Hosting events in the age of COVID

 

One of the many casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the events industry and people are now questioning whether it will ever be the same again.

Along with travel, global, regional and local events have been virtually impossible to host since March 2020 – at least in their prior form.

According to an Ernst and Young report, business events directly contributed $35 billion to the local economy in 2018/19 and employed almost 230,000 staff.

As such, there’s a strong push from a multitude of stakeholders to restore the industry as soon as possible.

However, doing so safely with the dwelling threat of the virus will be the tricky part. Per metre spacing and travel restrictions, coupled with new food and beverage standards, will limit attendees and make many events untenable from a return on investment point of view.

A survey by the Business Events Council of Australia found two in five businesses believed it would take 3-5 years before the sector recovers.

Finding the competitive advantage

In the absence of large events and conferences, many businesses have instead been hosting digital forums and webinars in a bid to keep clients and their professional community informed and connected.

The past couple of months has also seen a shift to a more hybrid model, with in person delegates of under 200 people, combined with a livestream option for those at home.

However, as British Medical Journal senior editor Dr Tessa Richards notes in an op-ed, “it takes skill and diplomacy to avoid a ‘them and us’ divide”. 

Indeed, event hosts now face an unprecedented challenge in both attracting an audience and keeping it engaged. Would-be delegates are now receiving a plethora of weekly invitations from hosts tussling for a share of their time.

Dr Richards wrote there are discernable differences between those who are rising to the challenge and those who aren’t.

She said some are offering “’comfort breaks,’ opportunities to pose live questions to speakers, interact socially with other delegates, take virtual exhibition tours”, with well-executed events able to bridge gaps that some in person conferences haven’t been able to.

“Many people lack the money or the physical ability to travel to meetings, but they can be brought “into the room” via digital technologies and participate flexibly in relevant sessions,” she wrote. “Software to filter attendees lists can facilitate matching participants and broke connections.”

A glaring omission from the web event model though, noted by many, is the lack of networking capacity. Some hosts have been trying to compensate with ‘breakout rooms’, but it’s difficult to replicate the intimacy a face-to-face event offers in that respect.

The European Society of Radiology shared that very sentiment in an editorial earlier this year.

“Future online (or hybrid) conferences must find or invent new methods of allowing discussions and interactions involving remote participants during all sessions, to create the same sense of community and collective learning that can be felt during successful on-site events,” its authors said.

“Future conferences will be different from those of yore, and we must learn not to judge them by old standards.”

Australia’s unique regulations in areas like financial services justify the continuation of locally-hosted small events, whether they be online or in the hybrid form.

The key challenge for hosts is to ensure they are embedded with interactivity (questions and remote networking) and topics and speakers that give hosts a competitive advantage over their counterparts in this crowded space.

That will require regular interaction with delegates and potential delegates to determine what works and what doesn’t in this evolving paradigm.

While there will be certain clues, such as engagement time on live webinars, frequent discussions with audiences will be critical to tailoring events to what the market is currently missing.

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