Nearly every blog and social media post from the Events Industry right now are understandably desperate to find consensus that the industry hasn’t died forever as a result of Covid19. If I’m honest, I’m not sure how comforted we should all be by the many positive proclamations that are coming from industry. After all, most of those engaging not only have a vested interest in the industry returning to normal – as soon as possible, but I think even they would agree, they are operating from a heightened emotional response state, which scientists including Dr Kerry Ressler, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School suggest impacts our ability to rationalise.
Yes, we need positivity, but we need to consider wider sources to help us make sense of the situation.
A historical and philosophical view
Isaac Chotiner, writing for the New Yorker, explains how societies appear to have fundamentally changed following all previous pandemics, ranging from questioning man’s relationship with God following the Bubonic Plague to the ending of chattel slavery in the New World following the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1793.
Others point to our reactions to more recent tragic events, including the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and 7/7; Mad Cow disease and E-bola. Following each of these events, the public moved pretty quickly from not wanting to fly/travel by tube again; never eating beef and not visiting E-bola risky areas to life as normal – albeit after adopting additional precautions in each case.
Both arguments follow the theories around social change, a phenomenon that relates to any alteration in behaviour patterns and cultural norms. The factors that tend to determine social change include: physical environment; demographics; culture; ideation; economic; political.
The physical landscape
In the short and medium term (until a vaccine is found), I think we can agree that the physical landscape for any live event will look very different. I would suggest that the extent to which we need and are able to invest in supporting the short and medium term ‘new norm’ is likely to affect the longer-term orientation.
For example educational venues such as Universities will either have to consider teaching solely on-line until a vaccine is found OR they will likely need to make changes to their physical infrastructure to accommodate the classroom sizes needed to accommodate the student numbers required to make a course viable. The cost and flexibility of these adaptations will very much depend on the current infrastructure, but for older buildings any infrastructure changes made now, will likely need to factor in longer term methods of service provision. I currently work in a very modern University building, but just taking one of my Module’s – comprising 250 + students, lectures are supported by 10 seminars to support group work each week with 25 -30 students per seminar. The room sizes are built to accommodate these numbers. Under social distancing this would result in seminar rooms holding only 12 students. Is this even viable? And of course, there is a risk that if learning institutions are not able to retain the social aspect to University life and move totally to an on-line solution, this will become the new norm for students. The reduced cost of delivery and convenience could be seen to outweigh the cost of socialisation.
For business to business events the solution may be somewhat easier – especially where venues have outside or substantial indoor spaces that can house temporary structures. Given that we have moved from events as functions to events as experiences though, additional thought needs to be given to the presentation of the space otherwise our delegates will be experiencing exam type conditions that are hardly inspiring. Even here though cost has to be a considering factor. Pre Covid19, agencies were already being expected to ‘do more for less’ and client budgets are not likely to have improved, given that their own businesses may have been affected by the current situation. Catering functions will need to be reimagined (a networking or working buffet lunch is not so easy when longer queues will affect turnaround times and flow for 2m spacing will mean that lobbies probably no longer suffice). And then we come to the age-old problem of Wi-Fi bandwidth, a challenge for many venues that will be exacerbated as we venture into persuading clients that Hybrid events are the answer to their problems. Yet more cost is likely and that’s before we consider the scarcity issue that will allow suitable venues to charge premium prices for their spaces. I’d like to think this wouldn’t be the case, but anyone who has studied economics will know that despite current platitudes, that’s just how the world works.
It’s true that we are seeing some truly innovative solutions to the social distancing dilemma for face to face meetings and events – little greenhouses used for dining pods; providing delegates with branded hazmat outfits; AI delegates (robot mannequins) filling the empty space and more and I guess there is the argument that the additional cost for these ‘gimmicks’ can be found from the savings made at Hybrid events from the wider audience attending virtually rather than in person.
Demographics affecting change
Demographics may also be a big factor in determining the return to our old norm, even post a vaccine. Many communities have already been deeply affected by the effects of the virus and science is able to prove that extreme emotion (trauma) impacts on individuals’ longer-term sub conscious responses and behaviours. PTSD used to be associated with those in wartime situations but is now diagnosed in all forms of society where someone has been involved in or witnessed traumatic events. Given the large swathes of society whose lives have been turned upside down with fear, grief and intense isolation, it is almost unthinkable that these people will ever go back to life as they knew it before.
