The UK has been a host to a huge number of high profile world events and the events industry had been going on strong before the pandemic. 2019 was said to be a milestone year with the industry spending £70 billion, arranging over 700,000 jobs with more than £165 billion in revenues.
Unfortunately, the situation with COVID-19 starting at the beginning of 2020 slowed down the whole industry as everything had to be put on hold and gone into lockdown. In addition, the fact that the UK left the European Union did not help as the businesses faced several challenges.
During this time, many new trends were adapted to comply with new government measurements. The most popular options were virtual and hybrid events which were used by big companies such as PwC, SHS or First Agency.
The events industry has suffered badly during the pandemic. The cancellation of all live events for 18 months has led to the failure of many businesses associated with it. Last year the Events Industry Alliance (EIA) wrote an open letter to the government warning that 90,000 jobs could be lost in the event sector if they don’t receive further support. This would be a loss of over 15% of all jobs in an industry that employs 600,000 people.
But now that over 80% of the population of the UK has been vaccinated and events are restarting, what does the future hold for the events industry? Will things go straight back to where they were pre-pandemic? Or have events changed forever? Here we look at some of the ways in which events have changed in the last 18 months and examine what the future holds
With the threat of future outbreaks and lockdowns, live events are in a difficult situation, constantly facing the threat of being cancelled. As a result, the industry is adapting in novel ways.
The pandemic advanced the use of technology to stream events virtually. This was always on the cards, but the cessation of live events forced the industry to adapt. Although live events are now restarting, many are retaining a virtual element. These hybrid events are here to stay and will no doubt gain in popularity. Travel restrictions or nervousness of crowds will prevent some visitors from attending events in person. Having some or all of the event streamed live, or available on demand will allow these people access and broaden the reach of events.
According to Conference News, Tim Sutter, who is a business development director of Cvent said: “The hybrid event phenomenon that is flourishing across businesses and organisations of all shapes and sizes is providing a whole new experience for meeting and event attendees, giving them more choice and making events more accessible than ever before.”
Nevertheless, in a news by Press Gazette, Chris Lester of Bauer Media claimed virtual events are not able to match live events for turnover. He estimated that there would be a 50% reduction in revenue from switching to virtual. “It’s clear it is a different economic business model, profit margins can be higher, but revenue’s much lower and cost base much smaller.”
He went on “I think we’ve got to accept that we’ve been able to reach more people with our virtual events, therefore it would be madness to stop. I think the [virtual event] platforms have got better and there’s continuing development, allowing for even better engagement for stakeholders.” But he thought that uniting the physical and virtual “will form our event strategy of the future”.
The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry and event platform Explori conducted a large study, polling more than 9,000 participants from 30 countries. The study asked how attendees and exhibitors felt about digital and hybrid events and the lack of live events.
The study found that most people still prefer live events but there is increasing interest in hybrid and virtual events. In-person events provide an opportunity for networking, and 83% of attendees and 77% of exhibitors prefer them. The study also found that 79% of respondents are interested in joining a hybrid event (UFI).
The return of live events
Virtual events have their place, and uses, but nothing beats live events for their networking opportunities. This just isn’t possible with virtual events. So there will always be a place for trade shows and exhibitions. With most of the population vaccinated, live events will be able to return safely.
Cathy Breden, who is CEO for the Center for Exhibition Industry Research Foundation, stated during an online event IBTM Wired: “Our research shows a lot of pent-up demand for getting back to face-to-face. And, while we know that digital was great in the short-term, both exhibitors and attendees/visitors have indicated they prefer face-to-face. Digital will always have a place in events; however, the extent of use will depend on industry sector and audience.”
But have they changed forever? Event organisers now have to offer digital elements in addition to the live event plus introduce multiple safety measures. So has that altered the nature of events? Infrared and thermal scanners, protective equipment, sanitisation, cleaning, social distancing, and reduced queuing will shape our experiences post Covid-19.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to where we were before, in the sense that the product will be different. We’re never going to let go of that digital piece”, said Orson Francescone, managing director of FT Live, the Financial Times’ events arm.
Alan Jenkins of exhibition stand contractor Quadrant2Design said a return to physical events would be driven by demand. “We can have the best of both worlds,” he said. “No matter what happens in the future all events are going to be hybrid. I don’t think anyone is ever going to run a large public-facing B2B event without a digital component ever again.”
While this was already being embraced by some innovative companies on their stands, the technology is now being used to hold virtual events.
One company embracing the new technology is Box Bear Digital. They provide virtual reality headsets to event organisers who then hand them out to delegates who return them at the end of the event. During the VR conference, attendees each have their own avatars representing them virtually. They can take notes on slides, request quotes be sent by email, view the conference from different angles, and interact with each other.
Users are totally immersed in the experience and the technology is able to notice when the user is shaking their head, or raising their hand to ask a question. This provides a key benefit for VR conference organisers who can interact with users.
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The pandemic forced all live events to stop which gave rise to virtual events in their place. This has caused events to change forever. Now that the software is in place, all events are likely to have some form of digital offering. Whether this is live streaming of sessions, on demand content or even virtual reality, these elements are here to stay. The high vaccination rates in the UK have allowed live events to return which is great news for the industry which was battered by the pandemic. Everyone is looking forward to face-to-face contact after a difficult 18 months.
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Caroline Grey, a Content Writer with a wide variety of experience across a number of different industry sectors.