While the whole world has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, the event and meeting industry has found itself in a particularly tough spot. When your business is all about bringing people together, what do you do when that is no longer possible (at least for now)?
We’ve seen some in the industry spring to action and put their skills to work fighting the pandemic. Others have dramatically shifted their strategies overnight to accommodate a “new normal” in both their professional and personal lives.
We gathered a panel of event professionals (virtually, of course) to answer a few questions about how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting their plans—and how they’re managing during this challenging time for the event and hospitality industries. These industry veterans tell us about how the crisis has dramatically accelerated their digital transformation, forcing them to be more agile and creative as they think of new ways for people to convene.
Christina Conway (CC) – Experiential Marketing Manager, Humanscale
Alex Paredes (AP) – Executive Assistant
Jennifer Sauber (JS) – Internal Meeting Lead
Kathleen Hinton (KH) – Corp Events Leader
Juraj Holub (JH) – Head of Communications, Slido
How has the coronavirus crisis affected your plans so far?
Christina Conway: Every tradeshow and event on the books through the summer has been cancelled. We are being cautiously optimistic about the fall events. Spring is already the busy season and the initial weeks were tough adding extra work to keep plans moving forward while adding additional plans in case of cancellation. Fortunately, I work for an ergonomics company, Humanscale. So working from home has been good as I have a comfy chair and a cool desk that moves up and down!
JS: I have oversight of the conference center at our world headquarters and when the stay-at-home order was put in place, all meetings and events were either postponed or cancelled. Employees are now using virtual means to meet with their teams and while these were in place before the crisis, it is now the way we remain connected. Additionally, if stay-at-home orders are extended, we are exploring options for virtual town halls.
JH: We were forced to throw out our marketing playbook and invent a new one. We were planning on launching Slido for Education at SXSW EDU in early March. The conference was cancelled at the last minute. We know the team behind the event and we can’t imagine how hard it must have been.
What’s been the biggest challenge as you navigate the crisis?
CC: Balancing communication. Wanting to give others “space” to think while politely and gently nudging because I need information to make informed decisions so we can keep moving forward.
“I find it most difficult to cancel an anticipated event with the corresponding feelings of disappointment, by the attendees, the vendors and event partners.”Kathleen Hinton
AP: The biggest challenge personally is setting a new normal and dealing with anxiety when doing such basic tasks as grocery shopping. Work wise, we had to immediately be agile in creating Zoom meetings, and changing in-person meetings to calls; showing executives that are very set in their paperwork ways that we can go digital.
JS: The unknowns. How long will there be limitations on large group gatherings? How long will social distancing be in play? To some extent, we need to make assumptions to determine if and how a meeting or event will move forward and then getting involved on board with the decision.
KH: I find it most difficult to cancel an anticipated event with the corresponding feelings of disappointment, by the attendees, the vendors and event partners. It affects livelihoods and destroys great expectations. So the real challenge is to stay positive and keep planning.
How will your events change in the near and distant future in response to this crisis?
CC: In the near future, we are modifying our most important event of the year to a digital format. It is a product launch event which will include presentations by designers, sustainability action plans, ergonomic and wellness tips and a happy hour. Which, come to think of it, are the same elements we incorporate into in-person events. The goals and branding are the same but the strategy and execution are different. The advantage is our reach is much larger since it is not limited to who can go to that specific city during that specific week of the year.
AP: Looking to the future, travel will probably be very limited, while I will need to create more space to respect social distancing along with heightened sanitary practices. Promoting a contact-less atmosphere where documents are not passed from hand to hand, people keep things to themselves as opposed to innocent action like passing a water bottle to a colleague, etc.
JS: I think in the near future, our face-to-face meetings will remain small to continue social distancing and virtual meetings will continue to be an important part of day-to-day business. However as time passes, and people become more comfortable being in larger groups, we will see things return to a new normal. In the end, we will adapt to what is the new normal, and the industry will meet again.
KH: The priority going forward is to stay true to the basics of event leadership by providing trusted guidance, developing clear goals, and delivering realistic results for key stakeholders. The challenge is to become skilled to do that with virtual events rather than live events.
JH: What the events industry is going through right now is very painful. But in the middle of every crisis lies a great opportunity too. For years there’s been a talk about digital transformation and more radical innovation, yet many events followed the same playbook. Now we don’t have an option—we just have to adapt and innovate if we are to survive.
“In the end, we will adapt to what is the new normal, and the industry will meet again.”Jennifer Sauber
How have you been inspired by the event professionals community through all of this?
KH: I continue to be inspired by people who are dealing with difficulty in their own lives yet still find compassion and concern for others. I received an email from a hotel friend sharing news that the hotel has remained open to keep its employees employed and even lit up the hotel facade with a giant heart that shines bright on dark Chicago nights. I’ve received texts from former event contacts turned friends, sharing stories of working from home and homeschooling. Reaching out to share and exchange genuine personal stories. It is these relationships that give confidence that we will rise above the challenges and forge ahead together to keep planning.
JH: It’s so inspiring to see how the community tackled this incredibly difficult situation head-on and instead of giving up, fights like never before. The response has been instantaneous and many companies and individuals have reinvented themselves in a matter of days. What industry can say that? It’s difficult now I’m absolutely certain that we’ll walk out of this stronger and wiser than ever before.