The future of events, venues and cities: learnings about how to future-proof against future crises

How did Rotterdam overcome the challenging circumstances that required a one year postponement of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) due to the pandemic? From March 2020, the guidelines regarding hosting events were constantly changing and challenging the live events industry, but with reliable partners and a ‘make it happen’ attitude, the venue and the host city of Rotterdam worked on scenario planning that allowed them to safely host the ESC in May the following year. 

The second Table Talk at the Rotterdam Experiment in September 2021 focused on the safety and security aspects of hosting the ESC, and specifically how scenario thinking and collaboration made the execution of the contest feasible and safe. The last part of the Table Talk focused on discussing the future of events. (You can catch up on the first Table Talk here).

With the event moderated by Arjanne Hoogstad, Manager of Marketing & Communications at Rotterdam Partners, table guests included Jolanda Jansen, CEO at Rotterdam Ahoy, Dimitri Bonthuis, Programme Manager at Fieldlab Event and Kim Joosten, Deputy head of security host city for the ESC.

To overcome the challenges created by uncertainty, Jolanda Jansen, CEO at Rotterdam Ahoy shared that they adopted a step-by-step approach: ‘When we decided together with the European Broadcast Union (EBU), the host broadcaster, in May 2020 to move the event to 2021, we had the vision and the goals. We said, “Let’s first secure that we can host the event.” The next big step was to make sure that delegates are able to travel to the Netherlands and that we can have a show with spectators. Step three was to see if it was possible to have audience safely, and that’s where the collaboration with Fieldlab Events came in. We said this is our Olympics and the biggest event we ever had in the past 50 years.’

From a citywide safety perspective, the biggest challenge, according to Kim Joosten, Deputy head of security host city for the ESC was, ‘The constantly changing rules and regulations about COVID-19. We started with all the preparations in 2019, but when we started again in 2020 we didn’t know what we are going to have in May 2021. We had several plans. For example, we have a full venue, no one in the venue, or we have an event village, and so on. When we held a press conference and started planning again, our role was to have all the information and inform our partners because they had to adapt to our plans with their own plans. For every scenario we had our project plan and when we got closer to May, we knew it will be scenario A or B and had a better overview.’ 

A Fieldlab Event project – a collaboration between the events industry and the Dutch national government

Dimitri Bonthuis, Programme Manager at Fieldlab Event, shared the concept behind this innovative project, Fieldlab, and what role they played in the ESC. 

Fieldlab Events started off as a collaboration between the events industry and the national Dutch government: ‘The talks were based on two factors; one was what we can do economically for the events industry to keep it alive. Second was how we can get into scientific research to see how we can make events possible again, in a safe manner. For example, getting rid of the 1.5m distance because this way can use only 30 percent venue capacity which is not economically viable. We started a research programme together with several universities in the Netherlands; the government financed the research and the events industry needed to take care of the events. 

‘We set up a programme with eight different events and four different types: indoor and outdoor, a passive (sitting down) and an active (standing, dancing) audience to see what measures were necessary to take to organise a safe event again; what is possible and what is impossible and which way to go. 

‘After the initial first eight events we wanted to scale up, meaning going to 100 percent capacity. If we wanted to achieve this goal, it was better to look at an existing event because otherwise the events industry will need to invest a lot of money in an event specifically set for us. We asked the Dutch National Broadcaster to be one of the Fieldlabs and fortunately they agreed. That gave us an opportunity to do research nine times and it gave them an opportunity to get an audience and open up again.’ 

What are the learnings from Fieldlab and how do you implement these practices? 

According to Dimitri: ‘The University of Delft made a risk model for events and with this model we were able to set up a metric: for every risk level of an epidemic, what measures are necessary to take to still organise a safe event.’

According to Jolanda, ‘It’s important to have the government and other stakeholders comfortable with the help of a scientific model that demonstrates that it’s safe to host events. Regarding the ESC, we learnt about dusting procedures, hygiene measures, cybersecurity (a subject we were not involved in previously). We learnt so much that we can use for future events.’

How inclusiveness played a role in the ESC 

According to Kim, ‘It played a big role. The Israeli delegation was part of the ESC and during the week of the event there were circumstances with Palestine and Israel and that played a role during the contest, attracting demonstrations outside the venue demonstrating against the participation of Israel. People who would like to express their feelings should have a possibility for that. We worked together with the broadcaster and the venue that both the event and the demonstrations can go on.’

In conversation with Yuri van Geest, an author, speaker, futurist and expert on the subjects of exponential organisations. 

The following is from an interview with Yuri van Geest, who has been a guest in all previous experiments focused on the future of events. Yuri highlights that there is a shift away from pure broadcasting of content at events to the rising trend of a co-creation experience between event participants, e.g. a hackathon format event. According to Yuri: ‘We can get content everywhere; that means the new scarcity of events will be to co-create new expertise together in real time. This is because that’s important to help solve grand challenges in the world.’

‘Offline experience will be more valuable, attendees will pay more for that and it’s more for co-creation aspects. Joining an event becomes less generic and more personal, more selective.’ 

Talking about travel by 2050, Yuri shared that, ‘For now it becomes tougher but there’s also a roadmap of new technologies enabling more sustainable flights over time. But I believe that circularity and sustainability is over, it’s 10 years ago, today it’s all about the regeneration of everything: leadership, organisations, technologies, cities. How to increase the value of nature. Because the status quo is not sufficient; we need to ramp up our game and help nature and align with the principles of nature. That’s a new way to move forward.’

