On the 17th July, the UK government announced that business events, conferences and events centres could reopen from the 1st October. The event industry is among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put approximately 30,000 events jobs at risk . Though the planned reopening of these venues will come as welcome news to many, the future of the sector remains uncertain. We are faced with mounting questions about the viability of large events in an era of digital connectivity and social distance. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Tech solutions have provided a lifeline to many organisers during the pandemic. There are early signs to suggest that, if used in the right way, they could also support the reopening of in-person events rather than compete with them.

Going Virtual

Virtual events have proved a popular solution to lockdown restrictions, with some platforms reporting a 1000% increase in business during the pandemic. With platforms such as The Virtual ShowAdobe ConnectOn24, and 6Connex, organisers can host presentations from key speakers, interactive webinars, panel debates with Q&A, and breakout discussion groups. Beyond the implications for public health, virtual event attendance offers wider benefits.

1. It Is More Cost-effective

High registration costs and exhibitor fees can often be prohibitive, particularly for sole traders and SMEs. Expense can limit attendance to select members of a business, often those of a senior or executive level. With no need for venue hire, catering, accommodation or travel, virtual events are a more budget-friendly option for clients and attendees alike.

2. It Is More Inclusive

Events may be inaccessible for a number of reasons, from a delegate’s care responsibilities, inability to travel, or a venue’s lack of wheelchair facilities. When done well, virtual events can be a more inclusive option as they eliminate travel restrictions and venue accessibility requirements. Pre-recorded sessions can also be shared and accessed widely, increasing participation and professional development opportunities at all career levels.

3. It Is More Sustainable

The global climate emergency has forced businesses to address their environmental impact and commit to greener alternatives. A 2019 report by Hope Solutions found that the UK events industry emits around 1.2bn kilograms of CO2e every year. When we consider the production of resources, food wastage, and emissions from delegate travel, this figure rises even further. Virtual events are therefore the most immediate and comprehensive way the industry can reduce its environmental impact at the present time.

Here to Stay?

Though virtual attendance has provided a necessary solution to challenging circumstances, and clear benefits in terms of cost, access, and sustainability, it is a medium with its own limitations. The events industry is the sixth largest sector in the UK and supports 700,000 jobs, with London’s ExCEl centre alone driving 25% of London’s inbound business tourists. This economy cannot be sustained by virtual means alone. Online participation can also be somewhat volatile, reliant on the knowledge, technical capabilities and connection quality of individual users. How many times have we all been faced with frozen screens and a chorus of “You’re still on mute!”?

Virtual events cater to social distancing requirements, so it is unsurprising that one of the medium’s biggest drawbacks is its lack of social interaction and opportunities for networking. The spontaneity and serendipity of in-person events are often their most important and memorable quality and are difficult to replicate in a virtual environment. While online networking sessions are possible, they can feel heavily curated and awkward. To be successful, an event needs to be engaging and so, when they become an undifferentiated part of the every-day, they lose their appeal.

According to a survey conducted by the Association of Events Organisers, 78% of vendors said that virtual events are less valuable or far less valuable than live events

3 Steps Towards the Future of Events

1. Embracing Hybridity

As part of the sector’s safe reopening strategy, we will likely see the widespread incorporation of virtual elements into in-person events. As well as safeguarding against the spread of COVID, increasing options for virtual participation will make events more inclusive for those with access requirements. Pre-recordings or livestreams of key speakers, for example, can be used to prevent large groups gathering in an auditorium setting and can be made widely available as part of a catalogue.

2. Safety and Sustainability

With crowded indoor settings considered high-risk in terms of infection, organisers may consider holding sessions in outdoor or open-air venues where possible. These venues not only reduce the risk of virus spread; they also reduce the emissions produced by generators and air conditioning systems, making them a cleaner, greener alternative.

3. The Power of the App

Events of all sizes have already committed to more sustainable practices by going paperless, providing online or app-based programmes and materials. As venues reopen, the use of event apps can also support social distancing, protection and detection. App-based capacity trackers and contactless ordering systems, introduced across the hospitality and leisure sectors, can help delegates safely navigate events. Virtual registration can also be used to aid contact tracing. The Meetings Industry Association (MIA), for example, have recently introduced their own Trust and Trace Tool to support tracing initiatives.

Crisis Breeds Innovation

There is no reason to look exclusively to solutions developed with the events sector in mind. Elsewhere, significant progress has been made into MedTech solutions for commercial spaces. Contrac FM have developed a first-of-its-kind product suite to support the safe reopening of the retail sector that would be hugely beneficial to large event venues. The suite includes a remotely operated cleaning device that uses ultraviolet light to kill 99.9999% of surface and airborne pathogens. It also features a thermal imaging camera that can be used to monitor delegate body temperatures on arrival, and a series of wearable tech products that detect proximity and alert wearers when they get too close to another person. These products are available as lanyards, wristbands and high-vis vests, ideal for both event staff and attendees.

In these unprecedent times, digital technologies have helped many businesses navigate fresh challenges and shifting parameters. Virtual platforms have shown us new possibilities for the future of events, whilst tech solutions offer new hope to venues looking to safely reopen in October. If organisers and venues can invest in and engage creatively with enabling tech, the sector can adapt to its post-COVID realities, and become more sustainable, accessible, and inclusive in the process.