As some parts of Australia gradually move out of lockdown, and others seem to be experiencing second waves, the live event industry is watching nervously to see what the future holds. Chris Bland, Managing Director of Monkey Media and an event and trade show veteran gives his predictions.

Firstly, nobody knows what the short term future holds. When even the world’s leading epidemiologists can’t agree on predictions for future outbreaks of COVID-19 or the likely timing of a vaccine, we can’t make any specific predictions. So what that means is the event sector is going to need to be patient and it’s going to need to be flexible.

People are rightly wary that even if the situation looks under control further outbreaks are very possible, which makes it hard to commit to run or attend large scale events, even 6 or 12 months in the future with the amount of planning they need.

But even in the ideal scenario where the pandemic is under control and there is a vaccine, I think people’s view of events will have changed forever.

There are plenty of people who are keen to get face-to-face as soon as possible, but a lot of organisations will have greatly increased the threshold for what requires travel. They will have learned that a lot can be gained by video meetings and virtual conferences and the justification required to get travel approval and budget will be that much stricter. As a company that loves live events it pains me to say it, but it’s important to accept reality.

In the space we are in, we work with a lot of government bodies, utilities, infrastructure asset owners, local government etc. As essential services, these organisations are likely to be particularly cautious about travelling for some considerable time.

That’s not what vendors and traditional trade show exhibitors and sponsors necessarily want to hear. From their perspective, they’re keen to get back to live events as soon as possible for the networking, the chance meetings, the face-to-face sales opportunities they get. But this is not primarily how utilities and asset owners justify their attendance at events, their main motivators are usually based around the information opportunities, and this aspect is comparatively easy to do online.

A lot of companies that have relied on live events have started to make the switch to virtual events and are finding ways to make them work. Others are saying that they’re not the same, so they want to hold off until live events return. Now of course they’re not the same, I understand as much as anyone the networking opportunities, the immediate feedback, the spontaneous conversations that you can get with a face-to-face event. But I think the danger here is that things will take a very long time to return to normal, and companies that can’t adapt their approach risk being left behind.

Event organisers need to adapt the way they do virtual events. The presentation and exchange of information is there, and that’s what still attracts delegates, but they also need to find ways to replicate the other benefits, the lead generation, the networking, as best as possible.

I think events will permanently change, it is much more likely that future events will be hybrid and include both live and virtual elements, allowing people to more actively participate without needing to travel there. We’ve talked about the downside of virtual events, but there are a lot of positives as well. The time and cost commitment can be considerably lower, and you can reach attendees or speakers from remote corners of the country or anywhere in the world much more readily than before.

Successful events will also shift from seeing what they do as a single point in time, to more of an ongoing process and community. For delegates this will mean an ongoing learning opportunity, with more ways to implement what they learn at an event, rather than just get out of the office for two days and come back full of ideas but then quickly file or forget them. From a sponsor point of view, it means there will be more ongoing opportunities to nurture leads and build relationships over time.

So it’s not all bad news, but I think anyone waiting for everything to go back to normal is fooling themselves, and they’ll benefit more by acknowledging the new reality, and finding ways to make it work for them.

Top predictions for events

  • Uncertainty will remain for some time
  • Even after the pandemic, organisations will be more reluctant to travel
  • Vendors need to recognise the different motivations their customers have for attending events
  • Event companies need to adapt their offerings to better replicate the benefits of live events
  • Hybrid events will become more common, ie events with a live and virtual component
  • Forward looking companies need to adapt now to find the best ways to make the most of this new reality