The event industry has had a tough go of it this year. Event professionals have all been affected in one way or another by the pandemic, and have experienced different paths to acceptance and recovery. Here, three eventprofs share their stories of struggle and success in 2020.
Over the past few months, the event industry has experienced unprecedented loss and unforeseeable challenges. We’ve seen the statistics, and they paint a picture of struggle: as of July, over a third of eventprofs were forced to cancel a major event, and 40% were unable to successfully pivot to virtual.
Millions of workers around the world have been laid off or furloughed, and event giants have seen earnings fall steeply. Although this paints a troubled image of the industry as a whole, individual event planners have had vastly different experiences in dealing with the pandemic.
In order to share some of their stories, we spoke with three event professionals and dove into their perspectives and experiences from 2020, as well as their thoughts on what’s to come.
Taking the Pandemic in Stride by Focusing on the Now
Aaron Kaufman, President, Fifth Element Inc.
As the president of live experience firm Fifth Element, Aaron Kaufman manages a wide variety of events, from galas and fundraisers to trade shows and launches. But when Covid hit, virtually every event they had on the calendar was cancelled.
However, Kaufman notes that they were successful in terms of reworking contracts very quickly and being proactive. “Internally, we work off a really good code of ethics and standards,” he shares. “Our contracts are very tight in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not, so we were able to work with our clients to find reasonable solutions.”
Once the initial slew of cancellations subsided, Kaufman says that Fifth Element continued conducting business like they always have: by preparing proposals that outline their ideas and working on creating the best experiences for their clients using whatever tools are at their disposal.
“Our industry is about creating experiences and emotional connections,” he says, “So the way we’re looking at it is, how do we still facilitate those things, even though we can’t just dump 1,000 people in a room? Everyone’s talking about when things go back to normal, but I personally have taken the opposite approach. I’m just looking forward to what is coming up next.”
“No company should have ever had to pivot. As an industry, we’ve had these tools for a long time. What people should have said was: ‘We understand that times are different. Here are the tools we are now using to deliver the experiences that you’re used to getting from our firm.'”
AARON KAUFMAN, President, Fifth Element Inc.
In terms of the future of the industry, Kaufman believes that “unfortunately, the industry has to shrink, and then we’re going to have to start looking at building bigger companies that can sustain future potential disruptions, and start building up capital and doing business properly.”
The other essential piece of the puzzle according to Kaufman is implementing regulations and standards across the industry so that we can “prepare for lobbying, even when times are good.
It’s on us for not getting together enough to be able to say, here are the standards of our industry. Clients should never hire a company that doesn’t have a permanent insurance policy. We need to be teaching clients what to look for in a reputable company.”
As for the immediate recovery of events, he also warns against starting physical meetings back up prematurely:
“We need to really look at what the initiatives are in our industry right now. Is holding an empty event somewhere changing anything? Trying to hold a live event right now to try to prove something is extremely risky and has no return — the first time that people get sick at a conference that we’re trying to do for ourselves will be the last conference that any major company does for years.”
Confronting Obstacles with Optimism and Self-Reflection
Keneisha Williams, Co-Founder, Black in Events
When Keneisha Williams — who had been working as Community Engagement Coordinator for Diabetes Canada at the time — realized in April that this was going to be far from a normal year, she was still optimistic that events would pick back up again by September. However, that didn’t prove to be the case.
“I had to take a step back and realize that my job was on the line. Planning events is like second nature for me, so it was a total blow. I realized that I had to put my energy into doing other things, whether it was learning more about the industry or getting more involved and talking with my peers.”
KENEISHA WILLIAMS, Co-Founder, Black in Events
She also notes that while the Canadian government did provide support for business owners during the pandemic, governments around the world should be paying more attention to the billion-dollar event industry, and echoes Kaufman’s statements that governments need more information on the industry in order to be able to come to its aid on a larger scale. “It comes with getting the education on what we’re doing,” she says.
