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What the future of meetings will look like after coronavirus

Visitors crowd booths at at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) annual conference in Toronto, Ontario, Canada March 1, 2020.
Reuters/Chris Helgren
Not a simple pivot.
  • Chika Dunga
By Chika Dunga

Membership associate

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

After months of adapting to connecting online, the virtual event has evolved well beyond just being a plan B. Organizers are now expected to find ways to create powerful and engaging events that take virtual audiences into account and command the same dollars that live events historically have. “It’s going to take creative minds from the TV world, the theatrical world, and the experiential that is highly produced and warrants people to pay for it,” says Erica Boeke, founder and CEO of Liberty and Co., an experiential agency.

After quarantine orders are lifted, organizers will have to create engaging hybrid events that cater to both physical and digital audiences, altering the way we connect to one another and share experiences, and creating new revenue streams. “Organizers need to diversify,” says Don Neal, Founder of 360 Live Media, a marketing agency that specializes in live and virtual events. “Some that we work with, sometimes up to 70% of their income portfolio comes from their live annual gathering,” he says.

 

Flexible event contracts

Karen Chupka is executive vice president of the Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES, the largest consumer technology showcase in the world. She believes one of the biggest changes will be how organizers and clients negotiate contracts. Contracts between event organizers and their business partners usually have milestone contingencies that ensure deliverables within a certain timeline, she explains.

Her prediction is that the coronavirus pandemic will make contracts of the future more flexible to allow for unexpected changes while keeping business relationships intact. “Transparency is important,” she emphasizes. Her company’s approach: “We told our business partners that we’re willing to work with their changed business strategies. We looked at how we could delay payment schedules. Some companies are having cash flow issues. So, we want to see how we can help them and allow them to still do business with us. And we got feedback that they really appreciated our communication,” she says, emphasizing the value in being willing to adapt.

In the new reality of the Covid-19 pandemic, force majeure—a possible clause in a contract that may free both parties from their contract obligations in the case of a “superior force” that makes fulfilling them impossible —has become a line of last defense for many meeting organizers. Whether Covid-19 is a force majeure event for companies is very dependent on the specific words written in existing contracts.

International law firm WilmerHale writes that future force majeure clauses between business partners may need to include language that acknowledges a pandemic as a force majeur event, as well as potential regulatory or governmental orders that restrict organizers’ ability to execute obligations including quarantines, travel bans, and restricted gatherings.

Better health standards

Once mandated social distancing comes to an end, event organizers will need to work hard to regain attendees’ trust. “There’s a world where we will need to prove to consumers that we are a safe, healthy place to gather,” says Boeke. This will require new contingency plans that apply to multiple scenarios, many that we aren’t even yet aware of. Features like deep cleaning, frequent disinfection and sanitizing, gloves, and face masks are likely to become standard. Organizers will need to come up with new ways of allocating space to isolate staff and attendees when needed.

Even if social distancing is no longer mandated, the behavior may linger on for a while. “If social distance is the new norm, and you triple the distance between people, do you triple event space, which means higher costs?” Angela Cox, Senior director of Meeting and Events at NorthStar Travel group poses.

The question goes beyond space. For instance, will organizers have to reconsider whether attendees are comfortable with buffet-style dining? Or will people prefer more sanitary pre-packaged meals? A few months ago, something as seemingly inconsequential as hand sanitizer wasn’t a foremost thought on anyone’s mind. Today, it’s become its own form of currency.

There’s an opportunity for new technology here, such as emergent sterilizing tools, which incorporate the germ-destroying power of UV technology. Promising appliances showcased at CES include the Steri-Write, the first UV-C LED sanitizer created specifically for pens; and Phillips and RayVio’s suite of medical grade disinfecting UV LED lights that can be used for a variety of purposes including in air cleaning, high touch surfaces, and water. An uptake in automated cleaning robots such as Softbank Robotics’ pepper robot and autonomous cleaning solution is also likely. CES is also considering offering on-site telemedicine to attendees. “If they aren’t feeling well, they can contact someone and determine whether they should board an airplane,” says Chupka.

Redesigning the purpose of events

While a lot of organizers are optimistic that there will be a renewed demand for live events, they also anticipate that the reasons for gathering will change. Research conferences are often associated with “boring panels,” says Beth Surmont, director of experience design at 360 Live Media— “putting some of the most brilliant minds in one room and not letting them talk to each other.”

“I think people will discover, being in this current virtual environment, how much more important it is to connect and collaborate with people,”  Surmont says. “When organizers go back to design in real life events, they’ll make more space for that.”

“There’s opportunity for partnerships, especially for events that have been canceled in 2020,” says Chupka. Neal agrees, predicting that the industry will see more partnerships, especially among smaller trade associations with limited resources. “This is an ecosystem that’s very interdependent. Hotels, airlines, organizers all have a vested interest in this succeeding. I predict there will be long-term implications of relationships that are strained because of the present financial pressure.”

The new meeting playbook will be created by the risk takers, the relationship-savvy, the experiential, and those that embrace technology. “The strong will stay stronger and others will have to develop new skills to stay in the game,” says Neal.

Despite the looming challenge, the future of meetings is one organizers welcome as needed disruption. “The constraints with only live events business model is their limited measurability and scale,” Boeke says. “But if we combine streaming live, technology, and experiential, we can reach new audiences, create new revenue streams, and calculate a data driven return on investment for business partners,” she believes. “The rules may have changed, but my phone hasn’t stopped ringing.”