“I keep hearing people saying: ‘I can’t wait for the pandemic to be over and things to go back to how they were!’
But this will not happen for business events. The event industry has changed dramatically since the pandemic and when it’s allowed to re-open, we won’t be going back to how things were before.
I run the Conference & Events department at the University of South Wales. As well as running the conference centre at the Treforest campus, I lead a team that supports clients running events at our Cardiff, Newport and Treforest campuses. It’s a commercial part of the organisation, so although we are an academic institution, we also work towards commercial targets and have to cover our overheads in the same way that a private sector business does.
I’ve worked in the event industry for almost 20 years, which means that I’ve worked on lots of events, but also had plenty of experience of things going wrong and how to deal with them. I’m a member of ABPCO – Association of British Professional Conference Organisers – and I sit on the Event Industry Wales Advisory Group alongside Welsh Government and Ministers.
Pre-pandemic, I set up a successful networking group for the event industry in South Wales so that freelancers, venues, event organisers and suppliers could come together monthly to network and learn new things. This group is called Event Organisers Wales, with a combined reach of over 500 local industry representatives. I’m hoping to re-boot this monthly gathering as soon as restrictions allow.
During the pandemic, I trained myself on how to run online events and taught my team (when I was able to bring them back off Furlough). We’ve supported academics across the university as well as high profile external organisations. Our team has also taken on responsibility for filming and equipment hire enquiries for the University and set up three rapid Covid-testing sites at each campus, to test all staff and students.
I’d heard of online events but it wasn’t something I actively worked on. I am a people person with customer service and commercial skills, rather than IT/tech skills, but as the severity of COVID-19 became apparent and events which we’d postponed twice were starting to look for solutions, I knew I had to do something to help the university. I became best buddies with the university digital transformation IT specialist and he taught me so much – not that he had a choice; I hounded him most days with endless questions of “How do you do this?” and “Is it capable of doing that?”
By June 2020, we were up and running as an online events team. It was a challenging time for all of us because we were so out of our comfort zones. The client just wants to feel confident that if anything goes wrong with the technology, that it’s not their fault; so we took that responsibility instead.
I spent a lot of time researching online event software providers and found that they all have different benefits. Some focus on networking, some on exhibitions, and some claim to do everything. I’ve learnt a lot over the past year, and my up-skilled team and I have become extremely calm and experienced online event providers. But, we still say to each other: “I can’t wait for this event to go back to a live event.”
The reality is that lots of these events won’t. Even though the business events which focus on networking and interactivity really do work best ‘live’, for those events which have secured new global audiences by being online or whose budgets have been cut since the pandemic, they might choose to remain online in the future, with the technology becoming their new venue. This poses a problem for venues who vitally need the income from event bookings after being closed for so long.
Another challenge facing event managers is hybrid events – a mix of a live event and an online version. These types of events were already happening pre-pandemic, but were certainly not the norm, and had there been no COVID-19, it would have taken us at least five years to get this point.
So, event owners are looking for a physical event and an online event – which means more work for us as event managers. But that’s not all – you can’t simply stage a physical and online event and it instantly be a success. You need to plan and create a meaningful experience for your online delegates, giving them a similar experience and level of interactivity as those attending in person, or at least you should, if you want the event to be successful. Hybrid events benefit the event owner because they can extend their audience reach and they can grow their revenue opportunities, through sponsorship and different cost models for live or online delegates. But there isn’t one simple hybrid solution that fits all events.
Looking to the Future
Everyone is fed up of Zoom meetings, so anything online will be moving to a much higher standard TV format and produced in that way. I predict that people will try hybrid events over the next year or two and then decide if it works for them or not. For some it will, some it won’t, but one thing is for sure – there will be a lot more planning work for event organisers in the short term.
There’s a big job to be done by everyone (event owners, event organisers, venues, councils and government) to instil confidence into people to travel once again. There’s no point staging live events if no delegates want to attend in person. The key is to create FOMO – the fear of missing out – so that people want to travel and experience something. The confidence element is vital to re-boot this industry.
In terms of larger conferences, there will be a push to get away from the larger cities and into less traditional venues – which plays perfectly into Wales’ hands because we have the coast and country on our doorstep and a wide variety of unique venues.
Sustainability and the move towards Carbon Neutral will also be more important than ever. The University of South Wales has pledged to be Carbon Neutral by 2040, so this will impact on our work and will certainly help us to secure new clients who follow these principles. In the past, if you were staging an outdoor event, you’d have to prepare a back-up indoor event, whereas now, you might have to consider a back-up outdoor event, because nobody knows if there will be more lockdowns in the future.
Finally, venues need to invest for the future. At the University of South Wales, I’m about to transform a meeting room and office space into an online event studio and edit/production office, so that clients can hire the space and our team to create a professional online event. Gone will be the days of speakers presenting from their bedroom. We are also transforming our boardroom with technology to create a hybrid boardroom event, so that some board members can join online and others can join in person, and everyone gets the same voice around the table. These planned investments will ensure that we stay on top of the developments in the event industry, provide a flexible service, with a variety of spaces, technology, and skilled workforce to deliver against all the event briefs that come our way.
It’s been a tough 14 months and it’s still tough, but hopefully, we are taking steps in the right direction.”
To connect with USW Conference and Events team you can email email@example.com.