of Expoplatform on stage. A number of event industry businesses have started charitable campaigns to get aid over to Ukraine, and we’ll share more details of how you can help soon.

From a far less important economic perspective, the reality of the war is that it has expedited an energy crisis, and that not only will the cost-of-living increase in our personal lives, but businesses – and events – will suffer too.

It was explained to me that a large hotel which was paying £10,000 a month for its energy will now be paying somewhere in the region of £44,000 per month. That money will need to be raised, so the cost gets passed down. Room rates and event fees will simply increase.

And then there’s the unfathomable knock-on for every element, from suppliers to road miles.

There are also murmurs that US-based organisers are now getting cold feet about coming over to Europe for their events. That is only anecdotal, but something to keep an eye on.

If the last two years has taught the industry anything, then pivoting back to virtual may be one option if necessary, I just hope that the tech platform marketplace has matured enough. But above all else, let us pray that this wretched war is over soon enough and that the people of Ukraine can return to their lives.

To wrap, it was heart-warming to see so many of you at International Confex and the Event Production Show this week. I hope you found what you were looking for, be it a service, product or a connection. Thank you for supporting your show.

On to the next one.

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