Good news for the events industry – live events are back, as most countries no longer have strict COVID-19 restrictions. Event planners who have been out of work for two years can now be back on the road doing what they love and taking their creativity to the next level.
Two years of pandemic restrictions have taught the events industry that it’s resilient. Returning to live events in 2022 requires rethinking and adjusting old practices, and in this interview with Colja Dams, CEO and owner at VOK DAMS and Natasha Russell, Event Director at NR Events, I asked what’s different now and what companies should know and consider when returning to in person events, and whether there’s still room for virtual and hybrid event formats.
Natasha and Colja are based in the UK and Germany respectively, and it was important to hear the different perspectives on how ready the markets are for live events.
How different are live events now as opposed to pre-pandemic times?
According to Natasha who works across the corporate and outdoor events sector, she hasn’t seen a big difference other than a huge desire to go back to live events. ‘The festival scene last summer just went crazy, people have an appetite for being out. You could definitely see that people had not been out for a long time.’ Likewise, corporate clients place higher value on networking: ‘With the corporate clients I am finding that they are very keen to get back to meeting and networking in person and that networking has become much more important.’
According to Colja, his agency has seen a big shift now compared with pre-pandemic times. ‘For some events it seems that we are still in a learning mode. Many guests that we usually invite to corporate events seem to be still in a “Zoom mode”: They need to be on Zoom conference calls all the time even though they are at a live event. Further, it seems that networking is extremely important so we need to make sure, as event planners, that we give ample time for the people that are coming together now after two years. Maybe for the first time, they just want to network. So don’t worry about having too much stuff up on stage, because people want to get together, because otherwise, your audience will be in front of your venue networking while you are preparing all kinds of stuff up on the stage.’
Brief overview of COVID related regulations in the UK and Germany, as of April 2022
According to Natasha, ‘In the U.K. there are no regulations; it is as COVID almost never existed and mask wearing has become a personal choice.’ Natasha suggested that things are going to change a little bit more now that the United Kingdom just ended free testing. Natasha shared an example of an event she organised for the film industry. The event still adhered to strict COVID-19 protocols, due to the huge amount of money that could be lost if film production were to be put on hold. As a result, everyone had to show a negative rapid lateral flow test at the door. ‘Now, the fact that we cannot access those tests for free anymore might change this quite significantly,’ she said.
In regard to moving forward with live events and regulations, Natasha said, ‘I don’t have clients going forward talking about any sort of testing or regulations; what I am seeing is just planning in case things change. I’m working on Glastonbury Festival and I’m talking to the COVID team, which didn’t exist two years ago, and we are just talking about what will happen if we need to act quickly, how that would look, what would happen if someone does test positive on site or is found to be unwell on site and how we handle that. So, it’s different, but we don’t have any regulations. I think it is just a moral responsibility as event planners to have considered what you are going to do if you get someone ill, particularly at a multi-day event.’
According to Colja, ‘In Germany the situation is similar; regulations will be disappearing in the next few weeks. But what we are feeling is that many people are not feeling comfortable being in a closed space like they used to in 2019. So we still keep the hygiene standard up and give people more room in the venue, so they can more easily get around and keep a distance if they wish and don’t have to be squashed together in a certain area.’
‘Further, we feel that there are few differences. Even though we have extreme focus on sustainability, we’ve just observed that many people take private transportation coming to an event, even for distances they would have usually taken a public transportation or plane. People are driving all through Europe to attend events. As a result, we have to offer ample space for parking and this is new.’
What tips would you give to a company returning to live events?
Natasha shared, ‘With all my clients we’re talking whether we do hybrid and what the backup plan is should anything change. What we’re seeing in reality is people don’t really want to do hybrid events, but instead it’s more hybrid event programmes over the course of a year. An example of a hybrid event programme Natasha is doing for a member association is quarterly online webinars and then supplementing it with two live events alongside that. But none of those events are hybrid in any way.’ (meaning taking place simultaneously in live and virtual format).
Now, it’s important to create contingency plans in case regulation change. To this end, Natasha added, ‘What would we do if regulations change, how do we implement that? If, for any, reason restrictions or lockdowns came back in, what would we do? Would we be postponing, would the contract allow that? Does your contract have flexibility? Can you pivot to online? If someone is ill on the day, do you still have an option for a hybrid conference, to bring your speaker in virtually if they can’t make it?’
Colja also highlighted a long-term hybrid event strategy over thinking in short-term ways and deciding on a case-by-case basis whether an event should be hybrid, virtual or in person: ‘We do love hybrid events but we all feel this ingrained impulse that is drawing us back to the campfire, since the beginning of mankind, drawing us together, to meet the people we have been missing. Everyone’s social batteries are so drained right now and this is driving us back to live events. Therefore, we believe hybrid is not an event format, but all our lives are becoming hybrid. We need to deliver an entire hybrid event strategy over the year. This can be a combination of digital and live events because digital is here to stay. This combination then will have pure live events that people will go to on site, and on purpose, this will not be shared and broadcasted, to bring clear value to everyone who gets in the car to come to the event.’
