Most of the magic that we have been seeing for the past few weeks has been virtual. Except for the beauty of the land that some of us (re)discovered in the proximity of our house or just in one’s garden. Or the enhanced connection with one’s own family members, living under the same roof. For the rest, we have been living and operating in a virtual environment and to be honest, most are fed up with it by now. If something has proven the power of face to face communication, it must be this virus. So, where do we go from here?
I participated in a few internal and external online call to action sessions over the past few weeks and I did learn a few things. For one thing, this shows again how important it is to be part of a global meetings industry association such as SITE, PCMA or ICCA. True membership value!
So, what did I learn so far? First: stop dreaming, nobody has a crystal ball. Secondly, that after weeks of confinement, ideas on how the future will look like in the events industry are crystalizing. And our collective innovation process is working overtime. There is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel. Question is, how long is that bl**dy tunnel?
In the short and medium-term, events have been postponed (and some postponed again). Some have been re-negotiated. Others – too many others – have been cancelled. Some projects have been turned from a live event in a virtual event with often surprising, innovative and multiplying effects. In the meantime, within our companies, client and supplier contracts and sales conditions are being rewritten. Standard operating procedures reviewed. ‘Health and safety’ instructions appear to have turned into ‘health, hygiene and safety’ rules and regulations. And a lot of on-line learning is taking place now that we have time to spare on it and are not running as fast as we usually do in this ‘rat race’ which we love so much.
Back to the future
The consensus is that life will never be the same again, so why would our events industry be different? Not that everything will turn to virtual – people are totally fed up with meeting online. (If someone mentions the word ‘pivoting’ again I am going to scream!) Conferences and meetings will never be the same again. They will most likely re-size, re-focus, re-design and turn to complete hybrid experiences with a mix of face-to-face and virtual interaction. As a forward-looking company, we have been ‘educating’ our clients already for quite a while, it was all written down in our ‘painted picture’ story. It’s the style of the house at MCI. Some clients have been reluctant, because of vision, time or budget pressure, to the change that we have suggested for a number of years. Others now cannot wait to apply that change asap! Everyone now realizes that there is another way to do it, to the better.
What will never go away is the event experience, both live and virtual. This needs to be redesigned to the benefit of the participants. Because the virtual experience must be as close to exciting as being there on-site. Which is a tough cookie because how are we going to counter the part of the conference or meeting experience that is the destination immersion. A lot of the success of an association conference, corporate meeting or incentive travel programme lies in the social interaction beyond the meeting space. The peer to peer learning in the corridors, the ‘eureka’ moments during coffee breaks and lunches when one learns that others have found a solution to the problem you had. The fun and laughter in between, professional friendships that last longer. Cross-cultural exchanges within the group are so enriching. The added touch of unique experiences in the destination with locals, with cuisine, culture and sports have an energizing effect on the overall impact and result of an event.
Destination Wizards – the magical powers of a DMC
The magic of the events industry is in the fact that one can experience transformation in unique environments. Content creation, connecting with others is all set in an atmosphere of people meeting people and against a non-virtual background of a unique destination experience. A major reason why event planners, corporate or third party, should involve their DMC in the event creation process from the beginning. Because DMCs have the unique and tested answers on how the delivery of a message can be done through a unique local event experience.
d’Artagnan and the Musketeers
Another thing that will change is that we will hopefully and no longer, ever, ever, talk about buyers and suppliers but see each event stakeholder as a shareholder in the success of the event. We are all part of the same team, all for one and one for all! It took a drama to realise this, I guess.
As for the re-birth of our profession, we have a unique advantage and that is that we collectively know our clients as well as our destination well. The gathering of data is an absolute necessity to deliver a tailor-made event. With all respect for GDPR regulations, this data is the holy grail for a perfect event. Transparency from pre- to post-event will be key.
Meet & Greet 2.0
Meeting etiquette will change as well. Corona must have meant the death of buffet luncheons (I hope). Or even dead of traditional ‘theatre’ or ‘classroom’ set-ups? Pre-event screenings will become as important as badge scanning. The power of a handshake becoming a thing of the past and for Belgians to kiss each and everyone 3 times for sure! Signage will have to re-enforce the health and safety measures on-site. Conference room set-ups will change too. Questions to be answered on maximum attendance within a space. Conference and banqueting capacity meeting and dining space will need to be adjusted to the new regulations on social distancing. Quid how hotels and conference venues will be able to secure the safety of our guests. And how shall we handle queues at check-in, registration desks or food stations? Should we have nurses on-site and train our staff even more on health care topics and sanitation? The maximum number of people in an elevator? Branded face masks, plastic gloves, sanitation stations – new sponsorship items? And so on …
We now have come to a level playing field that has been completely flattened. Now it is up to us to create the new ways our events industry will work in the future. We have this in our own hands! And we will have to reconsider everything. From the use of space and venues to new ways of payment or deposit schedules.
For this transparency and openness will be key and flexibility will be necessary on all levels. And remember that those who participate on the digital side will need to experience similar stage design. Not easy when you loose senses, the ones of touching, sensing and tasting. So, a lot of emphasis will have to be put on the visual and audio excellence. A major opportunity to shine and share for our production teams, camera operators and videographers.
After the healthcare crisis will be over, we will still need to tackle the economic downfall that is due to come and that will be an important factor in how we do business in the future. Our association members, corporate event delegates and incentive winners are all part of this process. We must involve them from the start in the re-design process of our industry. For the moment, most of them have been forgiving because all this was nobody’s fault. But that forgiveness will soon fade away if we do not come up with innovative solutions for the future of events.
Delegates, guests and participants will want to feel safe and comfortable. So ahead of each hybrid event experience we will need to start thinking about how participants will be physically (even through virtual contact) experience the event. I believe that meetings will become more local or regional and that part of the global sharing will be more virtual. Here one must ask the question if for instance a doctor who attends a conference will have the same motivation, involvement and focus if this meeting turns from physical to digital. That for me is a major silver lining for our industry. The connection and engagement will surely be different.
Hugo Slimbrouck – April 29, 2020