In spite of the almost daily changing news on the pandemic status, there does now appear to be a series of proposed dates for the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, at least here in England. According to the current plan at Stage Three (no earlier than 17 May), besides the really exciting news that we will be able to have a drink with friends indoors at our local, is the expectation that outdoor entertainment, such as outdoor theatres and cinemas can open, indoor entertainment, such as museums, theatres, and cinemas can open, hotels can reopen, and critically, performances and large events can restart, but with limits on audience numbers.  If all goes to plan, the government is saying that at Stage Four (no earlier than 21 June), all legal limits on social contact will be removed. Whew! 

Whilst this planned light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is just for England, other places are planning for an even more accelerated opening up. In Nevada, USA, the government announced that as of the 15th of March major events can now operate on the Las Vegas strip at 50% capacity. As a result of the optimistic message this decision sends, a number of conventions and exhibitions have now set 2021 dates in Las Vegas in including IMEX America on the 9th – 11th of November. 

News that tradeshows and large events will return in 2021 has created a renewed sense of excitement in the events business that is almost palpable.  Nearly everyone I talked to about the business this week has just one thing on their mind – ‘The end of lockdown is in sight’. ‘Live events are coming back’.  

Some of the press seemed ready to confirm this too, with headlines like ‘Venues see nearly 300% increase in enquiries post-roadmap announcement’ (Event Industry News), and ‘Grab your lanyard. Trade Shows are plotting a comeback’ (Wall Street Journal). 

So, I guess it’s only a matter of time before we will have an opportunity once again to walk those hallowed exhibition halls.  This is, of course, good news for organisers and the ecosystem of suppliers that support them.  But for many, the jury may still be out.  Has nothing changed over the past year?  Will we still want to attend the same old of live events of the past? Have we not learned anything new that we can now apply to create better event experiences on the other side of lockdown? 

It got me thinking.  What are some of the things we’ve experienced over the last year that might help us to re-imagine what live events might do better when they return?  The list could be quite long, so here are just a few thoughts – in no particular order – just to get us started. 

Huge crowds are so Spring Break Miami – It’s only reasonable that after what we’ve been through, we will likely feel a little uneasy in really large crowds.  At least for a while.  So, accommodating social distancing may be a good idea. And anyway, are really large crowds conducive to getting the most out of the live event experience? Perhaps live events when they return could be more selective in making sure that the right people are in attendance, rather than measuring success on the numbers who attend. You know, a bit of quality over quantity.  In any case, please can we not have to stand in a queue to register, eat lunch or get a taxi? 

Only Greta approved events – OK seriously, the events industry has been talking about sustainability for years, but large-scale live events are still one of the leading contenders for ‘crimes against the environment’ award.  All live events will have some form of environmental impact, which inevitably increase relative to the size of the event.  Add it up, long distance air travel emissions, noise, food wastage, litter in the area around the event and on the event site, signage and exhibition materials waste, congestion and local air pollution from vehicle emissions and greenhouse gasses from power use are just some of the ways that live events contribute to global warming.  Live events don’t offer the sustainability benefits that virtual events do, but there are ways to begin to minimise the negative impacts of live events, including efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle, and more event organisers are now getting on board.  Still much, much more needs to be done.   

Please just stop it – How many conference sessions have you attended where the speaker says, “I realise that most of you in the back of the room won’t be able to read the small print on this slide, so let me summarise it for you”?  Well summarise it on the damn slide then, or better yet please just stop using PowerPoint in live presentations all together – just talk to us now and email the deck to us later, if you must. In fact, why don’t events just stop the whole ‘sage on stage’ content approach all together?  Don’t they know that this form of education was designed more than 200 years ago?  It’s time we move on from ageing live content presentation formats.  I realise that some tradeshow organisers view content as a sideshow to the exhibit space, but if you are going to have content sessions, make sure they are good quality.  If it helps, pretend you’re creating a virtual content session where your audience is only a click away from leaving if the content presentation is godawful. 

Nice to finally meet you – We all know that live event organisers like to bang on about the irreplaceable value of being at a live event to meet and network with others, face-to-face.  They also like to claim that serendipity, whereby you accidentally meet someone, you didn’t plan to meet, can only happen at a live event.  In fact, networking with people face-to-face and the possibility of serendipitously meeting someone valuable by accident are often quoted as the two undeniable advantages of live over virtual events. I get the networking face-to-face claim but relying on serendipity can often be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, particularly if, unlike me, you’re an introvert.  Maybe going forward, event organisers could provide more curated networking opportunities to facilitate meetings for people with mutual interests.  You know, speed dating, special interests’ clubs, wine tastings, cooking classes, or team competitions.  We are seeing more and more of these kinds of special interest community groups online, why not live?  

The power of teamwork – Imagine being able to gather together, live and in one place, some of the greatest minds in an industry. Experts in technology, or healthcare, or even events, all enthusiastically in the same place at the same time.  Think of the problems they might solve together if organisers created opportunities for these attendees to collaborate with one another around important social issues.  Group collaboration has really taken off online. Virtual platforms like ExperienceGood, Virtual Braindate and Glue Platform among others, all deliver chat-based collaboration. We should also explore ways that live events can become a platform for collaboration and group problem solving.  It would be great to leave a live event feeling that you participated in the crafting of a solution to an important social issue. 

Welcome to the neighbourhood – When a large live event comes to town it can been a real boon for the local economy. Hotels, restaurants, taxis, shops and local attractions all tend to do pretty well, and that’s as it should be.  But I’ve always thought that these large events should also find ways to give something back to the local community.  Some events have already been doing this.  A few years back Mobile World Congress, for example created a Mobile Explorers Programme at its Barcelona event for 8 to 15-year-olds, allowing them to experience the technology at the live event, and launched a number of programmes to support schools and charities in Barcelona. Rather than live events remaining land-locked in a convention centre or hotel it would be great to see, not just the organiser, but potentially even sponsors, exhibitors and attendees find ways to get involved in supporting the local community. 

Can I get that online? – One of the key things that many of us came to realise during the last year in lockdown is the amazing power of online, virtual events.  On a personal note, I’ve seen my family who live all over the place in both the UK and the US together, face-to-face on group zoom calls far more often than I’ve been able to see them together live over the last 10 years, by a long shot. It’s been great, and sure we’ll continue these calls, long after lockdown ends. I suspect that many of us have had similar experiences.  

Only a year into our experience of virtual events we have already realised a number of new benefits, like greater, more inclusive audience reach, much more engaging content formats, vastly improved environmental sustainability and yes, even networking and collaborative working.  Whilst we will surely still want to meet face to face, the truth is that bringing people together online can now often be more efficient, more impactful and even more effective than live events. There are still plenty of naysayers, but after more than a year in lockdown, I’m even more convinced that hybrid experiences will be the future of live events when they return. 

The pandemic has forced an unexpected break from live events offering us a unique opportunity to re-imagine how live experiences could be more like we’ve always wished they could be.   

What would you like to see change when live events return after lockdown? 

By Kim Myhre, Founder and Managing Partner, Experience Designed

Experience Designed is a strategic advisory and creative ideas agency that applies purpose-led design principals to create transformative brand experience strategies. www.xdesigned.com 

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