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Adapt, survive, thrive – this is not a choice, it’s a necessity

The last opinion piece from a third party accepted by Conference News was published on 23 March. The reasoning behind this decision was to prevent skewering the picture of the gravity of the situation and to keep the channel open only to facts to help navigate the industry through the Covid-19 crisis. Opinions in a crisis on this scale, no matter how well-intentioned, do not always contribute value. Now, as a picture of the landscape beings to emerge, it is time to re-introduce an element of surmise as the need for reappraisal is necessary. 

Rick Stainton, founder of agency Smyle, writes that the evolution of the events industry has been brought forward at pace, and changes to the fundamental ways the sector operates are inevitable.

Clear predictions or guesses made as statements of fact are dangerous for the industry. Especially for small businesses in a fragile situation that need clarity and transparency, so knee jerk reactions are avoided. No-one really knows, including the best economists, strategists or scientists, on how this virus will play out over the next 6-12 months – this generic position is reflected across most business publications, Bloomberg bulletins and other such reputable commentary.

Most key business leaders are highlighting evidence of work pattern changes for the long term; a heightened awareness of the frailty of our eco system and demand already increasing for more environmentally sensitive products -– the post virus era is only likely to accelerate these trends.

However, there is a consensus that a recession is coming but not on its severity or duration, which also needs to be reflected in modelling future activity, including sensitivity to budgets, separate to other health and bio security considerations.

Therefore, it is clear the immediate challenges of the virus must be tackled alongside maintaining focus on the medium to long term.

Our industry’s future is likely to orientate around business confidence across the health and wealth conundrum – current stock markets and businesses are propped up by large scale liquidity injections and other financial support measures, but this will not be able to be maintained long term as governments all over the world try to avoid taking on too much debt and re-open their economies.

These governments have the same impossible balancing act to crack, with no historic precedence to refer to, and neither do businesses – how to protect the health of their communities without destroying them financially.

Businesses will have to follow the state’s lead in its staggered protocols for the re-boot and reignition of the economy and how it will function. For the events and business tourism industries, this will probably be the longest wait of all on the staged unwind of lockdown measures, as bans on gatherings over 50 people are extended perhaps into late 2020 or even into 2021 – or when a vaccine is readily available.

‘As soon as people start travelling again’ is often cited – but different countries will likely have different rules on where people can travel to and come in from...which may further complicate larger live business events in their traditional form, even if they are permitted to take place.

It is interesting to note that on UK holiday websites there is a 30% year-on-year increase in searches for long-term destinations for Xmas holidays compared to last year, demonstrating there may be a pent-up demand for personal travel and experience holidays. It remains to be seen if this transfers to similar confidence in personal finances or the bio-security measures to make actual bookings and concurrently on business travel, especially as individual businesses will have their own interpretation of what is appropriate and safe.

In a survey published on 23 April, IMI’s NextWave conducted 54,000 interviews over 10 days with people across numerous countries. It found 40% of US and 60% of UK interviewees missed travelling for pleasure, whilst only 8% in the US and 7% in the UK missed travelling for business.

Perhaps the difference in sentiment is unsurprising, but on future intentions the survey revealed that globally there was a 24% increase of intent to travel within their own State or Country, versus overseas, and for the UK respondents a 20% decrease of intent to holiday overseas and a 43% increase to holiday in the UK.

And I don’t want to even contemplate the impact a second wave or worse still a mutated virus strain would bring to future lifestyle intentions or business confidence.

So, we have little option but to face up to this disruption with adapt and apply – those that treat this crisis seriously and tackle the disruption to the way things were done historically in a nimble, pro-active and professional way, will come out of this in the best position possible.

Businesses that don’t take in the (daily) fast paced and dynamic changes afoot, who aren’t trying to act as futurologists by loosely predicting a number of potential scenarios on what the market will look like, will not come out of it as well.

