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Coronavirus and the events industry: survival of the fittest or digital renaissance?

As in so many industries, the world of healthcare IT depends on conferences and exhibitions to form the backbone of business connections, customer engagement, commercial lead generation and marketing activities for many businesses in the field. They are also vital forums for discussion on leading topics in the digital health sphere. 

Since the advent of the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting social distancing measures, the exhibitions that once filled up the calendars of those throughout healthcare have now been cancelled, with some moving to online platforms and some vanishing indefinitely. Having worked in the events and exhibitions industry for 30 years, I considered how the sphere has been impacted by the pandemic, how it has responded, and what the future looks like for the industry. 

How has the events industry been affected by coronavirus?

Exhibitions by nature require an absolute minimum of 18 months of planning ahead of time. Cancellation at short notice can cause all sorts of problems; no matter how much insurance or compensation exists, you’ll never get back such a huge amount of time. 

From the perspective of the Digital Health sector, two of the big UK trade shows, NHS Expo and Confed had merged for the first time and were due to be held in June. They obviously got cancelled, but perhaps the most hard-hitting was the cancellation of HIMSS in the US, which is the leading global event. 

Digital Health’s Rewired only just dodged the social distancing sanctions, and went ahead at the beginning of March – where of course, talk of coronavirus was extremely prevalent, both in the keynote speeches and the general atmosphere at the event. It was the first time I was aware of not shaking people’s hands, which seemed strange at the time, but proved to be the very beginning of things to come. It’s just proof that timing really is everything in life, as Rewired may well be the only major U.K. digital health conference to have gone ahead this year, and could be the first on the scene again next year – so it’s organisers could certainly have dodged some coronavirus bullets! 

How effective has the response to the pandemic been in the industry?

The physical events industry has responded to the pandemic in a direct way. We’ve all heard about the Nightingale hospitals being established throughout the UK to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic, and some may be familiar with the fact that large events spaces, such as London’s ExCel centre, were used as the sites for them.

This fact proves that the exhibition industry was incredibly responsive and threw a lot of effort in to help get some of the Coronavirus emergency hospitals set up; their swift reaction and large scale efforts were a credit to the industry. 

How events companies have responded ‘well’ to the limitations imposed by lockdown

People sometimes tend to forget that an exhibition may only be open for a couple of days, but it takes several to build beforehand. The resulting space comes from the hard work of technicians behind the scenes, building and furnishing the stands, laying the carpet, putting the electrics together and all the practical tasks involved in readying a conference space. 

There is still a very dark cloud hanging over the physical, logistical side of the industry, because we don’t know what the new normal is going to look like for them; that hasn’t really been addressed yet. Perhaps it will follow the same model as sports stadiums; reopening with limited numbers of people being admitted, but thus far, the future is quite muddy. 

How have online platforms coped with this shift? 

In the last couple of weeks, I have seen more and more events translating to a digital platform. Everybody is doing things differently. Maybe in the same way as mankind has managed to find a way to do everything from home – from ordering dinner, to doing your job, even to your local pub quiz – it’s very possible that all events in the industry will follow suit. 

Perhaps one of the more positive shifts, was that people were very self conscious of attending meetings via camera beforehand, but I think the necessities imposed by lockdown life have caused people to become much more comfortable sitting behind their webcams and presenting online these days. And maybe this factor will lead to more online events. The challenge will be providing even better content to ensure people aren’t distracted and leaving half way through which is a lot easier if you’re not in a physical session.

If these changes prove successful, it may be the end of the events industry as we know it.  

How will these changes affect the industry post-pandemic, and will they ever completely return to normal?

Generally, for a good exhibition, there is a minimum 18 month cycle from inception of the event idea, to actually going live. This means that decisions for speaker slots, exhibitors, events spaces and even catering have to be made extremely far in advance. Such constraints mean that, for both the organisational and contracting sides, the events industry is not designed to withstand the kinds of lockdown restrictions to which the UK has been subjected. If these huge events have been taken out of calendars for a year, the contracting companies relying on them and the associated 18 month planning cycle, are certain to come under huge financial pressure.The cancelling of shows however, means there is some budget residue for other marketing activity. 

Speaking candidly to some close friends on the contracting side of the events business, I found that the general tone was one of anxiety. Though they have managed to stay afloat by furloughing staff and accepting government grants, looking to an event organiser to take the first plunge once the COVID restrictions start lift may be a tall order. Not knowing whether there may be a second spike in the virus, resulting in further lockdown restrictions, means that many event programmes are being pushed back indefinitely, and event spaces that have committed to being Nightingale Hospitals will not be stepped down anytime soon. 

Final conclusions

I don’t think you could ever replace the camaraderie that is intrinsic to the business of physical events. I think these online replacements will lack the character that an exhibition would’ve had. 

However, it’s not going to be like a phoenix out of the flames – many events organisers will have found that the online platforms are more effective both logistically and financially. I also don’t think we’ll get any new shows cropping up; it may be a nail in the coffin for certain shows, especially the ones that can easily be accommodated on a digital platform. 

Ultimately, once the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have sunk in, and we begin to return to some semblance of normality, the exhibitions landscape will unquestionably be very different.