The Future of Live Events

Restoring Confidence and Finding Joy in Live Experiences Through COVID-19

Entering 2020, the meetings and events industry was anticipating another year of consistent growth. Yes, after the longest period of uninterrupted economic expansion in American history, forecasters were engaged in a rigorous debate about whether we were “due” for a recession. However, there was no consensus on the topic, and economic indicators pointed toward another successful year for meetings, events, and live experiences.

The reality is neither economists nor event professionals could have predicted the devastation to our industry in such a short time. In the last three months, the global economy has collapsed and the meetings industry along with it. Both advanced and emerging markets are in a recession, and unemployment has reached record highs across the globe. With shelter-in-place and social distancing orders in effect worldwide, the industry trend for the remainder of 2020 is fewer, smaller in-person meetings and more virtual gatherings.

Contrary to the optimistic predictions of the prognosticators, 2020 has been marked by cancellations, postponements, and uncertainty about the future of the meetings and events industry. Nonetheless, there is growing optimism for 2021 and beyond as event professionals worldwide are capitalizing on this moment to reinvent our industry once again.

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The Age of the Hybrid Meeting

Event professionals have already started to adapt. Webinar after webinar has extolled the virtues of virtual and hybrid events. As an industry, we are all determined to embrace new technologies that promise to bring the experience of the in-person meeting into each attendee’s home. These changes are necessary. In fact, these are exciting new trends for our industry, and we’re welcoming them fully at Bishop-McCann. From virtual meeting technology to at-home gifting experiences, we stand ready to support your next meeting.

Bishop-McCann is focusing on the future as well. We’ve all wondered in recent months, “When will this get back to normal?” Truthfully, the industry shouldn’t expect meetings and events to ever look like they did again. Remember that through every major economic disruption in recent history, meetings and events have persisted, and we’ve used the opportunity to innovate further.

The story of the meetings and events industry is one of adaption to ever-changing norms, attendee expectations, and, indeed, health and security regulations. Those norms change day by day. Just a cursory glance around the hospitality industry shows us how quickly things change. Major U.S. airlines now require masks for all passengers on their flights, and global hospitality brands, such as Marriott and Wynn Resorts, have announced new cleaning protocols to reassure concerned travelers. As an industry, we too must establish new parameters to ensure attendee well-being, and we must be thorough and transparent to regain their confidence in meetings and events. So, what is the “new normal” of the corporate meeting?

First, let’s strike calling it the “new normal.” As an industry, “normal” is always changing. Innovation has encompassed everything from turn-of-the-century adaptations like electronic attendee registration to exciting new event technology, including augmented reality and RFID name badges. The meetings and events industry of 2020 didn’t look like the industry of 2019, even before COVID-19.

And because of this pandemic, we’re going to keep on innovating; that’s the future of live events. The other question on everyone’s mind is “Can’t we simply go back to the way it was before?” While it’s tempting to reassuringly respond “yes” as soon as we’ve developed herd immunity or a vaccine for the virus, the honest answer is “no.” We have the responsibility to bolster a key area of the attendee experience—health and safety—and looking backward will not help us succeed.

It’s important that we are clear-headed. This is likely not the last pandemic we’ll see in our lifetimes. Even if it is, our collective awareness of commonplace infectious diseases has been forever changed and elevated into the attendee consciousness. The lessons we learn fighting this pandemic are applicable and must be utilized to protect attendee health and safety year-round.

To ride out this storm, event professionals need to understand new attendee expectations and adjust to changing company appetites for in-person gatherings. We must recognize and master the additional responsibilities our industry now carries, most clearly around both the attendee and destination community’s health and safety. No, every event planning company does not need to become a health care company. However, we need to reassure our attendees and cultivate attendee confidence in live experiences in order to guarantee a full recovery as an industry. It may seem daunting, but we’ve done this before in the realm of attendee security. From evacuation protocols, business continuity plans, and even active-shooter drills, the meetings and events industry has always stepped up to implement the necessary precautions. Let’s do the same for attendee health and wellness going forward.

Restoring Confidence in the In-Person Meeting

Without a doubt, nearly everyone in our industry is having these discussions with clients: “Should we cancel? Postpone? Go to a virtual or hybrid event?” Even if they haven’t asked yet, we all need to be prepared for those conversations. You should be willing to discuss the value tradeoff between in-person and virtual events with your clients as well.

The live event is still the single best way to achieve an objective across a group of individuals, large or small. Whether it’s organizational vision-sharing, company-wide communication, departmental team building, inter-group collaboration, organic networking, or rewarding your associates for all their hard work, the in-person meeting remains the best option. We can—and should—remind our clients of that. These events can proceed viably in 2020 and beyond with some key alterations to ensure attendee confidence and safety.

