Events: how to combat the effects of COVID-19


Events: how to combat the effects of COVID-19

As the global pandemic impacts every industry, Simon Mellor, CEO at Messe Frankfurt Middle East, outlines what event companies can do to mitigate its effects and create new opportunities moving forward


The Coronavirus outbreak has hit the events industry hard. But rather than wring our hands in despair, we must use this time wisely and prepare for a future of opportunity, a future filled with innovation, creativity and stronger relationships, not only with customers, suppliers and partners, but competitors, too.

At Messe Frankfurt, we felt the impact of the Coronavirus as far back as January. With a large base in China and Hong Kong, we postponed our biggest shows in the region at the request of local authorities. Around 400 staff members also began working from home.

Throughout February, March and April, the virus spread across Europe, impacting our business in Italy, France, the UK and Germany, home to our headquarters and 600,000-square-metre event venue. This is now closed and likely to remain so at least for the next couple of months. About 1,000 colleagues in Frankfurt – and more than another 1,500 colleagues in our 30 subsidiaries around the world – are currently working in their home offices.

Most recently, we felt the impact across the Middle East, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Similarly, the US, South Africa and Argentina have all been affected. The pandemic has effectively moved from East to West and disrupted not just Messe Frankfurt’s business, but the entire events industry worldwide. So how do we move forward?​

Communication is key

For me, there are three positive and practical steps that we as a sector can take to combat the effects of the Coronavirus. Head of the list is increased communication, and at the heart of that is reassurance. During these challenging times, it is essential to maintain a dialogue with industry stakeholders – clients, suppliers, partners and attendees included – to understand what’s happening across the sector, to gauge how businesses are coping and ultimately to reassure people that we are listening to their needs and adapting to them as far as possible.

Through in-depth and frequent discussion, we can better understand which businesses are hardest hit, what stance the government is set to take and give clear reassurances of when events will open, how they will open and what they will look like when they do. In doing so, we can fill the vacuum of misinformation and, step by step, start to restore confidence.

Here at Messe Frankfurt Middle East, we’re working hard to listen and talk to those involved in our events at every level. One of the questions that has inevitably come to light is ‘What will large-scale events look like post COVID-19?’. In Dubai, for decades we’ve enjoyed a buoyant industry that has strongly supported the local economy. It will be interesting to understand what measures the industry will be asked to take as we navigate our way out of the crisis.

Will there be different controls and considerations as to how events are organised and run? In my opinion, yes. This process will change the way that people work and the way that people think, and it may be that government authorities have a view on how we manage large meetings and gatherings of people.

They may also consider ways of supporting the industry financially. Exhibitions and conferences have always been a key economic driver and there could be ways of helping these events return and bounce back quickly.

With so many unknowns, you can understand why people are a little fearful and in need of direction and reassurance. I firmly believe that through clear, open and frequent communication, we can support each other and give people the confidence to travel again and return to these large-scale events.

Support the wider industry

Second, as we identify the needs of the industry, it’s important that companies with the ability and capacity to help other companies, do so. This could be in the form of more flexible payment terms. It could be an organiser changing the dates or venue of a major show to make halls and space available to other organisers. There are many instances where commercial competitiveness has softened for the good of the wider industry.

In the UAE, organisers with events very early in the year or at the end of the year might miss the crisis completely. Companies with events and activations from March and at least to July effectively have no revenue during this period.

For the supply industry, this is peak season with maximum staffing levels. Stand builders, audio and lighting specialists, and other contractors would normally be flat out, going from show to show. They will have invested in raw materials, which in normal circumstances they would by now have utilised. These are unprecedented times and any company that can extend a degree of flexibility to others in the industry, in my opinion, has a duty to do so.

Evaluate corporate strategy

In addition, we should all be evaluating our business models and brainstorming ways to generate revenue or even a free information service for clients. Which brings me to my third point. Now is the time to review corporate strategy, to evaluate systems and processes, short- and long-term goals, and to determine what the right course of action is moving forward. We have to prepare for the inevitable conclusion of this crisis, and beyond.

Currently, we can't get in front of our clients and our clients can’t get in front of their clients. Somehow, we have to overcome that. Events bring different things to different people. Some companies exhibit to see if a new product or service will work in a new industry or a new region of the world. The sales that they secure at these events can be as much as 50 to 60 per cent of their annual turnover.

We need to understand where people are on that spectrum and how we can help them during this time. We’re fortunate in that the events industry is full of innovation. We have the technology to reach out to people and to promote clients. We still hold the data of our attendees and our exhibitors so there is clearly a way we can bring people together.

As we review our strategies, I urge the community to consider how technology might shape the industry in the future. Apps, online meeting platforms, augmented reality, virtual reality; these will all advance faster than they would have otherwise and will have a significant impact on live events, combining digital experience with physical experience. This may be through an activation on an exhibitor’s stand or through the ability to crunch data on the spot at events.

I think digitalisation will be the helping hand that carries the industry forward into the new era. But do I think digital events will replace physical events? No. The need to socialise, to live in communities and to share experiences is almost a part of our DNA. We thrive on each other's company. We trust and read people through physical exchange. Yes, there's a lot that you can do digitally, but the experience is much richer when conducted face to face.

Changing landscape

Beyond these measures, there is still more that can be done. The UAE government is doing an excellent job of managing the crisis. The lockdown has been highly effective, slowing the infection rate and flattening the curve to ensure our hospitals have the capacity to cope with the influx of patients. And, at Messe Frankfurt Middle East, we applaud and extend our sincere thanks to all those on the front line of this crisis.

When the pandemic begins to subside, however, the big question is how do we return to business? There will almost certainly be some sort of easing and we're already talking to colleagues around the world, especially in Asia, about what that might look like so that we can begin to understand what the situation might be here.

At the same time, the events industry should collaborate closely with the government so that we can collectively discuss ways to stimulate and support the sector post COVID-19. Areas of change might include registration. People may feel uncomfortable standing in long queues outside an event. They may also be concerned about the density of an event so we may need to introduce a system to control the number of attendees or to better understand visitor’s travel routes prior to attending. There are lots of areas where you can see points of concern for people and where we might need to operate events in a slightly different format.

We're all in this together, so it makes sense on many levels to understand how everyone in the industry and further afield is managing the situation. Very few of us have ever done anything like this before, and one hopes that we will never have to draw on this experience again.

I think from a human perspective, the crisis will make people realise that we are not infallible and in turn soften our approach to business and life in general. I think it will make people a little bit more considerate and supportive, and that can only be a good thing.


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