As the uncertainty continues, the event industry is discussing the path forward. Some event professionals want a comeback as fast as possible, others feel the risk for attendees and staff. Should events open or wait?
The latest data and research point to a very complex comeback for the event industry. Physical distancing, sanitation, and thermal scanning are just some of the items giving headaches to planners around the world.
Yet a bigger question is looming over the industry: is reopening the right thing to do?
There is a very clear division between those that cannot wait for reopening and those who would prefer to delay the comeback.
Both parties seem to have quite compelling arguments.
Re-open Events At All Costs
There is a very bullish faction of the industry pressing governments, venues, and destinations for a speedy reopening. The main driver behind their eagerness to go back is very understandable.
Any business is better than no business.
With many event planning companies, agencies, and suppliers going quickly out of cash, and with government financial support initiatives exhausting their relief effect, many have no other option than to shut down.
Those that went all in and did not reschedule their summer events are ready to risk it all. It’s a make-or-break situation for many large and small shows trying to stay alive.
It was last week that we got the news that a 30,000 participant event was going ahead in Orlando in June. After revising the advice from local authorities, it was pushed back to July — still an incredibly short timeline for many.
Some planners in online discussion groups are raising their eyebrows at such short timelines. Others are celebrating. They are welcoming such news as positive signs of recovery.
The basic idea is that the more events go ahead, the more planners will follow. In turn, attendees will feel more confident to go out, ‘because everybody is doing it.’
It is very hard not to sympathize with those that are about to lose the job or business that they spent most of their life working for. The severity of the damage that the industry has absorbed over the past three months is just beginning to surface, and it is not looking good.
With many industries looking at a three- to five-year recovery, events are in for a long and painful road back to where the industry was in January 2020.
On the other hand, sympathy takes a back seat when the debate becomes a matter of life or death. This is where the other faction of the industry is gravitating towards.
Better Safe Than Sorry
For those that have been impacted by Covid-19, whether they had it themselves or know someone who contracted it, there is no question. There is no way to justify pushing an events comeback before a cure, a vaccine, or herd immunity is reached.
It is very painful for this side of the industry to go through the process of denying their work because it can lead to deaths.
They are the same people who voiced very strongly their anger in February when associations were inviting for business to go on as usual, while people were dying around the world.
Despite all the measures currently being discussed by many groups within the industry, there are many event professionals convinced that it is too risky to engage in events with more than 50 attendees.
They comment online very vigorously whenever some news of reopening comes up. They made up their minds: life is more important than business.
The Facts About Real Risk
Most research seems to point at events as the best opportunity for the coronavirus to spread. We have reported time and time again how gatherings have been the breeding ground for the virus to proliferate.
Erin Bromage, a comparative immunologist and biology professor, recently published a fact-based analysis of how the virus spreads.
The factors he points to are the time and exposure. Using a fairly simple formula based on the lowest required dose of the coronavirus, Bromage outlines the risk of a range of activities.
Unsurprisingly, spending prolonged time in the same room with an infected person, especially if talking, is one of the most critical high-risk activities for contracting Covid-19.
This is because merely exhaling releases a small volume of infected droplets that can become aerosolized, and according to Bromage, “speaking increases the release of respiratory droplets about 10 fold.” Over time, this can build up in an enclosed space until your exposure reaches the minimum viral dose required for infection.
Social distancing measures are more geared towards encounters outdoors. In areas such as restaurants, physical distancing doesn’t amount to much, and not just because extended periods of time will increase the viral saturation of the ambient air. Air conditioning can actually push larger droplets further distances and a recent black-light experiment in Japan showed that even apart from respiratory droplets, there is plenty of opportunity to spread the virus.
The upshot? If you are in the same room with someone infected with the virus for a long time, you will get the virus, no matter the distance.
Looking at these facts, events will either have to test all attendees at registration, or they will inevitably expose everyone to a very high risk of contracting the virus.
A Turning Tide for Events
This latest research points to a very grim scenario for the industry. Yet there is some good news that could potentially swing the next three months to a very quick reopening rush.
THE VIRUS IS LOSING INTENSITY.
Italy has been at the center of the first really massive outbreak outside of Asia. It is a case in point for analyzing how effective the lockdown measures have been and how the reopening phases are impacting the reproduction (R0) rate.
Many Italian clinical doctors who have been in the trenches since February 21 and have seen thousands of people die before their eyes are saying out loud that the virus is not as disruptive as it used to be. Fewer people are being treated in hospitals or crowding ICUs. They complain that governments are only listening to epidemiologists and physicists, disregarding what experience says.
This experimental evidence is completely unsupported by models, but it is the reality of Florida and Georgia, two US states that reopened very soon and where cases are going down.
Are we facing the ‘virus will be gone by the summer’ scenario we’ve been hoping for?
There is no scientific evidence to support such a claim, yet there is a widespread feeling of confidence as more countries such as Italy plan to reopen international travel from June 3rd and look toward 1,000-person outdoor events. It’s possible these dramatic decisions are the result of some level of analysis that takes into account a weaker virus.
Of course, the virus may be set for a second wave later this year. Stronger or weaker, we don’t know, but it will potentially force the world into another lockdown.
A CURE MAY BE CLOSER.
The first studies on drugs to cure Covid-19 are starting to come in. Some of them look quite promising — Remdesivir, tocilizumab and plasma above all. These independent studies could soon lead to a very high effective therapy for combatting the virus.
In other words, a cure seems closer than previously thought. This is good news for many industries. For those without underlying medical conditions or weaker immune systems, a successful treatment regimen could make contracting Covid-19 feel about as risky as contracting the flu.
For them, it may be reasonable to visit a high-traffic airport, take a plane somewhere, or spend days at a conference.
Timelines are still up in the air but progress is being made.
A Confidence Boost?
The decline in numbers in many countries, together with steadier progress in finding effective drugs, are pushing the hopes up for many industries.
A feeling of ‘what are we waiting for?’ is very palpable. On the other hand, research as of a couple of weeks ago paints a very different picture in consumer confidence. ‘If you build it, they will come’ still feels like more of a nice proverb than a reality.
The factors affecting attendees’ confidence require more time to come back to normal.
SO, OPEN OR CLOSED?
The truth is that some factors are in the positive and countries are reopening. We may all auspicate a strong and prolonged negative R0 factor. We may all pray for a fast cure development. We are all impatiently waiting for a vaccine to be developed.
Are we there yet? Probably not.
Nonetheless, it is not crazy or dangerous to start devising safe environments where some types of events can happen. Many venues and associations are working hard to establish safe practices to start injecting more confidence in attendees.
There is no shame in doing that. Actually, if these experiments prove successful, those who initiated them will have delivered a great service to the industry.
It is crucial, though, to have a clear picture of what things will look like once reopened. It won’t be what we remember from January 2020. We will have very different events with strong hybrid components.
If you are undecided and do not know what to do, virtual events continue to be the best possible choice until things clear without a shadow of a doubt — the type of doubt that could harm your attendees and put you and your business in serious trouble.
Virtual events continue to give many a strong lifeline to keep business going with no risk involved. No shame about that. As per the tweet below:
Why are we having the conversation on whether virtual events are a substitute for live events?
We had it 10 years ago. The answer is no.
Move on and keep planning online events to sustain your business during times of crisis.
The next wave will be hybrid.
— Julius Solaris (@tojulius) May 13, 2020