Aside from the economic challenges already referred to, the economic impact on the very infrastructure that global events rely on has perhaps been damaged for ever. Even before Covid19, airlines were struggling to make ends meet let alone satisfy the expectations of their shareholders and we are now seeing airlines axe routes and pull out of hub airports in an effort to remain afloat. How many clients will feel confident to plough thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of pounds into travel costs for an event, not knowing whether the route will still be in operation by the time the trip comes around? And, who will want to commit to taking a place on an overseas event (whether conference or incentive) with the prospect of 14 days in quarantine on their return?
Environmental and Ideation
And, with proof already evident of the environmental benefits from not filling our skies with pollution (OK, not all from air travel); ideation is also likely to be a factor in people’s choices in the future. Remember that the future is the more eco-centric Millennial generation followed closely by Gen Z – a generation heavily influenced by environmentalists such as Greta Thunberg. Add to this the realisation of the many benefits (additional focus; reduced cost; greater productivity) of not having to be in the office every day or travel then length and breadth of the country for a face to face meeting. From an ideation perspective there are some very compelling reasons not to revert back to life in events as we knew it.
UCL’s Health Behaviour Research Centre suggest that it takes 66 days to form a new habit and given that the estimates for social distancing measures to be in place could be anywhere up to / over 300 days – it could be argued that people will have to really want to break some of the habits we have formed around learning and meeting on line and working from home. In other words, we will have to find a compelling reason to bring them back into the ‘events’ fold.
Science as our saviour
Despite the many challenges that we will no doubt face, science will perhaps be the industry’s saviour, as we have learned from this that people are directly impacted through energy transmitted by others. Louis de Broggle was one of the first scientists to be able to prove that matter-waves and thoughts are both forms of energy. Aside from the frequency of the waves they transmit (matter is much denser and hence visible, whilst thought is much higher and invisible) they are both the same thing.
And this is where the power of attending a Live Event comes to the fore. For whilst we can definitely impart information on-line, it simply isn’t possible to connect with audiences at an ‘energetic’ level. And it is when energy vibrations resonate that true transformation occurs. Learning is easier to embed; audiences find it easier to resonate with brands and brand messages; audiences bond much quicker and hence it’s a powerful way to get teams on the same journey, set goals and build human connections.
Agreed, there are some individuals who have extra sensory skills but there are few who have the ability to transmit the same level of energy or connect with people virtually. Even building presentations to incorporate sessions that feed on all four senses and sending out physical meeting packs in advance to try and ensure virtual audiences feel connected cannot replicate the power of physical energy vibrations.
I believe there can be a positive long term outlook for the industry as a result of this.
What this virus has done is separate those agencies who already recognise the power of events in a marketing context from those who see an event as an event and specialise in the logistics or venue sourcing or creating entertaining experiences. Unfortunately lack of regulation means that anyone is able to market themselves as being full-service agencies and there are no checks or balances that enable clients to evaluate the points of difference.
Don’t get me wrong there is a place for all of these specialisms but the damage to the industry as a whole in not being able to differentiate the services is vast. It dilutes the value of the specialisms; it drags down margins for industry as a whole as we end up competing on cost because clients can’t easily differentiate between the different value elements. And it makes it difficult to assess our talent pool. Year on year C&IT report that talent is a big problem for industry. This isn’t just managing the balance between those who would rather freelance than take a permanent role but also finding the right talent for their organisations. And this is because individuals sell themselves as having a multitude of skills when in reality, they are specialists in one area who have just experienced being part of bigger projects.
There is no doubt that the skills that are needed to help our clients through this crisis are those that sit within organisations who already focus on the outcome when designing an event rather than just the logistics. These are the organisations that are most likely to come up with alternative effective ways to connect with peoples hearts and minds. For those smaller agencies, who perhaps specialise in the functional aspects of events my recommendation would be to focus on your strengths and look at how you can capitalise on these. As Michael suggested on Evcom’s recent excellent Webinar ‘In Conversation with Michael Hirst’, many businesses will be struggling right now with logistical challenges of managing social distancing in their workplaces. They will need to be conducting risk assessments and health and safety assessments. They will be looking to find solutions to make their work environments more conducive to achieving output whilst separated by screens etc. These are exactly the skills that logistics organisers possess.
And in the meantime, the industry would be well advised to come together and consider what it wants to look like when we come out the other side. So that there is space and value for organisations of all sizes and specialisms; so that our clients understand the value we deliver at each level and so that event organisers can differentiate between the different skills needed for different roles and can easily see where and how to upskill.
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