Jump! Stop Stumbling and Start Hurdling - The Future of Events in 2021 & Beyond

March 29, 2022

Doesn’t time fly? It’s hard to believe that it’s almost been a year since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic in March 2020. In the time since then, we have all adapted to a new way of life. From completing the working week remotely to social distancing and wearing face masks while out in public, we’ve had to approach our day-to-day lives differently to keep ourselves and others safe. 

None of us could have foreseen the way 2020 would unfold – from Saturday night Zoom quizzes to vaccine development programmes completed in record time, if humanity has proven one thing in the last year it’s that we are infinitely innovative and agile. (Well, that and we occasionally like to work in our pyjamas.) 

Amongst the many industries impacted, the world of events (in all its forms) has been one of the worst affected. Events, by definition, involve gatherings of people, often in enclosed spaces, and this has rendered them a universal no-go during the height of the pandemic.

Much of the first and second quarter of 2020 was taken up with crisis management; the cancellation and postponement of pre-planned events abounded all over the globe. As things began to cool off, the events world turned towards the digital realm – webinars, webcasts and video conferencing events started cropping up all over the place. But it wasn’t long before digital fatigue began to set in – after all, how long can we stare at ourselves in a Zoom call without getting a little bored? 

Towards the end of 2020 things started to change. With numerous vaccines getting approved worldwide, and a huge appetite for a return to live events, there has been more and more buzz about how the future might play out differently for the events industry. The question on everyone’s lips: How do we make 2021 better than 2020?

But wait. Before we can understand the future of the events industry, we first need to get to grips with the challenges it is currently looking to tackle. While there are undeniably different issues facing the corporate world and MICE-specific agencies, it still seems that in the face of a common enemy there are more similarities than disparities. 

The loss of live events hasn’t just been bad for events agencies, it’s been bad for brands, too. There has been an incredible dearth of networking and publicity opportunities, and agencies are finding it more challenging than ever to engage customers and delegates. Pair that with the fact that many employees are struggling from a lack of motivation (after all, most of them have found their job roles transformed overnight) and that typically fixed calendar events have been cancelled or postponed, and it’s not hard to understand the frustrations being experienced by events companies the world over.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. The shift to remote work and digital events has increased the propensity for work-life balance. With more and more people enjoying the benefits of quality time with loved ones, it seems that the future of events may well be hybrid – even post-covid. Agile, innovative agencies are already looking at diversifying their events calendar by mixing together digital, hybrid and live events – not to mention that the past year has provided many lessons on what does (and doesn’t) work when hosting events in a digital capacity. 

One of the biggest challenges for the year ahead will be managing public reticence regarding a return to live events; it’s an issue causing headaches for corporate event managers and agencies alike. Events are international affairs, and managing them in a world with differing covid restrictions often requires juggling multiple local rules simultaneously.

Of course, there is an appetite for a return to live events in theory – but safety is still of paramount concern to consumers and businesses. A recurrent issue pertains to the depiction of live events in the media. Even when local governmental measures do allow for event go-ahead, the cancellation of major public events – such as the UK’s famous Glastonbury music festival – can sometimes negatively impact customer trust. And yet, the overall feeling throughout the industry is that everybody – whether it be betrothed couples or senior B2B marketers – are itching to get back to in-person events. They just want the assuredness of safety, first.

So how is the events industry salving consumer concern? As restrictions are eased and plans are made for future months and years, more and more MICE agencies are turning to flexible work plans that allow for numerous adaptations of the same event. When employed alongside an adjustable strategy with various routes for execution, the chance of overall success is greatly improved.

When international live events do come back – in whatever hybrid or altered form that might take – one thing MICE agencies must be ready to tackle is disrupted supply chains (something countries trailblazing a return to live events are already encountering). Freelancers and events suppliers have suffered from months of dead time thanks to the pandemic; in fact, many have left the industry altogether. It’s becoming increasingly clear that sustained communication, relationship management and stellar organisation will be of the utmost importance to agencies and brands looking to pull themselves out of the event slump of 2020.

