There’s no field of business that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t touched, and the events industry — which depends on face-to-face contact for the sharing of knowledge and the promotion of business — is among the hardest-hit. In the face of lockdowns and social distancing, event planners have needed to reassess their goals and get creative.
“In many ways [the COVID-19 pandemic] kind of turned the industry on its head,” said Carina Bauer, president of SITE Foundation and CEO of the IMEX Group.
Taking a step back
For one, event planners have needed to re-evaluate the “why” factor behind the meetings they’re executing. “It causes you to look at the objectives of your event, and how you can deliver your objectives in a different way and still retain those objectives,” Bauer explained.
In a sense, these times have necessitated getting back to the basics, she noted. “It has led to everybody in the industry really looking at everything from scratch — all those things youre used to doing, every tiny process every tiny element, has to be assessed, from the travel to the event to the food and beverage to the layout,” Bauer explained.
“The other thing, of course, is that it’s caused the industry to really focus on advocating for the value of events and live events,” she added.
Bauer expressed hope for improvement and pointed out that already, there are reasons to be optimistic. In Australia, parts of Asia, and countries of Europe, restrictions surrounding large group gatherings are beginning to lift.
“Some governments have separated business events and trade shows from the mass-events category, so that has been very important for us,” Bauer said.
The good news is these efforts have united the industry in a positive, revolutionary way. “It has brought the industry back together,” Bauer said. “We’re communicating more with each other than we ever have.”
The transition to hosting live events globally, though, will be gradual. In the meantime, event planners are turning to technological solutions that enable them to connect individuals virtually. The experience and the results aren’t the same, though.
“It’s reinforced what we already knew, which is ultimately that face-to-face events are the best way to communicate with clients and communicate messages, and further knowledge as well.
All these technologies have been fantastic and enabled us to do a part of that, but unfortunately they do not replace that,” Bauer said.
Among the tools that event planners are using are video conferencing services, content streaming and virtual-trade platforms, and even social media with photo sharing and hashtags. Some companies, such as Bauer’s, have launched homegrown technology using gaming to execute events online. For their technology, they created three “islands”: a business island, a networking island, and an education island.
“We really thought about what is it that our show or event represents at a market base, what do we do, and we tried to deliver that,” she said.
When live events return, they’ll look different from how they did before, Bauer predicts. Some remaining questions include: “How will we serve food? How do we register people? How can we go as contactless as possible? How can we disperse crowds?” she said.
Another way they could look different from before is technology may be more integrated, Bauer said. “I think ultimately what we’ll see in the future when live events come back is these technologies will become much more part of those live events in a more hybrid way, in terms of extending these conversations,” Bauer said.
She reiterated her optimism for a strong return of the events industry. Already, she’s heard of inspiring ideas like drive-through festivals and trade shows. “There are some really creative ideas,” Bauer said, “but we have to look at our spaces differently — and that comes right back to what are we trying to do the event?”