A New Normal for Meetings and Events

Paul Nolan

The COVID-19 outbreak has changed the world’s concept of gathering. What does it mean for business events and incentive travel programs? Have things been permanently disrupted? We spoke with Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group, which connects meetings and events businesses with customers through annual tradeshows in Germany and Las Vegas.

SMM: In a year-end letter that you posted on your website at the end of last year, you referred to 2019 as a “turbulent year for the world in general,” and expressed optimism that 2020 would be “a year of positive changes.” Now we have turbulence like you couldn’t imagine. Are we looking at a new normal for the meetings and events industry? Is there change afoot that will be forever?

Bauer: There’s no doubt this current crisis has changed the landscape for business events and incentive travel. The impacts will be felt long after the lockdown is lifted. Ultimately, we strongly believe that the very human need to meet face-to-face to do business, learn and connect will remain, and that there will be significant pent-up demand for both travel and events. That demand will grow over time as the health and safety concerns recede and people become more confident in travelling and attending events again. A new normal that we may see as a result is the increased use of technology to create hybrid events – a blend of virtual and face-to-face events, which will provide a varied offering for attendees and potentially extend the life of an event.

SMM: In your year-end message, you also talk about trends that are disruptive leading to innovation and creativity. Is that vital as we emerge from the COVID-19 disruption?

Bauer: We have already seen some wonderful examples of creativity in our industry, particularly when it comes to giving back. Examples of the sheer collaborative power and innovation in our sector include the multitude of suppliers that are helping accommodate or feed essential workers and the major venues across the world that have been turned into hospitals. We’ve also seen the tech companies in the industry step up to help planners navigate this new normal and get up to speed quickly. Some have upgraded their products in a matter of weeks. These offer good support for the multitude of event professionals currently taking this opportunity to learn and plan for the future.

SMM: What do you feel will justify the return to traveling for  meetings and events? Are companies simply going to need to regain confidence in the value of meeting in person? What can industry suppliers do to foster that?

Bauer: Once this crisis is fully over and health and safety considerations are no longer a concern, I think there will be exceptional pent-up demand for face-to-face events. The business events sector will regain its strength, but it will take time. Industry suppliers will need to be flexible, adapt to the changed climate and tailor their offerings accordingly. This will likely include a fresh look at security, as well as health and safety considerations.

SMM: One event planner commented “the fundamentals behind gathering, touching, exploring and playing aren’t going anywhere soon.” Do you feel those are the biggest strengths that will encourage companies to get back to meeting in person?

Bauer: Above and beyond the basic human need to connect is the proven fact that innovation and productivity are better achieved face-to-face. An article I read in The Times this weekend explained how a team of engineers from Mercedes F1, working with doctors and a team from the UK government, was able to develop a new CPAP machine a process that usually takes a couple of years – and get it approved for production in one week! The engineer in charge said, “I was very clear that we had to be working face to face – it wouldn’t just work on it being WhatsApp groups and working remotely. It relied on being together and working as one.” At the end of the day, this is why companies will come back to meeting face-to-face; it is simply more effective, more productive and more innovative when human beings work together in a room and not remotely. As they say, “When we meet, we change the world.”

SMM: The meetings and events industry has been through difficult times before. 9-11 left people less interested in traveling and the “AIG Effect” at the beginning of the 2008-09 recession was a direct hit business and group travel. How does this compare?

Bauer: The speed and depth of this crisis is unprecedented. It will take us time to rebuild and recover. However, our sector has proved time and time again that it is resilient. What the business events sector is particularly good at is pulling together and supporting each other in times of crisis, as well as finding creative ways to support our clients. It is this sheer supportive power that means we’re well-placed to get through this crisis.

SMM: You sponsor the largest trade shows for the meetings and events industry. IMEX Frankfurt, which was scheduled for early May, was cancelled. IMEX America is scheduled for Sept. 15-17. Is there an update on that?

Bauer: The team is currently working hard to deliver IMEX America, which we hope will be a great coming together for the industry.

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