by Paul Ashford
The Covid-19 global pandemic has permanently changed the events and exhibitions industry. Indeed it can be argued that the exhibitions and events industry was the first be affected by the effects of the Covid-19 virus.
Most notably, the huge Mobile World Congress show was cancelled back at the beginning of February, which would have seen tech and mobile industry professionals and journalists fly from all over the globe into Barcelona. Not long after that, one by one, virtually all industry conferences, trade shows and exhibitions were cancelled or postponed with no real confidence that any future date in 2020 will be viable.
One of the many upcoming problems for our industry is that it's difficult to re-organise an event when we don't have a timescale to work to. Some newspaper reports have suggested that the Coronavirus could re-surface next winter, making event organisers nervous about committing time and money to re-scheduled events.
Will our industry adapt to a new way of working, with the old ways of working seeming outdated, or will it simply snap back to business as usual? Will virtual events be the new normal? Undoubtedly the events and exhibitions industry is incredibly resilient, and our human need to interact and exchange information face-to-face will result in a recovery in time. However, the impact of Covid-19 will have changed how we work forever.
- Contingency planning
While contingency plans are on most organisers top five list of must-dos, the speed and depth of the effects of the pandemic have surprised many people, and the financial implications have been in some cases catastrophic.
From 2021 onwards all major events will be looked at with a keen eye to a potential disaster scenario. The unthinkable will become an agenda item – after all, in a year that saw the cancellation of the Olympics, the Edinburgh Festival and pretty much every football match on the planet, the future is more difficult to predict than ever.
Contracts will be tightened, and cancellation terms carefully re-worded. Venues and suppliers will be trying to protect themselves from losing revenue, while agencies and event managers will be trying to ensure they can avoid paying for an event that may never happen. There will be just as much focus on what happens if an event has to be cancelled as there is on making it a success.
- Insurance costs
While it would be remiss of any event or exhibition organiser to skimp on insurance, many insurers have excluded communicable diseases from their policies, especially after previous outbreaks of SARS and Avian Flu. On top of flooding and terrorism, the insurance industry will take yet another hit from thousands of coronavirus claims and will be taking steps to protect itself.
Event specific insurance policies that include cover for Coronavirus type illnesses will undoubtedly become very difficult to find, and will be subject to stringent terms. Looking forward, insurers may continue to offer communicable disease cover as an optional extension, however this will in most cases exclude Covid-19.
Undoubtedly, insurance for events large and small will become a must have (surprisingly this has not always been the case), because let’s face it the next disaster may take a different form.
- The role of technology
Events and exhibitions were already using increasing amounts of technology to enhance their events, plus digital marketing to promote events, while social media enabled people to follow events remotely while they were actually happening.
However, we're now seeing event organisers look to live streaming to deliver their conference content to delegates sitting at home. How will this translate to events and exhibitions in the future? Will virtual events be the way forward?
Probably not. While the days of the single-meeting flight or the round table meeting for a handful of geographically-dispersed people are pretty much over, medium to large scale exhibitions and events meet a different need.
Exhibitions are tactile, and offer opportunities that simply can’t be reproduced electronically, even in the most realistic VR world. Anyone who has ever attended the Edinburgh Festival, Glastonbury or a World Cup match knows the visceral excitement of being part of a live event and a like-minded group of human beings.
However, what the pandemic has taught us is that there are benefits to streaming, VR and online collaboration and it will accelerate the use of these technologies as enhancements and added value to live event programmes.
- Longer lasting effects on supply and demand
With so many small businesses and freelancers working in the events and exhibitions industry, even with Government support, many of them are still going to struggle, and sadly some will not survive.
It is difficult to predict how the market will react when the immediate threat is reduced. There may be a short-term surge as organisers try to cram postponed events into a busy six-month period. This may cause supply chain difficulties and even a lack of good freelance staff as some may have had to take jobs elsewhere to protect their income. Already some venues are completely sold out after the summer.
Overall it is in everybody’s interest - venues, cities, organisers, exhibitors, companies, airlines and delegates to get the exhibitions and events industry back to the pre Covid-19 levels of activity. After an extended period of isolation, there will certainly be an appetite for it. The agencies who are experienced and strong enough to survive will still be around to deliver an increased level of business as they pick up events from those who weren’t able to keep going.
- Etiquette and health and safety
Will we ever go back to shaking hands? Will anyone with a cough be a persona non grata at an event? Will large-scale exhibitions temperature-check all delegates as they enter the arena or exhibition hall?
Some of these will certainly feature in the immediate post Covid-19 world, but memories are short and old habits will soon return. However some practices will become the norm. For many years cruise ships have had hand sanitisers sited around ships to protect passengers from Norovirus, which is an ever-present threat. So it will be at busy exhibitions and events as we add coronavirus protection to the H&S checklist. Perhaps our industry will lead the way in demonstrating we can balance the need to assemble and interact with a real awareness of the need to maintain safe practices and self-isolation for those with illness.