Of course, what everyone really wants to know is when live events will return for good. Sadly, it’s a question with no straightforward answer. Naturally, vaccination will ultimately play a big part in ending the pandemic on an international scale – but that doesn’t mean COVID-19 will be vanishing from the earth anytime soon. By their very nature, pandemics are a global phenomenon. Countries cannot restart normal life in isolation – even with a fully vaccinated population – because we need global immunity before we can return to anything that even slightly resembles pre-covid life. 

With the added uncertainty around virus mutation – and many countries across Asia and Africa not set to begin vaccination until the latter half of 2021 – it’s reasonable to assume that the events industry would do better to continue to adapt to COVID-19, rather than planning for things getting back to ‘normal’ anytime soon.

As indicated by a recent Bloomberg report, New Zealand, Singapore and Australia are trailblazing the way in kick-starting business boom by teaching citizens to work with (rather than in spite of) COVID-19 restrictions. Clear governmental communication, investment in public health infrastructure and regular testing have all played a part in giving these countries their advantages – and that’s been aided by faithful public adoption of preventive measures such as masks, social distancing and regular hand washing. 

These same tactics of success will similarly apply to the world of live and hybrid events in this year and beyond. The Bloomberg report warns of uncertainty surrounding the impact of vaccination on lessening transmission (it remains unknown whether or not immunised individuals may still be able to transmit the virus). And this is just one of many reasons why the business world cannot rely on vaccination for corporate salvation; instead, strategic and innovative approaches will lead the way for successful events in 2021 and beyond.

As Dr Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at London School of Economics, told Sky News: “The pandemic isn’t going to be over until it’s over globally.” For the events industry especially, this global perspective is paramount – a sense of international community and connection forms the backbone of the events world. 

Singapore’s Education Minister, Lawrence Wong, has warned that there will be many more bumps to come with the impact of COVID-19 likely reverberating through the next four to five years. In fact, at our current rate of vaccination it could take as long as seven years for things to return to the time before. For those of us in the events industry, we must learn to treat the bumps ahead like hurdles rather than stumbling blocks – we might not be able to remove them completely, but we can learn to jump over them and keep running forward.

So, what do those jumps look like? For one thing, a return to live events – albeit in a more restrictive or altered format – will prove crucial to sustained survival and growth within the industry. With so many unknowns and considerations to keep in mind, governments must lead the way in ensuring that live events go ahead safely and fairly. 

A lot can be gleaned from models of best practice. Singapore has been steaming ahead with their events recovery roadmap developed by the international tourism board alongside 

Singapore’s Association of Convention Exhibitions and Events (SACEOS). Through a series of successful trial events – employing measures such as pre-event rapid testing, temperature checks, social distancing measures, divided area zones and capped numbers of attendees – Singapore has secured themselves as the host for the World Economic Forum’s special annual meeting in 2021.

This news came after the running of a number of successful events, including Singapore’s International Energy Week in October 2020. The World Economic Forum’s annual event will be the first global leadership gathering set to consider international recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. With in-person attendees, the event is expected to bring together leaders who can help to conceive of, and implement, global solutions. 

Scaling up the kind of model used by Singapore will help to quicken the return to live events on an international scale. Like with so many things in life, the real trick is consistency. If a set of common standards and processes are adopted by governmental events organisers, the international industry can begin to traverse the path to remerging and semi-regular live events – both while the pandemic is still with us, and as we start to progress out of it in the next four to five years. 

Human innovation is truly our greatest asset. Work is already being undertaken on digital ‘fit to fly’ health passports which offer both validation of identity and certification of COVID test results, lessening the risk of fraud or falsified results. Assets such as these, when paired with standardised safety measures that event organisers must abide by, make the propensity for international events far more likely. 

