by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE
Nobody saw this one coming.
Not our cleverest crystal ball gazers.
Not our sharpest soothsayers.
Our industry predictions for 2020 and beyond made no reference to a virus and, in January, even when it ran through China, like bind weed in your garden, nobody really anticipated what would happen next.
And now, on the other side of April’s hump, with most of the world still in total or partial lockdown, we’ve no idea what will happen next, when these groundhog days will end, when we’ll stand again in line at airport security, when the “new” normal will begin.
Amidst all the uncertainty, however, there’s one certainty – things won’t EVER be the same.
I read somewhere that it took the devastating destruction of a World War to pave the way for workplace equality for women – men were away from their countries to fight, so there was no choice but to allow women take on “men’s work” at home. It was a “needs must” situation so societal and cultural norms were surmounted in days rather than decades.
So what will the pause and reset caused by Covid-19 lead to? Are there any radical, revolutionary changes ahead for the Business Events industry?
High Noon for Digital Communications
To start off, I believe that Covid-19 will be the tipping point for digital technology and will lead to a significant, permanent increase in on-line meetings. The technology has been around for years, and, in our personal lives, we’ve grown accustomed to, if not expert at, on-screen visual communications with FaceTime, WhatApp, Skype etc.
We’ve had the enterprise platforms too – the more robust GoToMeeting, Zoom, CISCO WebEx etc – but, until now, we’ve always had face to face as a viable, executable option – and, of course, the democratised, wide availability and relative affordability of air transportation contributed to that.
Now we all know that F2F is the better alternative – real people, in real time, in real places. It’s a fully human encounter, beautifully nuanced, playing across the full, colourful spectrum of interpersonal communication. We’re fully ourselves, whether we like it or not, with all our quirky shows and tells, and no green screen to distract.
However, in month two of this forced social experiment, where on-line has become the ONLY option, we all now realise that digital for business is not that bad and certainly more than adequate for many F2F meetings that would, potentially, cost far more, both in terms of time and money.
We needed the traditional option to be taken away from us to find the new point of balance between the virtual and the real. Depending on who your go-to psychologist is, new habits are set after 21 – 66 days. Covid-19 has made digital communications necessary, acceptable and, finally, habitual.
When you factor in the savings in company time and money, there’s simply no going back.
Other Changes in Meetings & Events due to Covid-19
But what about the other changes destined to alter the way we do business as MICE professionals? In this regard, it’s a little more fluid but I think the following hypotheses are feasible.
Covid-19 will change the MICE industry beyond recognition in the short term in that live events will simply not take place at anything like the usual scale and frequency. Microsoft, for example, recently announced that all internal meetings would be virtual until Summer 2021. Just today (Friday, 17 April), Facebook made the same announcement.
In the mid to long term, however, the industry will settle into a new normal where events will take place, but with a whole bunch of new protocols around social distancing and, probably, a much greater incidence of virtual and hybrid.
Technology has, for the most part, eliminated check in lines at airports but we’ll have major challenges regarding adequate social distancing at security lines.
Those low-cost airlines like Ryanair who corral passengers in very tight spaces to minimize boarding times will also struggle.
Today EasyJet announced that it’ll leave the middle seat in each row free to facilitate social distancing but can that be done without massive hikes in fares?
After Covid-19, Events will be smaller, more human in dimension.Take venue capacities, for instance. Covid-19 has alerted us all to the reality of viruses and how they’re spread by physical contact between people.
For this reason social distancing will be a key factor for event planning. Hotels, venues and convention centres will have to tear up their CAD drawings as capacities will be automatically reduced from the current averages of one square metre – one point five square metres per person.
New best practice will demand much greater space allocation. Just think of the far reaching consequences for venues and the per head revenues they’ve become used to?
So, the physical attributes of meetings will certainly change, first in terms of overall venue capacities, second in terms of configurations and third in terms of protocols.
Venues will have to re-calculate their capacities based on social distancing and this will lead to greatly reduced numbers.
Fixed seat configurations that place delegates adjacent to each other – like theatre style, for example – will use every other seat, effectively halving capacities.
Crescents of 6 or 7 will become crescents of 3 or 4. All venues will have hand sanitisers.
There may be push back on some of the advances in sustainability for meetings as single use comes back in vogue.
Incentive Travel professionals are used to the term “hygiene factors”. In motivation theory, hygiene factors are those factors which, when adequate/reasonable in a job, pacify the employees and do not make them dissatisfied. In the post Covid-19 era this term will take on new meaning, ironically more related to its original semantics.
After Coronavirus, the cleaning of conference spaces and meeting rooms will take on a whole new meaning as we demand highly specialised, clinical levels of hygiene, more akin to laboratories and operating theatres. Aware as we now are of how viruses spread, we’ll be concerned about surfaces, door handles, screens.
In fact there’s a business pivot out there for agencies or individuals to re-train as hygiene experts, setting the standards for cleanliness in conference and events venues. There’s also an opportunity for someone to be the regulator, the keeper of hygiene standards for the industry.
Coronavirus will bring sweeping changes for how we eat, drink and consume at conferences and events.
Buffets will be a thing of the past as there are far too many unprotected variables associated with them involving the co-mingling of people, utensils, cooked and uncooked food etc.
This, of course, will have massive implications in terms of staffing and service levels at large functions.
I could go on … suffice it to say Covid-19 is a defining, before / after event for our industry. Things, simply, will NOT be the same. We’ll struggle for a bit as we try to figure our collective way out of this dark woods, but we’ll soon find the track and build a new road map. After all, our industry has distinguished itself for its “bounce-back-ability”!
NOTE: I just read an interesting article on Northstar’s Meetings Group by industry veteran, Jordan Clark, in which similar conclusions are reached about the future of meetings & events – check it out here
Patrick Delaney, Pádraic Gilligan, Aoife McCrum, Sara Hosford, Gráinne Ni Ghiollagáin & Aideen O’Keeffe are SoolNua, a specialist advisory working with destinations, venues, hotels, agencies and associations on strategy, marketing and training.