How the events sector is developing long-term strategies for success

In the first months of the Covid crisis, those in the conference and meeting industry came up with various short-term fixes to a seemingly endless battering. Now that the dust has mostly settled, what is the industry doing to ensure future resilience?

That was the topic of the panel discussion ‘How Covid will Shape Future Actions in Business Events’ which was held on 3 November at the European Convention Center Luxembourg as part of the 59th ICCA Congress 2020, for which Luxembourg served as regional co-host. The discussion was moderated by Bruce Redor, a partner at the advisory firm GainingEdge. The three speakers who joined represent a global exhibitions association, a major hotel group, and a regional convention bureau, respectively.

The exhibition industry: ready and eager to get back to work

Nick Dugdale-Moore, Regional Manager for Europe at the exhibition association UFI, joined the discussion virtually. In many ways, his industry is a sibling of the convention and meeting industry, and they’ve suffered many of the same losses this past year. To protect and strengthen exhibitions, his association’s strategy has been multifaceted, he says, and includes advocating, educating, and lobbying.

One important action they took early on was to urge governments to draw a distinction between exhibitions and other mass gatherings such as rock concerts – of utmost importance, considering that the former can much more easily ensure that attendees respect safety measures. Mr Dugdale-Moore’s association has also contributed to developing comprehensive protocols for how events can be safely run, he says, pointing to the example of a caravan salon in Düsseldorf in September that welcomed 107,000 people during a 10-day period, to use his figures.

UFI has also done considerable work to give voice to individual exhibitors, a voice that overwhelmingly supports a return to live events. In fact, a vast majority of exhibitors foresee a return to normal levels of activity soon after restrictions are lifted on travel and gatherings. Such events are also what nearly 9 out of 10 visitors prefer, he says, because they allow people to use the five senses, to see and touch products, and to network face-to-face. Yes, the future may be uncertain, but what’s sure is that the exhibition industry can meet new challenges head on. ‘We will adapt’, he said. ‘We’ve always done that’.

Hotels: agility is key

Remy Merckx, Senior Vice-President of Global Digital and Marketing in the Radisson Hotel Group, joined the discussion online from Brussels. His assessment was also that despite the major upheaval, the hotel industry is adapting and will survive in his new era. ‘The work that is ahead of us is huge, but we will get there’, he says.

One trait that allowed his hotel group to weather the first onslaught of the storm, and which is key to their continual recovery, was agility, he says. In the early stages of the pandemic, they developed clear and comprehensive safety protocols that applied to their three main businesses: rooms, meetings and events, and food and beverage. Also, they quickly developed new products, such as hybrid meetings, which helped them to financially stay afloat.

Mr Merckx says that to prepare for the future, his group has adopted a comprehensive digital strategy built on four pillars: ethical AI to know and serve customers better; automation and personalisation; localisation operations, which helps to give a local feel to meetings and conventions; and cloud innovation, vital to further digital advancements. He says that the company has also been outsourcing more operations than in the past, which is important to remaining agile.

Case study: Florence

Carlotta Ferrari, Director of the Florence Convention and Visitors Bureau, also joined the discussion virtually. She says that in the past, her association used to be reactive, especially after the initial shock of Covid when they dealt with mass illness and cancellations. They hurried to put together short-term remedies, largely because they believed the crisis could be resolved by summer.

Her organisation has now adopted a very different view, one that accepts that the industry might not return to how it used to be, so they need go back to the basics, in a sense, to reassess their attractiveness as a destination. They’ve identified their advantages and disadvantages relative to their major competitors, which helps them to set achievable business goals and steps to follow, a sort of plan of defense as much as a plan of attack. ‘In a dark period like this one, it’s very important to work together on positive projects and concrete things’, she said.

Ms Ferrari discussed one such concrete area of improvement. Although Florence is known around the world for its beauty and history, convention organisers might not necessarily associate it with science and research, although these sectors are well developed. The Florence Convention and Visitors Bureau has therefore prioritised reaching out to local leaders in the STEM fields, including those at the University of Florence, to collaborate. The aim is to draw more international attention to research and science in Florence while at the same time promoting the city as a destination for STEM events.

Key points

  • The global exhibition industry has adapted to Covid and shown how live events can be safely run, and its members are ready to get back to work.
  • Hotel groups such as Radisson continue to face challenging times, but they can greatly improve their situation and develop resilience for the future by adopting new digital strategies.
  • Destinations can use this opportunity to step back and reevaluate themselves in terms of  their competitive advantages and weaknesses, and to develop a concrete plan to better position themselves for the future.