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The Biggest Challenge to the Recovery of Events in 2021

Skift Take

As 2020 comes to a close and different governments begin to roll out Covid vaccines, the event industry needs to double-down on health and safety — normally a paramount priority that event planners have down pat, but these days the subject of some debate.

It may be tempting to view the initial rollout of Covid vaccines as an indication that the end is in sight — and it is, but let’s not kid ourselves about the timeline for events. Most countries are prioritizing healthcare workers and the vulnerable before they make vaccines accessible to the general public, and it could be months before the majority of prospective attendees receive one.

And that’s assuming that they actually get one. Apart from the avid anti-vaccers and nanotech conspiracy theorists, some just find the rapid development and deployment to be itself discomfiting and would prefer to wait and see where the chips fall before they get in the game. Moreover, the situation is evolving constantly. At the time of writing, the emergence of a more contagious strain of the virus has sent the UK into another massive lockdown less than a week before Christmas.

The upshot is that, at least for the time being, event professionals cannot relax. Any in-person meeting needs to observe maximum Covid health and safety precautions, and the industry will likely need to rely heavily on virtual event engagement to tide itself over for the bulk of 2021.

Just what that means is a matter of some debate. In this post, we endeavour to tease out some of the most critical health and safety factors.


The Data: Taking the Industry’s Pulse

Per EventMB’s most recent research into the event industry, 55 percent of event professionals cited safety concerns as the most important obstacle to planning in-person events. Travel limitations and a concern about the viability of low-capacity events were second and third, at 14 percent and 10 percent respectively.

A Covid vaccine was the most cited factor that would make event professionals feel confident planning and attending live events (40 percent), followed by an effective Covid treatment (16 percent) and effective onsite testing (15 percent).


Guidelines and Leadership

One thing the industry desperately needs is a consistent set of authoritative guidelines that everyone can agree on and follow. Several trade associations have tried to lead the charge, mostly by packaging some combination of CDC or WHO regulations along with the caveat that event professionals have to follow local guidelines, but there has been little to no enforcement. The result is that each region has its own set of often-changing and incoherent regulations regarding mass gatherings and events — and the consequences for failing to adhere to them are often negligible. Really, the industry should have enlisted a group of epidemiologists and medical professionals to develop and maintain informed, consistent policies. “Follow the science,” as many governments like to say while they submit to economic pressures.


Covid Risk, Responsibility, and Liability

Event professionals and agencies are responsible for keeping their attendees, staff, and other stakeholders safe and secure at their events. Without getting into the countless regional particulars, liability is normally measured against a reasonableness standard. If an event planner has made reasonable efforts to meet their legal obligations, communicate and enforce the rules, and mitigate the reasonably foreseeable risks of the event, then those efforts will not only make problems less likely to occur but also contribute to a defence against a health and safety liability claim. As such, creating the infrastructure for safety and data security is standard practice that every seasoned event organizer is familiar with.

Covid, however, has thrown a wrench in the works. There are countless examples of non-compliance documented across social media platforms. A lack of consistent rules across the industry has produced a myriad of problematic policies that are either ineffective in and of themselves or merely ineffectively enforced.


Health and Safety as a Matter of Personal Comfort

Once upon a time, event professionals took seriously their duty to keep everyone safe. However, a lack of enforcement combined with extreme economic pressure has caused many event professionals to take risks in order to keep the industry afloat, and some of them are more thought-out than others.

Notably, a peculiar trend emerged in which event planners decided that when it comes to health and safety and the duty to enforce rules that keep attendees from endangering one another, it should be a matter of how individual attendees personally feel about it. The result was a glorified ‘hanky code’ of conduct for event attendees that used different colored bracelets to let others know what they’re into.

Hugs, handshakes… if everyone is consenting, then what’s the problem?

Well, for one thing, business events are not cage fights; participants cannot normally consent to risk each other’s health.


Alcohol, Covid Safety, and Consent to Risk

Moreover, many events serve alcohol, which undermines the integrity of any presumed consent. Imagine a red-braceleted attendee who spends an event dutifully social distancing and then removes her bracelet in the last 20 minutes of a cocktail hour. Under this “I dunno, you decide” approach to risk-mitigation-via-consent, to what extent do planners have to accept the liability for those whose consent is in some sense violated or invalidated by event-facilitated inebriation?

Of course, alcohol service at business events comes with a whole host of other problems, but as it concerns health and safety, the most significant is perhaps also the most obvious: The consumption of alcohol simultaneously reduces your social distancing inhibitions while requiring you to remove your mask.


Attendees Taking Control Without Taking Responsibility

Both the Covid safety color code and the argument for alcohol service at business events center around the idea that people should be able to choose for themselves what level of risk they are comfortable with. “In this time of restriction and limitations,” some say, “what attendees want is a sense of control.”

But is it an event planner’s job to satisfy that desire? The more nuanced questions usually fail to make it into the rhetoric.

  • If attendees are taking control, who are they taking it from? (Planners, obviously.)
  • And what are they taking control of? (Health and safety.)

What is it about Covid safety measures that make them different from other safety policies that event planners are legally required to establish and enforce?

If event planners are eager to relinquish control over the safety and security at their events on the premise that attendees are consenting to the risk, does that mean attendees are then accepting the legal responsibility?

DYNATA research from June says no. Out of 1000 participants asked whether they would sign a coronavirus waiver, only 13 percent would be willing to do so in order to attend an indoor sporting event, and even less (11 percent) for an indoor political event. Nearly 20 percent of the respondents didn’t even think the coronavirus was a threat (7 percent thought it was ‘made up’), which means that at least some people wouldn’t even accept legal responsibility for assuming a risk they don’t believe exists.


Confidence: If You Build It, Will They Come?

After the actual health and safety risks associated with hosting in-person events, the next biggest factor is the perception of that risk. While the unwillingness to sign a liability waiver is not a direct indication of confidence, it does suggest that many attendees have reservations.

Recent data published by FHTglobal indicates that 61 percent of medical conference attendees would be uncomfortable traveling to the US to attend a medical conference in the first quarter of 2021. A further 20 percent are “unsure.” The percentage of those who would be comfortable doesn’t reach 50 percent until the fourth quarter, and these events cater to the most educated and Covid-conscious event crowd there is.

Event professionals have a vested interest in the recovery of the event industry, and their confidence is not much better. According to EventMB’s latest research, a third of event professionals — people who intimately understand an event’s ability to ensure safety — wouldn’t be willing to attend any in-person events. A further third would only attend a meeting that was both small and local. Only 14 percent would be willing to attend an event anywhere of any size.

Meanwhile, some industry leaders in travel and hospitality have described Covid sanitation protocols as hygiene theater — a ritual designed less to create actual safety than to placate the paranoid masses. This rhetoric itself is likely designed to instil confidence on the part of industry professionals: “Yes, we’re cleaning everything very thoroughly, but you don’t have to worry because it’s totally safe regardless.”



While this strategy might help to assuage the concerns of some attendees, it’s likely that the disposition to attend live events will shift as we get closer to vaccinating the general public. Some were undoubtedly willing to accept a certain level of risk when comparing it to prolonged restrictions and economic struggle, but with a potential end in sight in some regions as early as the summer, many will likely feel more inclined to ride it out.