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And then everything changed…

War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth. Carl von Clausewitz

I can’t lay claim to much skill, intelligence, sensitivity or discrimination when it comes to peering through the fog of battle that engulfs us all right now. But, the military analogy is apt. We can’t just sit and wait. Nobody knows how long this will all last. We have to act and we have to do so based on the best judgements we can currently make on what lies on the other side. 

Nobody likes uncertainty. So, what do we know? What don’t we know? And where does that leave us? And, has everything really changed for ever?

There are a few things that we do know:

  • This will be a bad year for events companies. Business of all kinds has been massively disrupted and, with no travel or large gatherings, most of at least the middle of this year’s calendar of events has been lost. Some of it can be made up in the last third of the year, but much is simply being pushed back to next year or beyond. There will inevitably be casualties as a result of that. 
  • Going forward, our customers and their customers will be very cash poor but also desperate for new business.  
  • We will see huge variations in the ways in which governments reopen the economies they have shut down including the events sector and we will see huge variations in the enthusiasm of companies and individuals to participate in our events. 
  • Many, although by no means all, event businesses are launching or accelerating new digital initiatives. This is partly to provide some kind of marketplace for their clients and partly in a desperate effort to scrape some kind of income out of this year.

But, despite some encouraging signs that the worst of the first phase may be behind us, we are still in the middle of the crisis which means that many things are not at all clear. High on my list of priorities for these areas of uncertainty are:

  • Whether we will ever be able to draw a line under this ‘recent unpleasantness’ with the introduction of a truly effective vaccine (i.e. “wait until this is all over”) or whether we will have to learn to manage the risk of COVID-19 and related diseases as part of the normal range of uncertainties. From the infamous “Caution: Contents Hot” label on McDonalds’ coffee cups, we know that this can lead us down some strange and not always very productive alleyways.
  • To what extent will physical distancing measures become any kind of ‘new normal’ (the term socially distancing surely just means ignoring one another and being mean to your friends)? There are as many ‘experts’ on this as Twitter accounts and some scenarios have huge implications for the future viability of event business models. Clearly, in the short term, as governments continue to seek to protect their healthcare systems from overload, they will be very cautious, and we’ll all have to operate at best at arm’s length. My experience of the bounceback from SARS would suggest that it might be sooner than we think, however, before people are willing to squeeze together again. Qantas certainly seems to think so.
  • How long quarantine restrictions remain in place and travel, particularly by air, is so constrained will have a critical impact on how quickly we can get back to some kind of normal business. Major events in China, India and the US can survive quite well on a primarily domestic audience for a year or so. But, in other places this would have a huge impact, particularly on the larger events. Even if we, our exhibitors and visitors can travel, what impact will bankruptcies and reduced airline operations have on air fares? 
  • And, finally, how many of these digital initiatives will survive the immediate crisis. There will be many who like to imagine that “we’ll be back to normal next year and we won’t really have to worry about this stuff”. That’s possible and we can all safely reassure ourselves with the event industry mantra that “human beings are social creatures and we have to meet”. But, how many of the changes will work really well and become permanent features of the business marketing landscape? Business meetings, conferences, and face-to-face education will almost certainly never be the same again. The technology has had the fiercest of tests, such as normally only military technologies get tested and, as happens at those times, they have and will continue to evolve extraordinarily quickly. 
  • These are the questions on my mind. I’d be interested to know whether they match with your concerns or whether you think I’m missing some important issues. Of course, what I’ve highlighted here is the known knowns and the known unknowns. As Donald Rumseld memorably told us back in 2002, it’s the unknown unknowns “that tend to be the difficult ones”.
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