Even though this is a rapidly moving and fluid situation, what is relatively clear is this crisis has accelerated a trend that was already happening slowly in our industry – from what was likely to take around 5 years has now happened in just 5 months.

There is a transition to more sustainable solutions and better communication with wider audiences with the deployment of tech and digital solutions to maximise engagement, through a more hybrid mix of physical and virtual experiences delivered together.

One thing is clear to me: physical can do what virtual can’t, and virtual can do what physical can’t.

It takes on average 66 days to form a new habit, based on research called Lally’s study, which said it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. The 21/90 rule is also mused as a solid benchmark: it states that it takes 21 days to make a habit and 90 days to make it a permanent lifestyle change.

So, for any positivity to come out of this situation, it must also be an opportunity to get ahead of the competition and offer clients what they will require going forward. We need to grasp the increased expectations for a hybrid approach – the remodelling and development of certain skillsets, resources and services will be sometimes painful and hard work but necessity is the mother of invention.

Some may benefit as business models are adapted, staff and client relationships are more closely invested in through a community mentality of getting through this together – stronger relationships will ultimately prove to be formed as well as new ones.

The other side of this coin is damaged relationships by slow to react businesses falling behind the curve as the recovery progresses, attempting to re-connect with an already evolved state of relationships and passively react to new client expectations of services, hence missing out on the opportunities in the restarting of economic activity.

Foremost in the short term the number one mission is to survive of course, but at the same time there must be in parallel a focus on the longer term and how to be at the forefront of the post virus market place – and these are both inter-connected and symbiotic.

We need to remember clients are fully aware of their commitment to their internal staff as well as external clients and partners, and of the paramount importance for their audiences to be engaged, inspired and communicated with – now more than ever.

They will likely be looking for a new approach that offers resilience and contingency when they book projects with us – ultimately they will want to trust the new approach to events – physical, hybrid or purely virtual.

This will mean we need to use our position in the industry – our experience clients already believe in –and leverage that with clear creative so we can demonstrate our solutions and deliver on expectations, as well as reassure that our work is secure and will add real value.

This approach may therefore use a varied spectrum of elements to meet new client expectations:

  • New Tech/digital innovation and solutions
  • Improved content creation and strategic application
  • Clear enhanced sustainable approaches with credible measurement, reporting and processes
  • More sensitive use of budget and efficiencies for multi-format event modelling
  • Biosecurity measures to ensure they are confident with live audience attendance
  • A resilient ‘virtual contingency’ to live/hybrid projects as a backup

I reached out to Jeremy Rees, CEO of ExCel London to see his take on my views and he concurred the new world will require new thinking and live brand experience models.

We discussed a rise in multiple format events (expo, product launch, conference, recognition), with multiple audiences (clients, press, partners, staff) and therefore delivering multiple messages. These may be combined more commonly in the future into one event across multiple days in rotation, with perhaps reduced physical attendees from only the nearer regions, and wider virtual audiences from farther afield for each section.

This would demonstrate better use of budget, enhanced investment needed in bio-security infrastructure and the sustainable efficiencies of less travel, with one venue, one production set-up, and one set of content work and agency fees.

According to a survey conducted during the virtual edition of Global Meeting Industry Day (GMID) on 14 April, which hosted 12,500 event and hospitality professionals from more than 30 countries, just over 25% of event professionals believe that live events could return by September 2020 and 92% think they will happen again before 2021.

It also found that 62% of respondents think most events will become a hybrid of digital and live after the coronavirus crisis.

It would be interesting to see what those results look like just one month later in mid-May…

 So please stay safe and just as importantly, keep talking to family, friends, colleagues and the wider industry – the more conversations, perspectives and views we can glean from each other, the better prepared we should be – please be diligent in filtering through the advice as well as the science based views, which are often ‘guesstimations’ and not based on scientific fact.

As HRH The Queen recently concluded in her historic address to the nation, “we will meet again”.

But if I may be so bold to add my own addition, “just not as we have before”.

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