Regenerative events, according to Yuri, mean, ‘Applying the principles of nature in your organisation: self-organisation, self-management, the letting down of control and complexity, diversity, inclusivity, adaptiveness, resilience, fragility. All these will become part of events going forward. Increasingly, events will become about how to help nature; fully aligned with nature as a purpose.’ 

Table Talk: the future of events, venues and cities

The last Table Talk brought the panelist together again to talk about the future of events, and focused specifically on learnings from the ESC, its legacy and strategy. 

Table guest included Jolanda Jansen, who participated in the second Table Talk, and Lars Crama, Lars Crama, Chairman of the International Advisory Board, Alice Vlaanderen, Project Director of ESC 2021 Host City Rotterdam and Eveline van der Pluijm, Manager of the Convention Bureau & Tourism Board.

The table guests discussed the fact that the industry is seeking solutions regarding what the future of hybrid events will look like, and which innovative technologies are most effective in a hybrid format. Lars suggested that the future is the metaverse: ‘Immersing yourself online. The metaverse is a place beyond the current internet that we know it. Metaverse is a connected space where it’s possible to collaborate and it feels like being in a game, collaborating with a remote audience and feeling together. Meanwhile, concerts are being organised in Fortnite and that is a forecast of what’s to come for corporate events in the next 30 years’

How to become a future-proof venue 

According to Jolanda, ‘From a venue prospective, in the past we were focused on having it operationally excellent, having the customers happy and leasing the building. But now it’s increasingly important to connect to the local network in Rotterdam and the Netherlands. More and more organisers also ask, “Can you connect us to that network?” and that is an added value.’

Eveline shared what were the future MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions) opportunities: ‘A future focused city is about collaboration, sharing knowledge and best practices. During COVID-19, with the Netherland and our international colleagues, we entered a new phase – collaboration over competition. We had to share this knowledge openly because otherwise we would not survive the crisis.’


According to Alice, the most important legacy of the ESC lies beyond the economic value for the city: ‘We expect economic impact in the long term. But it’s not just about the economic impact. We involved more than 800 entrepreneurs, more than 600 volunteers, and students participated who can now enrich their CVs and we can work with them for future events.’

‘I find the social legacy most important. We did research on that and were happy to conclude that there was social impact. People who experienced the ESC feel more connected to the city, they feel more involved in the city, they feel more connected to other communities and to other cultures. Residents feel proud of Rotterdam, they feel that the city can host events like the ESC, they would like to have more of this kind of events and I think it’s important for the city to invest. City dressing was important. People who saw it, appreciated and wrote about it they are more likely to be an advocate for the city. Thanks to the findings, it will be easier to host these kind of events in the future.’ 

According to Jolanda, ‘The ESC was where the creative industry of the Netherlands came together. With the people from the host broadcaster, the best people in the television world, live event businesses, all brought together in the host city. It was an opportunity to show the best of the best of the Netherlands and the Dutch events industry to the world. This will also help us in the upcoming years to stay one of the front runners in our industry.’

How to introduce a culture of experimentation for events when there’s resistance to change

According to Lars, who is working with start-ups and scale-ups, ‘Start-ups are continuously experimenting and starting new things, the key is that they have an idea and vision they are following and making small experiments.’ Lars recommended that, ‘As a manager/leader give the vision where you want to go but then create a safe space for experimentation. Take the learnings and the data and inform your next experiment.’ 

According to Jolanda: ‘When we finish our yearly event and evaluate it, our question is, “What are we going to make new next year?” New things always give new energy, are stimulating and are good for motivation. Because when you succeed in doing new things, and success is not always doing it without any mistake, but just to try and do new things. It’s important to have it brought into the culture.’

If you were an investor, would you, with all the information you’ve heard so far, put your money in this industry?

Lars commented, ‘Investment will be found for the front runners, the leaders and the organisations that are daring to create the future and do it in a validated way so they get traction. Also, a part of the idea and the business model is it’s all about the team.’ 

Additional thoughts 

Out of these conversations, four things stood out for me and I think it’s necessary to continue these conversations online or offline as the industry shows healthy recovery.  

The topic of legacy is very important. Events post-pandemic need to serve a bigger purpose and benefit the community. I loved how Alice emphasised that the social legacy was more significant than the economic legacy and created opportunities for people to gain work experience (especially during a pandemic) and made local communities proud so that they will be willing to welcome similar events in the future. Such long-term strategy is essential in the post-pandemic recovery of a MICE destination. 

I found the comment by Yuri regarding circularity and sustainability versus regeneration very interesting because sustainability remains a key topic in the MICE industry. The topic of regeneration would be an interesting point for future conversations when we discuss event sustainability and how can events help the environment but also other sustainable development goals.   

And lastly, these discussions highlight the importance of experimentation. We need more experimentation that we can learn from, especially now that things are returning to pre-pandemic levels. There was a lot of experimentation in the early months of the pandemic and it brought excitement and accelerated innovation. The question now is, ‘How can the events industry continue the acceleration of ideas, not settling when things are good, but constantly trying to become better so it can be also future-proof in the event of future crises?’ Thank you, Rotterdam Partners, for creating an environment to have this conversation and to hear from experts from within and outside the events industry. 

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