An eventful future? Let’s hope so

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  • Business
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Without venturing too much into the cliché of the ‘new normal’, when it comes to the world of events and exhibitions we are in a period of significant change.

A staple of many marketing plans, exhibitions, conferences and events have been a way to meet existing and potential customers and suppliers all at once. While obviously being a focus for sales activity, they also provide many additional benefits to companies. For example, the ability to research the market and see the latest trends – or perhaps that should read ‘check out the competition’.

In addition, by providing a fixed date in the diary, exhibitions give an essential hard-stop for product development plans, as companies ensure their latest machines and products are delivered in time for launch at the biggest industry shows.

A focus for contact

Importantly, these shows give the perfect focus for press and media activity, engaging with journalists and providing news and content updates for trade journals and websites before, during and after the event. Many business relationships are also made and continued at annual events – and that’s even before the beer starts to flow in the evening!

Yet Covid-19 closed the global events sector overnight. From international exhibitions and conferences to local seminars and business meetings, the ability to meet face-to-face – and, dare I say, shake hands – stopped.

The impact of this has been economically huge. One exhibition alone, the Geneva Car Show, is estimated to have cost the local economy between €200m and €250m of lost spending. Add in the bills of the organisers, stand builders and exhibitors themselves and you don’t have to multiply this by many more events to reach a total that is well into the billions.

Beyond the financial costs

However, the wider implications remain largely incalculable. Putting the enormity of the financial figures to one side, it is likely to be the impact of behavioural change from coronavirus that has an even greater cost, particularly when you look to the future.

A recent LinkedIn survey and blog posed the question of whether people were prepared to go back to trade shows. On asking this, only half of the respondents replied that they would be ready once the authorities allowed them, even with guarantees on hygiene and social distancing from the organiser.

So, even with organisers working on implementing appropriate measures, exhibitions may only hope to get half of the visitor numbers they were seeing before the crisis.

Combine these downbeat figures with our recently enforced move to working online through Zoom, Teams and Webex and the appetite for attending shows may reduce even further. With companies seeing sales and customer contact taking place successfully online, where is the need for them to return to the exhibition hall or conference centre with all the potential health risks and concerns for the team?

Already, the print industry behemoth that is Drupa has seen cancellations from the likes of Xerox and Bobst announced for the rescheduled show next year. Not looking good, is it?

And yet we are a social species. While online meetings and calls can do many things, remote communication can be challenging and the desire for actual, even socially distanced, contact remains a fundamental human trait.

The need for social contact

A recent BBC future article has looked at the how this need for physical contact may change post-Covid-19. It foresees a future where we divide our social groups into an inner circle of those with whom we feel comfortable and are willing to be close to, and an outer circle where we are more circumspect.

Clearly exhibitions and those attending – a few close acquaintances aside – are likely to fall into the latter category. Yet the article also sees an evolution beyond touch and ‘while we may remain wary about physical contact for some time yet, staying physically distant doesn’t have to mean we can’t feel close.’

Appropriate social distancing will be key here and, through taking appropriate steps, the ability to have face-to-face contact will continue once again – and I believe it will become increasingly important to enriching our everyday lives.

While technology is undoubtedly playing a huge part in our lives at the moment, the rise in everything from team calls to virtual events and webinars does not meet this need for direct human contact. The desire exists to react with each other directly, beyond the computer screen, and avoid those missed nuances or awkward silences and periods of talking over each other followed by the associated apologies.

And it is this human need that exhibitions should embrace to ensure their futures. By taking the best of online and mixing this with an appropriately socially distanced face-to-face event, organisers have the potential to deliver the best of both worlds. Indeed this is exactly where many are now looking, with Best Practice Guides already highlighting opportunities for shows.

A hybrid approach

This hybrid approach may even build visitor numbers with the time poor and those still wary of direct contact engaging with exhibitors’ wares in an online show. Those seeking human contact, meanwhile, can do so in a socially distanced, safe environment.

Whatever the industry looks like when we emerge from lockdown, it is clear the role of online support for events has fundamentally shifted. Whether this lasts beyond the restrictions of our current isolation to become an integral part of successful hybrid events we shall have to see. The exhibitions pencilled in for this Autumn will be the first to test the public’s feelings towards shows and, from these reactions, their future.

Suffice to say, as I sit here and write this in the world of WFH, I for one am very much looking forward to attending a show in person once again; and once the day is over, hopefully sharing a post-show beer with friends and colleagues – just this time with an added chaser of hand sanitiser!

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