During the extended lull in events brought about by Covid, Williams shares that she has taken the opportunity to take a step back and really think about her purpose within events: “I wanted to get back to helping people create events that are creating changes.”
One way Williams has done so is by co-founding Black in Events, a global network for black event professionals, with fellow eventprof Ashanti Bentil-Dhue. They connected at the beginning of the year, before the murder of George Floyd fueled protests in the US and around the world.
Following the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, according to Williams, “the message in the event industry was becoming loud and clear. We had black event professionals coming to speak out and talk about the event space. It’s important for us to come together and make changes that represent all of us to bring the event industry in a positive step forward.”
Over the summer, Black in Events put together a fully virtual event — Williams’ first event of the year — which was a success. “We did little things that people probably had never seen before,” she notes, “like for example, our black voices panel, and engaging voices that we had never heard from before to get different perspectives.”
While Williams has some experience with hybrid events, she calls herself an “in-person live events girl” and recognizes that she still has a lot to learn when it comes to the virtual space. “I’m so impressed by how the event industry has just taken virtual events and created it into a thing that we will never be able to walk away from,” she says.
When thinking about the future, she believes that “our priority right now should be to stay focused on learning the skills that are needed to create new events in the event space, network as much as we can with our peers, and collaborate — the more we collaborate, the more successful we are as individuals and businesses. And of course, staying optimistic despite it all.”
Learning Important Lessons for Business Longevity
Andrew Roby, Owner, Andrew Roby Events
Like Kaufman and Williams, DC-based wedding and corporate event planner Andrew Roby realized early on that the coronavirus would have a widespread impact on events in 2020. As he began hearing more about the virus’s impact in Asia back in March, he told himself that “this is not going to be isolated to any country, and sure enough, it became a global crisis.”
Even when the effects made their way to the US, Roby was able to continue some events. He kept planning most events that were at least six months out, and adjusted some timelines. What also helped his business adapt was the fact that it had been offering various event consultation services and doing virtual events and webinars prior to Covid-19.
“We had a good idea of how different that was to in-person events,” he says. “At first, no one wanted to do anything in person, but then there was a surge of rebellious people who refused to stay home. I told myself that we needed to figure out how to entertain people virtually and began to increase our virtual event consultation and production services.”
Roby shares that some of the biggest takeaways from his experience were changing how he looked at virtual events, learning about video production and virtual platforms (and their many limitations), and increasing how he prepares his team, speakers, and sponsors for virtual events.
Although Roby was able to transition his business to virtual and other consultation services, he notes that this experience has reinforced the need for small business owners to build up solid savings to be able to fall back on — at least six months’ worth of expenses.
He also shares much of the industry’s disappointment in governments’ lack of aid:
“Having a list of grant providers and other resources would have been helpful so we could immediately apply,” he says. “Sadly, our government has been no help during a time when we expected them to support us. That has been the biggest struggle and disappointment during this time.”
But more devastating than any amount of financial loss was loss of loved ones, as Roby shares that he lost his stepfather because of Covid-19 and the negligence of the US government.
“As with everything, we have to learn the lessons being taught to us right now. We change strategies, we adjust to new practices, and we look into how we shape the future. That’s the best way for us to cope with this.”
ANDREW ROBY, Owner, Andrew Roby Events
Moving forward, Roby believes that the industry needs to recognize where the industry has failed and refused to grow. “We have been slow to embrace hybrid events and see the advancements of technology as an industry,” he says. “We also need larger tech companies to stop focusing solely on their priorities and listen to event producers to figure out what our tech needs are. We must work with each other to offer the best solutions for our clients and not necessarily for ourselves.”
The event industry has a long way to go in its recovery, and it has been so fundamentally changed this year that we may never return to the way things were pre-2020.
If these stories have shown anything, it’s that the industry needs to band together to not only make it through the fallout of the pandemic, but to prepare for potential future crises to make sure that we don’t find ourselves in the same position again.