Over the last couple of months, the way we work, live and do business has changed immeasurably. COO Charlie Marr explores how these changes have affected the events industry, the challenges we are all facing and how he sees events involving in the future as a result.
COVID-19 has transformed our lives professionally and personally. People have been in lockdown for coming up to 8 weeks and the world as we once knew it has completely changed. The economic pinch of the virus has been well documented. Gross Domestic Product has shrunk across the developed world and economists are predicting a new “90% world” in which social distancing will contract productivity and economic growth until late 2021 at the earliest.
Certain industries have been hit particularly hard. Tourism is on its knees, British Airways has furloughed 30,000 of its 42,000 staff, Virgin on the brink of collapse, and Airbnb has made 25% of their staff redundant. Hospitality is equally distressed with no fast food outlets or restaurant chains open to the public – indeed McDonald’s has reported a 70% year-on-year reduction in revenue across Europe in April. There are rumours that food and beverage chains may not be permitted to open until October and with social distancing measures to boot. The owner of Hawksmoor earlier this week questioned whether diners would want to be served by waiters wearing surgical gloves.
Governments have responded with bailout packages including furlough schemes and business interruption loans. Indeed, the Telegraph estimates that 50% of the UK workforce were being “paid” by the government (33% on furlough and the remainder on universal credit). The question hangs over us – how can we afford this and what does it mean for the working population in the long term – as unemployment is set to hit an all-time high of 18%. Over the weekend commentators questioned Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, who projected that the UK economy will grow by 15% in 2021 and be back to where it would have been without Covid-19 by the end of next year. Economic commentators have challenged this, suggesting that, in fact, a lack of B2B and B2C consumer confidence across all sectors would reduce demand for the mid to long term (the specific timeframes people seemed reluctant to commit to).
Naturally, all of this will affect the behaviour of company directors and, as a result, is going to change the landscape of the meetings and events that companies organise. People are questioning whether we need to meet face to face and speculate on when, if we choose to, we’ll be able to do so again. Compiling together the thoughts and opinions I have heard over the course of a number of webinars and conversations with our customers, I would like to share a number of key issues facing the industry and some significant changes that will happen as a result.
Let’s start with the challenges:
Employee Confidence: will people want to attend events in venues with hundreds, if not, thousands of other people when there is no knowing who has the virus.
Reputational Risk: As we have seen with the likes of Cheltenham Races, viral outbreaks can be traced back to specific events, and corporates will understandably worry that one of their events may be the cause of another spike.
Smaller Budgets: Most companies in the world, with the exception of the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Zoom who are enjoying increased users during lockdown, are reporting poor quarterly results. It’s fair to assume this will continue into Q3 and as a result of this CFOs, the world over will be looking to reduce costs to get them as close to their budgets (or re-forecasts) as possible. These cuts will likely affect events budgets, leaving teams to do more with less.
Reduced Headcount: We have seen widespread furlough in the UK with 7.5 million workers currently on the scheme. When this scheme ends in October it is a reality that there may be redundancies for some individuals and teams who organise events. Teams will be down on headcount and therefore over-stretched when organising events.
Measurement and Control of Spend: I have been involved in a number of conversations with procurement professionals around the now increased requirement to have accurate Management Information around meetings & events (how else do they know which events need to be cancelled and/or postponed due to the pandemic) and controls around future spend.
Given these newfound challenges, meetings & events teams around the globe alongside their colleagues in procurement are re-assessing their approach. There seems to be some consistency among how people are tackling this. One thing I am confident of is that events will remain relevant and important to businesses. Meetings & events are designed to acquire, grow and retain employees and customers for organisations the world over. So long as those three aims remain, which it is a sure bet to say they will, then events will remain crucial to companies achieving their annual strategic and revenue objectives.
That said, there will be changes:
Virtual Events: We have all been on a Zoom webinar or a Microsoft Teams all-hands. Social isolation has led to these platforms entering the mainstream alongside more bespoke and sophisticated offerings such as Live Legends (which allows you to visualise keynote speakers within a virtual venue) and EventsForce (enabling you to register attendees, run roundtables, and organise 1-2-1 breakout meetings). It seems that to a greater or lesser degree these will be here to stay and we’ll see virtual events as part and parcel of a company’s future events schedule.
Hybrid Events: Combining a live event with more virtual technology allowing people to dial in remotely or to catch up on content retrospectively. By blending the two, event organisers are able to increase significantly the eyeballs on their event and therefore achieve increased return on investment. In the future, event invites will include hyperlinks to log in as well as passes to scan on arrival.
Employee Safety: Corporates will develop meetings & events safety policies to help employees feel comfortable attending events and venues will do the same to inspire confidence in their customers. Having meaningful policies and measures in place that include PPE provision and sanitisation will be important not only to preventing any future outbreaks of the virus but ensuring the long term survival of this industry.
Reduced Office Footprint: Some companies are reducing their office space and encouraging employees to work from home in the long term. Jes Stanley, the CEO of Barclays, predicted that large city-centre offices could be a “thing of the past”. We see two opportunities arising from this: Firstly, the suggestion is that when a company needs to get everyone together once or twice a month they will organise an event. Surely good news for the larger event spaces across the world. Secondly, those teams within a business who do require daily in-person contact with one another will need small more flexible office spaces. An opportunity for smaller spaces to offer innovative hybrid office/ event space solutions.
Automation: As previously detailed, the majority of industry sectors are feeling the squeeze of COVID-19. Procurement teams are looking to save costs and process automation through software and artificial intelligence is a potential answer for this problem. For example, why pay an agency retainer fee for venue sourcing when you can use a software which allows your employees to do it themselves much more quickly. Back office interactions can also be improved through standardising contracting and payment processes. The meetings & events playing field which has been monopolised by a small number of large traditional agencies is going to be levelled by a desire for more cost-effective and low touch solutions.
Data Consolidation: It has been a nightmare for teams to get a handle on all of the events they had organised and that would be subject to cancellation due to COVID-19. An issue which has shone a spotlight on the already well-debated topic of data in meetings & events. Companies want to have one single source of truth for their M&E data and not to have to speak to accounts payable, marketing, comms and their HR ledger in order to pull this information into an excel spreadsheet which needs to be manually updated (the steps one Category Manager I spoke to had to take in order to gain visibility of their exposure). In addition, having data in one place allows companies to enjoy the benefits of machine learning: specific recommendations and personalisation; not to mention effective corporate governance.
So what does all this mean?
As one corporate client said, in order to build confidence in doing face-to-face meetings and events we first need to get people back to the office and get back to doing business as usual. All of this will require us to come together to find out what the “new normal” for M&E looks like. Venues will need to create confidence for event guests that they can deliver hygienic and safe events; corporates will need to review, iterate and develop their meetings & events strategies; suppliers will need to support both sides whilst innovating their virtual, hybrid and automated event solutions.
I don’t know about you, but I am excited by the opportunities to innovate this crisis has thrown up to us all. Let’s pull together and make it happen!