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Resilient, but fragile in places

by EN

ESSA director Andrew Harrison gives his view on the state of the event industry.

The trouble with writing a column in the teeth of a fast-moving national and international emergency, is that by the time this is published a month from now, the situation is likely to have changed greatly. I am of course talking about the COVID-19 pandemic that has, in all probability, continued to dominate many of our working lives since the digital ink dried. We are in truly uncharted waters in the events industry.

So, rather than try and make any predictions – an activity for experts only at this point – I’m thinking about the event industry’s resilience (and fragility) when faced with major disruptions beyond their control. 

We’ve faced crises and inimical situations before. 10 years ago there was the Eyjafjallajökull eruption on Iceland in 2010 that brought air travel in Europe to a standstill, and a year before that the swine flu pandemic swept the globe. Both events either overlapped or followed a deep UK and international recession.  Over the last decade, we’ve also faced sudden changes to regulation and legislation that have had the potential to upend businesses within our sector. However, it looks like COVID-19 is going to be an even tougher challenge, to the events industry in particular, than some if not all of the incidents I mentioned, combined.

What factors confer resilience, or fragility, on a business? You might think that the primary consideration here would be financial – and it’s true, a small firm with a finely balanced cash flow is more vulnerable to sudden disruption than, perhaps, a larger business with reserves and financial instruments at its disposal. Smaller companies, however, can be more agile, quicker to respond to rapidly changing circumstances, and more able to reverse direction, put innovations to market and so on. 

Fragility, on the other hand, can affect the largest and most stable businesses the most, and history is littered with colossal brands that failed to see what was coming or refused to respond to events and developments.

Is the events industry fragile? Collectively, less so. I believe it has responded and reacted deftly to disruption and threats over the years. If proof were needed, the industry now contributes a respectable proportion of the country’s revenues, provides thousands of quality jobs and careers, and sustains a wide variety of businesses across the whole country.

The current situation, at the time of writing, poses a real risk to the wellbeing of many event industry businesses. We’ve already seen some high profile event cancellations in Europe and some in the UK, and one European country has already placed severe travel restrictions on all 60 million citizens as I write. In addition to a lot of financial hardship, these cancellations and travel restrictions are bound to have a chilling effect on events across the continent.

The majority of ESSA members, and event companies as a whole, are SMEs and micro-businesses by definition, and the mass cancellation of events in Europe and the early onset of events cancelled in the UK will pose serious financial challenges for them and their extended supply chains.

Whilst hoping government support will be forthcoming in the interim, I believe that it is the duty of the industry, as a whole, to support these firms that face losing the most in this crisis. At the point of writing, the spirit of the industry has continued to shine through and I have ended possibly the most challenging three weeks of my working life encouraged by many positive stories of collaboration and support

I know that, a month from today and whatever situation the industry finds itself in, we will be able to look back and say that we continued to pull together, in the same direction.

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