‘Sorry, this event has been postponed – we will let you know when we have a new date confirmed’: business event calendars have been decimated by blanket cancellations and re-arrangements over the past 10 weeks.
Uncertainty continues to haunt the events market, particularly for larger gatherings, despite the gradual easing of coronavirus lockdown measures.
The UK’s business events sector is a £70bn industry, providing jobs for 700,000 people, according to a 191-page report published earlier this month by industry association the Business Visits & Events Partnership (BVEP). The BVEP report, compiled prior to coronavirus’s impact, says that 2019 business events generated more than £31bn of direct spend (with leisure events contributing a further £39bn).
“Cornerstone of every industry”
Industry events have been cancelled completely (‘See you in 2021…’), re-booked for a later date, or – if scheduled this autumn or beyond – typically remaining resolute in the hope that the situation improves and public health requirements can be satisfied.
Many events professionals are furloughed. Some of those still working have delivered ‘virtual’ (online) gatherings, with many executed with aplomb. But the pause button is still pressed on many larger, whizz-bang events (multi-day business conferences, sizeable dinners, etc) – calendar dates that are typically fixed years in advance.
Uncertainties range from whether professional events (and of what size) constitute ‘mass gatherings’; how social distancing can be made to work at events whose main selling points include professional networking; and the proposed quarantining of international travellers (potential speakers and delegates), among many other public health-related factors.
Adam Parry, editor of Event Industry News, says: “Events are the cornerstone of every industry, fundamentally underpinning them. Until it’s clear what’s happening with events – how they can function under social distancing, for example – the country’s economic recovery will be held back. For a decade I don’t think governments have recognised the contribution that events bring.”
Parry believes the use of digital solutions necessitated by those who have switched to online conferencing will continue, at least in part. “After the crisis it’s likely a lot of the technological innovation we have seen with virtual events will endure, albeit that there’s no substitute for meeting people in person when gatherings are able to properly resume,” he says.
“Planning for recovery”
Awards ceremonies are an annual fixture in all sizeable industries’ calendars and the JW Marriott Grosvenor House London on Park Lane is among the capital’s most prestigious venues. General manager Stuart Bowery tells City AM: “While our hotel remains temporarily closed we are planning for recovery and are keenly awaiting clear government guidance on when the UK hospitality sector may be able to resume events.”
He said that the hotel has moved some events “to new dates from September onwards”, and that “encouragingly, we are also starting to receive new enquiries for events in the autumn”.
Bowery says: “We sincerely hope that the new event enquiries and existing event bookings we have from September onwards will be able to take place, in line with social distancing measures and government guidelines. Over the coming weeks we look forward to more clarity on recovery timings and measures for the UK hospitality sector in order that we and our clients can look ahead with hope and optimism”.
“So much more than just the speeches”
In politics, the Labour Party announced that it has postponed its annual conference (originally scheduled for September) while the Liberal Democrats plan to organise an online event to replace their own autumnal tribal gathering.
In contrast, the Conservatives say that preparation for their conference in Birmingham from 4-7 October is ‘continuing’, albeit with the caveat that the party ‘will keep this under review.’
Rob Ellis, who as director of political engagement at Dods has organised client events for many years at party conferences, says: “Party conference season is so much more than just the speeches. It’s the fringes, the unofficial meetings in corners, the gossip in the bars. I simply can’t see how you replicate that with a virtual event.”
All this adds up to a frustrating time for events professionals.
“Coronavirus and the chaos it has caused has reminded everyone of just what an important part events of all types play in our lives,” BVEP chair Simon Hughes tells City AM. “Creating confidence through creative and innovative new approaches has already started and will help the whole event industry maintain its current value to UK plc in the long term. It’s going to be challenging, but with great collaboration with our clients, we will get there.”