2020.09.10The future of business events during Covid-19

Travel is the beating heart of the meetings and events industry, and human interaction its soul, so when coronavirus brought the world to a screeching halt in early 2020, the industry's prospects appeared uncertain. But always resilient and innovative, the industry is already adapting.

Part of this reshaping is the shift to virtual meetings which are helping bridge the distance between countries and continents. Yet rather than halting an industry deeply dependent on face-to-face networking, virtual meetings are helping maintain business relationships until business travel becomes feasible again.

To understand how the industry is faring, as well as its future outlook, we speak with four of the industry's most prominent thought leaders.

An urgent need for knowledge exchange

Ori Lahav, who became president of International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO) in 2020, has seen all the organisation's members struggling due to Covid-19. In response, IAPCO is focused on supporting members by organising virtual webinars to share and highlight best practices, case studies and expert know-how on what may be a good course of action in these challenging times.

"We have always been a very strong industry, coming together and working towards solutions for the whole," says Lahav. "This crisis made our bond even stronger, with industry associations, suppliers, destinations, venues, conventions bureaus and more, joining forces to overcome the challenge. I believe this will remain an added benefit for the future, creating effective and efficient chains and processes to deliver the best outcomes."

Despite mass cancellations of events due to Covid-19, Lahav believes the appetite for organising business events during the pandemic is actually very high and that "knowledge exchange is crucial right now". He says all industries are trying to adapt to the new normal and so the need for conversation is greater than ever.

"We are social creatures and virtual or hybrid events will never fully replace face-to-face meetings," says Lahav. "The need to shake hands, hug and generally share the same space is invaluable. However, this experience has shown us that virtual can answer some educational needs better, and especially if we combine it with a face-to-face meeting, the results in terms of education can be much better than when just utilising one of the methods."

Hybrid events becoming standard

Jessie States, the director of MPI Academy for Meeting Professionals International (MPI), says her organisation, like many, has had to make tough decisions related to their meetings portfolio. "As leaders in our industry and with great deference to our destination and venue partners, our first choice is to postpone and reschedule as many of our in-person meetings as possible," says States. "For those meetings whose business purpose is so immediate that postponement is detrimental, we have made the pivot to digital experiences." she says.

States says in the near to mid-term, hybrid events that offer both in-person and digital participation will be standard, to accommodate those who cannot travel, and those who just aren't comfortable doing so. "We don't see going back to a world of in-person only meetings," she says. States adds that successful hybrid events run parallel with shared moments for engagement but should be designed as two separate user experiences. "There are a variety of digital event formats and platforms from webcasts to 3-D immersive worlds, so deciding which one will fulfil on organisation and participant goals is critical," she says.

Benefits of face-to-face will remain

Jennifer Glynn, president of the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), also sees hybrid events on the horizon as business rebounds, but she believes "virtual cannot replace the benefits of face-to-face."

"Face-to-face interactions allow trust to be built," says Glynn. "Having a coffee or a glass of sake together is about 'breaking bread' and getting to know your guests. In the virtual interaction, people are quite often half-engaged and are easily distracted by incoming emails, the dog running by, or children seeking attention."

Glynn says face-to-face meetings make it easier for participants to perceive the subtleties of interaction, such as people's movements and the inflection of their voices.

But according to Glynn, international business events offer more than just networking, the travel experience itself brings the biggest benefits. "Some of the benefits of travel include the other experiences you get to enjoy, be it exploring a city with colleagues, experiencing a tea ceremony in Japan or a fondue feast atop a mountain in Switzerland," she says. "The benefit of being face-to-face is that you build memories. Travel leaves an indelible mark on your mind and soul. We've all had that moment when a sound, sight or smell in everyday life will transport you back to an unforgettable moment, reminding you of the people you met and the memories made."

Glynn adds that in the short-term we are likely to see an increase in individual travel reward programs, and for incentives, travel destinations will likely be closer to home. "But eventually, if a vaccine is developed and travellers' confidence increases I expect we will go back to mass gatherings and group travel," she says. "We all crave face-to-face meetings where our 'sidebar' conversations can lead to new and collaborative ideas."

Creating 'omnichannel' experiences

President and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), Sherrif Karamat, also believes face-to-face events allow for deeper human relationships and builds trust much faster.

"I personally believe that relationships are best in a physical environment and I also believe that tacit knowledge is best exchanged in a face-to-face environment," he says.

"We should not be comparing one channel over another, as no one channel is a replacement for another," he says. "It is simply another channel of engagement that allows you to extend your reach and grow your audience. In the case of PCMA and many other organisations, digital events have proven to increase attendance at physical events."

Karamat believes there is nothing negative about digital events, but organisers cannot simply take what they do for a physical meeting and place it online, as most will tune out. "Putting your audience needs at the centre and how they would like to engage and with what content is where you start in order to build an engaging experience," he says. Karamat thinks most events in the future will be hybrid, or "omnichannel" as he calls them. "In the future, if organisations are truly thinking of growing their audience and increasing their relevance, they will have to create content, communities, and experiences that engage their audience in the medium they are most comfortable," he says.

Although there is no question that the industry has been "shattered by Covid-19", in the long run it may open up opportunities, says Karamat. "Covid-19 has actually highlighted the role business events play in broader society to drive economic and social outcomes and thus, there finally is a better recognition of the industry," he says. "However, tomorrow is going to look very different than yesterday and event organisers will have to be much more customer focused - meeting their customers at their point of engagement. I see this as a huge opportunity to attract new companies and businesses to the event space as well as new talent."

In terms of bouncing back from Covid-19, Karamat believes Asia-Pacific is particularly well-positioned to lead the global recovery. "It is because of Asia-Pacific's proactive approach and leadership that the region will recover faster and this will hopefully ignite the global economy, even if that road will take time by sector and region of the world," he says.

He adds that the Asia-Pacific region has been forward-thinking in embracing new business models and skills development, which will help recovery and stimulate growth. "It is important that we understand that Covid-19 is expediting the new economy which started many years ago and requires new thinking, new skills, and a new approach," he says. "Those that think tomorrow will be the same as yesterday will have a much tougher time on the recovery journey."

The road ahead

Clearly, the importance of safety, security and flexibility will be top priorities for business event organisers for the foreseeable future. Glynn believes when clients are planning their next event, they will be particularly looking for cleanliness protocols from airlines, airports, hotels and off-site venues. "They will also be looking for a crisis management plan that has taken into consideration a virus outbreak," she says. "Is there adequate infrastructure in the destination to support any medical response if needed?" Karamat agrees, adding: "This should have always been the case, as we have learned a lot previously from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), H1N1, etc., but clearly this situation is much greater and unprecedented in most of our lifetime."

Lahav suggests that: "Japan is known for being a safe and welcoming destination. Being very efficient, always prepared and ready are also attributes of Japanese event planners. With the fact that the country has dealt very well with Covid-19, it has certainly added to the list of positives for Japan."

While Covid-19 continues to affect our ability to congregate and travel, the meetings and events industry will remain vulnerable. Yet through the vision of its leaders and resilience of its members, Covid-19 is proving a catalyst for change, forcing the adoption of new skills and business models, as well as shifting the industry towards virtual and hybrid events.

During this time of rapid change, the need for knowledge exchange is greater than ever, and eventually, once Covid-19 is brought under control, the desire for businesses to nurture human connections through meetings and events will return - but in what format, we cannot be sure. What we can be sure of however is that the meetings and events industry continues to play an important function, even during these difficult times, and that innovation will be essential to not only its survival, but its success.

This article was produced by BBC StoryWorks, the BBC’s global commercial content division, on behalf of JNTO

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