COVID-19 has done more than just slow down the event industry—it almost brought it to a complete halt.
Physical events with a large number of people are raising red flags all over the world. For example, the UEFA Championship League match that occurred between Atalanta-Valencia in Milan has widely been seen as a “biological bomb” that set off the overwhelming coronavirus case numbers and death toll in Italy. In the United States, Mardi Gras and spring break are also viewed as super-spreading incidents.
To limit virus contagious, events with attendees over 50 are being cancelled and/or postponed, and communities are issuing fines for groups that are meeting with over 5 individuals. With widespread cancellations and postponements of large events, event organizers have been operating in crisis mode and scrambling to save their events any way they can.
One solution has emerged that seems, for the moment at least, to be filling the gap. Virtual events have allowed planners and organizations to proceed with their planned events in a way that allows everyone to participate from the safety of their own homes.
But, as the stay at home orders that were in place at the onset of this global pandemic are being lifted, social distancing orders remain in place for the foreseeable future. These restrictions have upended everything from the travel industry to the hospitality industry to Main Street, USA, leaving people wondering, what does it all mean and what comes next?
Research into the novel coronavirus and the impacts of COVID-19 are ongoing and as a whole, we are far from having the answers we need to resume business as usual AND keep people safe. But, based on what the events industry has seen so far, we are able to make some predictions.
What will be the new normal for the event industry?
Large events, for now at least, appear to be a thing of the past. The future is likely to be in smaller gatherings and hybrid events. Until the virus is under control and a vaccine is developed, meeting in massive numbers will simply not be allowed in most jurisdictions.
It is hard to hold a conference or a trade show if gatherings are restricted to, say, 50 people or less. Similarly, international travel is complicated at the moment. Even if flight restrictions are not in place, many countries require a quarantine period that can make it impossible to attend a 2-3 day event without booking 2 plus weeks of travel as well. Not an ideal situation for anyone.
Event organizers and planners will have to start thinking small and thinking local. The numbers will need to be adjusted to match what is allowed in each jurisdiction but it is possible to host an event with a small number of physical attendees/participants and broadcast the happenings online to a much wider audience.
Focusing your plans on the city or town you or your organization are located can foster a sense of safety and security in your guests. If people are not traveling to your event from other regions, the fear of contamination will naturally decrease.
Current science seems to indicate that prolonged exposure to an infected individual can increase the risks of contracting COVID-19. There is no consensus on how long is too long, but event planners will need to think carefully about the length of their sessions and the amount of time people are being placed together in confined spaces. 30 minutes seems like a reasonable cap. It will help reduce potential spread AND keep the audience lively and engaged.
It is also a good idea to make sure that all parts of the venue are set up to enable social distancing and consider implementing a mask policy. But remember, masks can be difficult for people with disabilities or hearing impairments so make sure you have an interpreter in place or some way to facilitate easy communication when voices are muffled and mouths are covered.
What Does This Mean for Event Professionals?
Fortunately, there are lots of things that event professionals can do to thrive in this era of uncertainty.
Just as many businesses are shifting to a remote work model, events can be moved online with great results.
Event planners should consider:
Investing in a Virtual Events Platform
A virtual events platform will help you create a digital space for your attendees to access the event content while situated safely at home. You can create breakout sessions and networking opportunities that provide all the value that people expect from a physical event.
Look for a platform that includes customizable branding, the ability to build a branded webpage, social media and email marketing integrations, live chat, live streaming video capabilities, ticketing and registration, and robust customer support.
Connecting Local Events
Just because you have to stay local doesn’t mean you can’t put on a global event. If you were planning a massive conference that would bring together an international cohort of speakers and presenters, why not do the same thing online?
Virtual events and conferences will use video conferencing or live streams to bring speakers and presenters to their audience. But what if you could do more?
Think about putting on a series of small meetings or gatherings in other locations and connecting them via technology. This level of hybridization can go a long way to boosting attendee satisfaction by allowing them to truly see how they are part of a much larger, coordinated event. It also gives them more opportunities to network and interact with people in their industry but outside of their immediate community.
Leveraging Social Media
As we all remain close to home, social media has become an important way to interact and communicate with those in our social circle but also those in our specific fields of interest or work industries.
Social media plays a powerful role in event marketing but it can also be an integrated part of your virtual event. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can provide something of a central location for delocalized events.
Elements of your event can be broadcasted or shared on these platforms to help you reach a global audience, in real-time, connecting attendees no matter where they might be located.
These platforms can also serve as a bit of a hub for registered attendees. An event page or profile can provide details and updates related to your virtual event but it can also act as a location for further discussion. It is even possible to create private groups based on subject matter so that those who want to participate in this manner are able to.
Creating these spaces can enable discussion that continues long after the event is completed, helping you to increase the value of the experience while also keeping your event brand front of mind.
Exploring Event Technologies
Virtual events were trending upward even before the coronavirus pandemic, so now is the perfect time to explore what event technology is available to you and all the ways it could improve the overall event experience.
Emerging technologies like facial recognition provide a contact-free way for attendees to enter an event venue. When areas open up to hosting 50 or more people, you will need to be proactive in thinking of ways to offer convenience and safety to your guests. Consider contactless pick up for any promotional item, and allow the ability to check-in without having to violate any social distancing requirements.
Augmented reality and virtual reality can help you bring the feel of a live event to people in their homes. Artificial intelligence can be used to create a more personalized experience for attendees and additional technologies like live translation and gamification can keep attendees engaged and happy.
With so much uncertainty in the industry, following and employing the latest technology trends can help propel your event and keep you ahead of the competition.
If there is one thing we know for certain about COVID-19 and the future it is this: we do not know anything for certain. It seems, for the time being at least, that virtual and hybrid events are the new normal.
While this does not necessarily mean that we will all have to abandon large scale events and festivals, your time is probably best spent working on an event planning strategy that will allow you to thrive today and in the future, whatever that may hold.