How has the partner and supplier network changed?
Natasha shared that they are having huge problems in the United Kingdom with suppliers, particularly in the summer. ‘I mainly work on outdoor events and festivals and if you haven’t ordered things, you haven’t got a chance. In particular, this year we’ve got the Queen’s Jubilee so we’ve got an extra-long bank holiday weekend and I have an event over that time, and we are really struggling. I think suppliers don’t need to do any favours, they can charge the prices that they need to charge, and they can turn things down. And they are turning things down simply because they don’t have the people. We have the combination of people who left the industry because over the past two years they needed to work. We work with freelancers, and these freelancers realised that they can earn the same money in some cases with a 9-to-5 job and it is really difficult, and we have trouble staffing events. We have to reach out to new suppliers. This is exciting because they add an element of competition but that’s also that element of panic because you simply can’t get something that you need.’
According to Colja, there are several new drivers in the situation right now. ‘The first driver involves technical constraints; events that used to be scheduled over 12 months before the pandemic are now being crammed into six months; no one knows that’s going to happen in the winter again. So we have extremely high demand. Second point is that many companies have left the industry. Over the past two years, a lot of suppliers have been starting to do something else, so you have fewer suppliers helping you with the products. Then we are still in that position that probably 50 percent of the workforce left our industry worldwide. The next thing is that the hygiene situation still demands larger venues so there’s a certain run on larger venues, adding to much more demand than supply. Further, we have cost increases in every part, such for building materials and food. Lastly, you have this added jungle that everyone needs to fulfil: you have to be GDPR compliant, you have to be audited, you have to have quality management system in place and have that audited, you have to have a sustainability management system in place and have that audited, you have to invest in cyber security and the entire digital transformation and this is driving prices and budgets up. Therefore, a 2022 event could require double the budget compared to the same event in 2019; if you organise it for summer 2022, you have to allocate almost the double amount of budget you used before.’
How to stay flexible and agile during uncertain and unpredictable times
According to Natasha, ‘We are by our nature quite adaptable, flexible, and respond to last minute demand. We have all had clients change their mind the night before about how they want something to look; it is in our nature to do that. Due to what has happened over the past two years, we have become much better at adapting from in person event situations to a digital format. As long as you always have an open mind and have those back up plans, thinking “If x happens, what would I do?”, so long as you’ve got all those scenarios and you make sure you’re equipped to deal with that, then that’s all you can do and not let it stress you out too. If there’s any risk of a speaker not being able to get there, have a StreamYard or Zoom link for the speaker to join remotely. We know that’s not ideal but pop a screen onto the stage and still continue. That’s as much as we can do, be open-minded.’
Colja added, ‘We do believe in agile event management. If you have an agile mindset, over the years it really becomes clear that you incorporate continued learning but also that you are extremely transparent with your partners, your clients, and really on an eye-to-eye level, really challenging the tasks that are at hand right now.’
What are top considerations when deciding whether to host a live, hybrid or virtual event?
According to Natasha, ‘This depends on your audience, where they are based, what you are delivering, and what is right for that audience as well as the duration of the event. I think that people are less willing to travel now for a one or two hour session, but if you are going to a two or three day event and there’s networking, a dinner and all the content you get with it, then I think people are keen to go to live events.
‘Now if you are working with a client over a long term event strategy, you are probably going to recommend a hybrid format but if it’s a short event then you might go with virtual or a webinar, in a way you wouldn’t have tested it two years ago. Things have changed, but it’s really about considering the audience needs and what works best for them.’
Colja concluded by suggesting two questions event planners should ask to determine the right event format: ‘It all comes down to return on investment (ROI). Experience shows that there are two lead questions that can help you to get there:
- What would you like your audience, your attendees to do after the event, what is the clear action you want them to do, the change of behaviour? Then, you need to follow up with the second question,
- Why don’t they do it just now? What keeps them from doing this desired action that you are looking forward to? And then you work from backwards forward and see what is going to be the best format, what is going to be the best channel: is it going to be best digital, best hybrid, or is it going to be best live to get the desired outcome and run into the positive ROI?
Not only events are becoming hybrid, but also, as Colja mentioned, people’s lives (social, family, work) becoming more hybrid in general.There’s an opportunity for event planners taking a long-term hybrid approach and planning event calendars that offer a satisfying blend of hybrid, virtual and in-person events, similar to people’s social and work lives in a pandemic world. After all, despite pandemic restrictions lifting, people’s habits and lifestyles have been irrevocably changed and ‘digital is here to stay’.
The desire to be back in person and meet colleagues again is irresistible, and this interview demonstrated how to navigate the ‘getting back to live’ landscape with its new challenges but also identified opportunities to be creative and rethink old ways of organising events. In person-only events offer the thrill of exclusivity and amplify the excitement of being part of something momentous and ephemeral. Make them count.