1. What has business been like for your company through the pandemic?
January & February 2020 was our best ever 8 week period in our 15 years and the rest of the year was looking tremendous. Sadly, once we got to March the realisation set in that live events were not going to be taking place for the immediate future. In the space of two weeks we had to move all our client events from March through September to either later in the year or into 2020. That was quite an intense and stressful time, trying to move bookings that had so many stakeholders and venues involved.
Our team worked so hard in those initial weeks, I was extremely proud of them, their creativity and ingenuity in making sure all our clients were supported, advised and guided. They did a superb job.
We realised quite early you cannot fight this pandemic and the ever changing government guidelines but find a solution to work alongside the pandemic (or at least until we are in the all clear!) . Firstly adapting to working from home and having online catch-ups with the team all in the hope this would blow over by the end of the year! But the main transformation though has to be the digital transformation. Although hosting things digitally wasn't completely alien to us, there was still a lot to learn and a lot of digital platforms & alternatives to become familiar with.
2. How important is it for an events agency to be able to be agile and diversify?
As a small agency, we were able to adapt quickly. In partnership with our preferred production supplier we set up several tv style broadcasting studios in Farnborough. There are currently 3 studios that have adaptable set designs where clients can safely come and record videos, host live panels and presentations and we can stream these out to their employees, their clients and their partners.
Technology was constantly playing a more and more important role in events. Now, like many other industries, it’s speed of development and implementation has progressed at a much faster rate then it would have. People in the events industry are a creative bunch, always providing solutions and challenging the norm. There must be over 70 good online platforms for virtual events. Many of these have only been developed and some have improved way beyond what we thought was possible 5 or 6 months ago. There is still some way to go, but I do believe that ultimately online event platforms will be as good as current video gaming, that is a realistic target and very achievable.
With such uncertainty, we are still seeing clients considering live events with that being the preferred choice however when proposing for business we are now having to include a virtual event proposal. This is now more than just recommending a virtual platform, it's finding the best way to condense what would be a 3 day event into perhaps a 3-5 hour virtual event with delegates being on different time zones, keeping delegates engaged and also having fun and informative content. Hybrid events have been slowly creeping in for a while now, even if it was just live streaming the conference however Coronavirus has certainly accelerated digital transformation. Our team has spent a lot of time researching virtual event platforms and ensuring that the delegate experience is as engaging as a live event.
The events and hospitality industry has taken a huge hit during the pandemic, adapting to a new way of working is paramount. You'll never be able to replace live events, but in the meantime we have to be able to provide our clients with a safe and effective alternative. For many businesses and especially for our clients, in-person interaction is the driving force of their strategy. With large scale live events not being able to go ahead we have really had to listen early and often to industry peers, colleagues, government guidelines to ensure we are up to date on everything and our clients can be too. We have had to negotiate strategically, not just that we won't sign a contract without a strong COVID-19 clause in place. But also having a contingency plan if numbers needed to be reduced or the event had to change from live to hybrid.
3. Tell us about your virtual advent calendar, how did the idea come about?
I think it was probably about a month into lockdown (feels like a distant memory now!) when the idea first came to light and partly because at the time we were working on putting proposals together for Christmas events. I remember thinking, if Christmas parties can't go ahead then what will be the alternative? At this point, we had seen and done the majority of virtual alternatives including cocktail masterclasses, virtual escape rooms... anything with the word 'virtual' in front, you name it, we tried it! Yes they were all a good laugh, but when I really thought about the reason Christmas parties exist I couldn't relate the two. Christmas parties are something to look forward to at the end of a successful year, to really reward and motivate your employees while communicating a positive future outlook.
Taking all things into consideration, most importantly the safety of all employees, if we couldn't get the staff to the Christmas party, how can we get the Christmas party to them? This is where the idea came to create a virtual gifting experience, and not a one time thing, but something that employees would look forward to, would be engaging and also give them something to talk about between each other. Afterall, Christmas is a time of giving and sharing with those around us. However the Digital Advent Calendar isn't just about gift giving, it is also a fantastic and fun way to connect with your employees. For example, one of the things we are pushing to put behind the advent windows is a pre recorded message from your Team Leader or CEO thanking employees and wishing them a very merry Christmas.
The concept is a Digital Advent Calendar, which holds the same concept as a traditional advent however online! Employees would log in daily and be delighted with exclusive vouchers, getaways, experiences and more of their choice and to suit their budgets. Flexibility is key, clients would choose their website design, their gift experience and when throughout December they would want their staff to log in.
4. What’s been the response so far?
We launched the Digital Advent Calendar only a couple weeks ago and we have seen a great amount of interest which is exciting! All responses so far have been positive and the initial response being that it is something new and exciting, something employees wouldn't expect and a fantastic alternative to a Christmas party this year – which I do hope returns stronger than ever, but for now we have to provide alternatives.
5. How do you think the events industry will change post-COVID19?
It’s going to be different. We are lucky that we have the technology to adapt, can you imagine if this virus hit us 10 years ago? What technology would we be missing, even only 5 years ago?
Hybrid events will help the industry get back on its feet. However, eventually events will return to fully in person. Ii may become challenging to run an in-person and virtual event has how many people on the day will decide to watch virtually rather than attend in person just because they can? Companies will need to be wary of that.
Data analysis will become even more important. Tracking how people navigate through virtual events. I believe Sponsorship opportunities are relatively untapped in virtual events now and we should see a big move in that space soon.
I’m confident events will return, incentives will be back, there is a huge appetite for travel. Speaking with some clients, who used to see travel as a necessary evil, they now realise it was actually a perk of their job and without the travel element they do not find their job as rewarding. So we will be back to business as usual, it’s a matter of moving with the times, offering new and innovative services and being ready when our clients are ready to travel and be in person again.
Networking and personal interaction will be a challenge for a while to come, social distancing measures will be in place and delegate's movements will be monitored and staggered. We will have to get creative with the registration desk and avoid handing out badges for a while. Catering & self serving buffets will be a thing of the past, most likely having to plan for seated dining with specified physical distance. Coffee cups will become disposable, but then are we forgetting about sustainability efforts? There are a lot of questions unanswered at the moment, yes things will be different but we will also make it work!
We have an incentive trip for 500 planned to take place in Singapore in April 2021, it’s going to be close, but we really are hoping and planning for it to go ahead. You simply cannot replace an experience like that.
With thanks to Paul Fenton at Viva Esprit for sharing his insights