. It’s an experience, not an event: Words that defined us in 2020 | Meetings & Conventions Asia

It’s an experience, not an event: Words that defined us in 2020

Coronavirus has spawned a new collective vocabulary — but what does it mean to walk the talk?

The business events industry has added to its complicated lexicon, with new buzzwords to describe the extent to which conferences and meetings have changed.
The business events industry has added to its complicated lexicon, with new buzzwords to describe the extent to which conferences and meetings have changed. Photo Credit:Getty Images

This year has been so big and so unprecedented (sorry. Not sorry) that the Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t named a word of the year — but several words, citing the “hyper-speed at which the English-speaking world amassed a new collective vocabulary relating to the coronavirus”.

The business events industry too has added to its complicated lexicon, with new buzzwords to describe the extent to which conferences and meetings have changed.

After the initial shock that came with the cancellation of hallmark events like IMEX Frankfurt and the Tokyo Olympics (yes, they are comparable), we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and… finally paid for a business account on Zoom.

What seemed like a mad scramble to (finally) navigate the digital world has now become part of our daily lives. And beyond the buzz of our new-found language, there are important lessons to learn. Here are just a few.

Pivot

Literary, the verb means ‘to turn’ or ‘shift’. In reality, this equated to total business upheaval and a fundamental change in direction because, let’s face it, no one took webinars and virtual events seriously before 2020. So, as an industry, we were unprepared when quarantine and lockdown measures meant we could no longer meet face-to-face.

Learning curve = steep
Pain = immense
Casualties = many

The main goal of a pivot is to help a company improve revenue or survive in the market. Survival is the keyword here, and in 2020 this meant having the courage to try something new, even when the stakes were at their highest. Throughout the year, I spoke to many event professionals who bravely 'pivoted' their businesses by embedding new skills, exploring new markets and learning on the fly. Read a few examples here.

Hybrid

A hybrid event combines a live, face-to-face meeting with virtual components. Following a hub and spoke model, a hybrid event can connect a central meeting (hub) with a global network of smaller, localised meetings or communities tuning in online. Recent examples include ICCA’s 59th Congress, which connected multiple viewing parties with a central meeting in Kaohsiung; and PCMA’s Convening Asia Pacific Forum, which gathered event professionals in Sydney, and was broadcast across the region. It also featured online-only break-out rooms for topical conversations.

PCMA APAC Forum
PCMA’s Convening Asia Pacific Forum connected a live audience in Sydney with a regional community online.

Much more than simply embedding a live stream of content or creating a digital replica of a face-to-face event, a hybrid event must blend the physical and digital to allow interaction among all attendees and audience members.

This is where skills in broadcasting, storytelling and digital marketing come into play — and we’ll likely see more event professionals adopt these skills as the transition from logistics management to community-building continues. Our relationship with technology will also influence how we create connections and exchange knowledge in the future.

George P. Johnson’s Anna Patterson said it best when, speaking at Convening Asia Pacific, she urged the audience to remove ‘event’ from the vocabulary and replace it with ‘experience’ because we’re now engaging audiences across multiple, simultaneous channels, and an event is just one touchpoint.

MBS Mised Reality 2
Mixed Reality at Marina Bay Sands' Hybrid Broadcast Studio.

The hybrid model been touted as the ‘best of worlds’ but in practice, some event organisers (or experience creators?) have said it equates to double the work. Long-term gains are recognisable (like access to a larger, previously untapped audience and richer consumer insights), but in the meantime, many are struggling to monetise digital. With lower ticketing revenues, and higher operational costs due to increased safety measures, margins for physical events are also narrowing.

However, a growing network of hybrid broadcast studios, like the one at Marina Bay Sands, will help to create more immersive, tech-infused meetings. The evolution of hybrid events will continue to define us in 2021.

Phygital

A crude word play combining ‘physical’ and ‘digital’. Essentially, a synonym for ‘hybrid’… but for the sake of the English language, please use the word 'hybrid’. 

Clean

Hygiene and sanitisation has been transformed from a back-of-house function to a very visible and necessary part of the event-planning process. To rebuild confidence in meetings, we've had to learn how to communicate clean. Best examples are in Singapore's SG Clean and Hilton's global CleanStay initiative — strict cleaning processes backed by clever branding. The Hilton CleanStay room seal (pictured) indicates that guest rooms and meeting rooms have not been accessed since they were cleaned. Simple, yet effective communication that restores trust.

Hilton CleanStay
Communicating clean is key to recovery. Clear branding, like Hilton's CleanStay room seal, can restore confidence in physical meetings.

Collaboration

If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from 2020, it’s that people want to commune in times of crisis. The parochialism that has often plagued the industry in Asia has melted away in the face of Covid-19, and out of the ashes several new partnerships have been established; including a call from TCEB to create an Asia Convention Alliance, and MyCeb’s push to reboot the AACVB.

Industry associations in Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have also worked together under the Asia Community Building Pledge (launched in 2019) in an attempt to standardise health and safety measures across the region and share advocacy tips to increase funding and support from government.

Public-private partnerships in destinations like Dubai, Taiwan and New Zealand have also spurred recovery efforts. The development of industry-wide task forces has connected policymakers with venues, aviation providers, travel agents, event planners and hotels in order to ‘reimagine’ the customer journey for business travellers.

SingEx command centre
The SingEx team had to 'unlearn' notions of physical events to create digital experiences in the newly-built command centre at Singapore Expo.

Adaptability

The ability and willingness to change — often more a question of mindset than skill. A case in point is the event management services team at SingEx, who were retrained to run a virtual command centre at Singapore Expo, which powered hybrid events such as ITAP 2020 and the Singapore FinTech Festival.

SingEx director of human resources, Michael Lim, set up the command centre and guided the team’s digital learning journey by walking the talk.

“I’m an HR director and at almost 50 years old, I’ve started doing technical operations,” he said. “The ability to unlearn and break away from previous notions linked to physical events is not always easy. Change can breed fear and people journey at different speeds, so I’m very proud of the team.”

The team includes a former fire safety manager who is now a hybrid event director, and a 65-year-old telemarketer, known affectionately as Uncle Stephen, who now mans a digital help desk that assists the needs of virtual attendees.

Another great example is the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre, which found new and creative ways to make use of its facilities during a city-wide lockdown.

New Normal

All of the above — at least for the next 12 to 24 months, while we learn to live long term with Covid-19. 

Legacy

OK, legacy isn’t new to our vocabulary. The legacy impacts of meetings have shaped the way we communicate our value to governments and private sector stakeholders for some time. But what legacy will Covid-19 leave on the business events industry?

“Everything has changed and nothing has changed,” UFI’s Kai Hattendorf said at the recent hybrid trade show pilot, TravelRevive, in Singapore. Indeed, we’ve had to rewire the way we do things, but if you strip away the bells and whistles, the fundamentals remain the same: connecting buyers and sellers.

Hattendorf also said that, as an industry has is often overlooked, the coronavirus has finally given us the global attention that we’ve craved for so long. We need to make the most of this in 2021.

Last word

As an industry that has long struggled to define itself to the outside world, our new-found vocabulary must be used wisely. As someone who makes a living by assembling and reassembling words on a page (or screen), I believe simple is always best.

That’s why my word for 2020 is: GRIT.

The coronavirus will leave its mark on the meetings and events industry — not as a wound we seek to mend, but battle scars we wear with pride as we continue to persevere.

En garde 2021!