There are myriad ways to adapt, and we won’t pretend to provide an exhaustive list here. Simply put, the industry must think creatively. For example, one trend we’re already hearing about is stretching a typical two-day convention into three or even four days going forward. By staggering attendee arrival and departure dates, companies can effectively hold their entire meeting twice in order to maintain social distancing guidelines and ensure attendee safety with a minimal impact to their budgets.

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Other Trends We Expect to See in the Industry

  • A significant increase in offering on-site medical assistance and on-site pharmaceuticals, such as Bishop-McCann’s partnership with InHouse Physicians. This includes developing pandemic preparedness plans with procedures for:
    • Sourcing and distributing personal protective equipment.
    • Taking attendees’ temperatures (mandatorily or voluntarily).
    • Accessing serology testing to detect COVID-19.
  • Shifting mindfulness and wellness offerings toward more personalized and in-room activities.
  • New communication and transparency standards to hold ourselves and our vendors accountable. Attendees will want to know about event cleanliness and sanitation procedures proactively.
  • Technology will change the landscape of the in-person event too. The most thorough planner may want to adopt offerings like watches that notify attendees if they’re breaching social distancing or kiosks to check attendees in and simultaneously take their temperature.
  • Less printed materials because not only is it more sustainable, but it will help contain contact spreading, too.
  • Creative venue sourcing to facilitate social distancing, including a preference toward larger facilities, unique room set-ups, and an increase in the desirability and functionality of outdoor meeting spaces.
  • Changes in food preparation and presentation. Is the buffet finally on its way out?

There will be many ways to produce an in-person event going forward, some of which we are just beginning to conceptualize. The reality is that we will have to continue to adapt, relying heavily on our health officials, to provide the best information and protection possible to protect attendees.

Even if an event is proceeding in person, virtual and hybrid options will grow to accommodate attendee comfort level. Some are already calling this effect the great meeting “equalizer.” It’s true, you may be able to garner an even larger audience for your event than you could have in person. In fact, with social media integration, that’s almost certainly the case. But, we have to be aware of the compromise this move requires.

With a virtual event, your connection to an attendee is reliant on the limits of the human attention span. You had an attendee’s undivided attention at your 2-day conference in a sunny locale. When they’re sitting at their kitchen table, you may be lucky to keep it for more than a couple of hours.

As always, content will be king and the key to a successful virtual event. There are so many ways to capture audience attention, but some of our favorites include:

  • Increasing interactivity through audience question-and-answer sessions and live polling.
  • Facilitating networking by creating group chat rooms based on attendees’ interests collected at registration.
  • Creating event-specific hashtags and groups in order to follow along online and boost the event’s profile simultaneously.
  • Utilizing gifting creatively to bring the full meeting experience into the attendee’s home.
  • Leveraging unique virtual experiences that we are only just beginning to imagine.

We should also note the criticality of a strong logistics component remains whether the meeting is in person or virtual. On top of the usual responsibilities of your logistics team, virtual event privacy and security are now added. Preventing uninvited attendees from joining your meeting, as we have seen so much of in recent months, can only be done with an emphasis on logistics.

Finally, if your event has a virtual or hybrid component, establishing a technical assistance team is critical going forward. If we have learned anything working from home over the last few months it’s this: no, we can’t rely on everyone to mute themselves. These teams can also help troubleshoot more challenging issues and assist the elderly and those with disabilities, regardless of the platform you select for the presentation.

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Toward a Joyful Return to Meetings

While the age of the hybrid event may seem inevitable, the in-person event will endure. The growth of the virtual and hybrid event model should even be welcomed within the industry. In fact, these events can supplement your existing slate. That 15-person meeting that an agency may not have handled previously? Now, there’s a value in having event professionals design and execute the event. The merits of a cohesive virtual experience are more practical now than ever.

As we consider the future of the meetings and events industry, it’s important to remember why what we do is so valuable. We’ve noted that an event is still the single best way to achieve a return on objective across a group of individuals, but the reason for that extends all the way to our evolutionary roots.

The American neuroscientist, Dr. Paul Zak, was the first to identify the key role the chemical oxytocin plays in social interactions. Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure at the base of the brain. According to Dr. Zak, “oxytocin is primarily a molecule of social connection,” which facilitates empathy, trust, and even Joy.

Human interaction, under the right conditions and connected by a shared purpose (your reason for gathering), can facilitate the release of oxytocin. The reason events are so effective is literally neurobiological. When designed well, an event improves organizational performance, strengthens the bonds of community, and creates Joy among attendees. With this in mind, it’s clear why organizations invest so heavily in live meetings and events and the magnitude of trust our clients place in us to deliver seamless experiences.

It may be unclear when in-person events will return, but it is clear that the question is answered by a “when” not an “if.” This resiliency of the meetings and events industry is self-evident, and we’ll only continue to surprise each other with where it goes next. At Bishop-McCann, our mission is “We Create Joy!” We know this industry is making a difference for attendees and inspiring organizations across the globe, and we’re so excited to be a part of it.

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