By adopting similar models, Europe, Africa and North America can achieve the same great results following the Asia-Pacific lead; helping to future-proof the events industry in a time where we have few guarantees about the pandemic’s ultimate duration. In order to keep events in check, it’s vital that governmental agencies and tourism bodies have the final call on the approval of large-scale events. This is something Singapore is already leading the way in, with MICE events with over 50 attendees requiring an application and events proposal – once submitted, this application can be approved by the tourism board, giving both the government and delegates confidence in its overall safety. 

In the medium term, and throughout the transition period, events organisers must look at tackling digital fatigue head on. As we’re all too familiar with by now, video calls cannot fully recreate the experience of an in-person conversation. Whether it’s the lag caused by WiFi delay or eye strain from staring at a screen all day, seemingly small problems can add up to frustration and, ultimately, lack of engagement.

To address this we have to consider: What do people miss most about events? (Aside from the great buffets.) More often than not, it’s those causal, serendipitous encounters – the chance to network without masses of planning beforehand. To address this, events organisers must consider how to keep audiences engaged. Hyper-personalised content which focuses on adding value to the audience – rather than providing a one-size-fits-all blanket solution – will be absolutely vital in retaining interest and positive feedback. Hybrid events which offer new, tangible opportunities for engaging digital content and real value for sponsors and exhibitors will be the ones which reap successes over these next few years.

Take Singapore’s FinTech Festival X Switch, this event became the world’s first week-long, all hours, hybrid event in 2020. With a record number of speakers and a multidimensional approach to audience engagement, the event was a huge success and just one example of how hybridity can be used to superpower live events – not just in reach, but in experience. 

Elements like map landmark visitation and searchable directories enabled audiences to come away with unique, bespoke experiences closer to those of traditional live events (Zoom conferences, and other online events, so often result in uniform experiences for all participants). 

For such hybrid events to truly take off and evolve, global venues – like the Business Design Studio London, Messe Berlin, and Nice Acropolis Convention centres – will need to transform themselves into something more. Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands achieved just this when it formulated a hybrid broadcast studio with a 50-person physical capacity, coupled with high-quality live streaming facilities and even hologram functionalities. Tobacco Dock in London has followed suit with the launch of Tobacco Dock Virtual – giving their venue a techy makeover, recreating their space in a way that removes digital barriers and recreates real-world experiences. Now adapted for MICE events in all forms, the venue has been dubbed ‘pandemic proof’. 

Some may see such digital upgrades as a hefty financial investment to weather something that may not be around in a decade, but covid isn’t the only reason people are setting their sights on digital and hybrid events. Climate change is quickly becoming a top-spot global concern, especially for young people, and the pandemic has only shined a more direct light on its possible impact. 

As scientists have been warning us for a long time, there is no Planet B. The public is becoming increasingly savvy to the delicate balance of our planet’s interrelated ecosystems. Yet, in this last year – arguably more than ever before – we have been made acutely aware of just how quickly life as we know it can shut down in the face of an emergency. Redesigning the traditional events model has long been a priority for industry leaders, the pandemic has simply brought the issue to a head. 

Live events are not, typically, environmentally friendly. The University of Birmingham found that in just one day, a single event can produce 170kg of Co2 and create up to five tonnes of waste. And that’s before you even consider the international travel of delegates, and the large amount of printing required for the majority of live events (from flyers to banners). In covid times, this wasteful output has only been worsened by the necessity of single-use products for cleanliness and safety. 

The future of events will – inevitably – be more local, more sustainable, and consumable through multidimensional approaches beyond the physical. Recognising this now will be integral in keeping the industry moving forward. Considering that long-haul travel may be disrupted for another two years, and even quarantine-free business travel pilots are being postponed, if there is one lesson the events industry can take forward it’s that flexibility is the must-have skill of the moment. 

In the midst of these challenges, it is important to remember just how much the industry has already achieved in weathering the pandemic thus far – and all the amazing and innovative ways it is continuing to evolve. 

As Fred Rogers once said: “Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.” 

This is the first article in an upcoming series striving to look forward to the future of events from The DMC Collective. We want to know what you think will be crucial to the industry in the next year and beyond – share your thoughts in the comments below!

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