Governments’ Indecision Leaves Event Industry Screaming for Help

Skift Take

The event industry is surviving the fourth month of total shutdown. Immediate action is needed from local governments before irreparable damage is caused.


Events have been shut for a while now. While a part of the industry is trying to embrace the virtual event revolution, many are struggling.

When we asked over 1,000 event professionals what happened to their last major event, only 32% answered that they pivoted to virtual. The other 68% either canceled or postponed.


We may anticipate many of those who postponed having to once again assess the situation. In fact, many events pushed to August in February have been canceled or pivoted.

It seems the industry is now past the phase of ‘we are all in it together.’

Event professionals are growing angry.


Reopening Events Are All Over the Place

With many economies reopening, the comeback of events is a big mess.

In a recent post, we outlined how some of the countries most affected by coronavirus are reopening events. The discrepancies are evident.

Indoor, outdoor. 250 attendees, 1,000, unlimited. June, July, August, September.

It seems that when it comes to events, there is no consensus or science that holds. Shutting down a $1 trillion industry was the most natural thing to do, even before lockdowns started. Yet in some places, 500 people can sit in a movie theater while events are banned.

The logic behind such distant decisions does not fail to appall event professionals around the world. From France, to Australia, from the UK to the US, planners are in despair.


Governments Do Not Understand Events

The ‘meetings’ industry has come a long way in the last 25 years. It has organized itself with many trade associations. Exhibitions, MICE, meetings, conventions, special events. There is an association for everything.

These players have brought in designations, certifications, big books to study for difficult exams. They have elevated the role of event professionals, distinguishing them from the amateur event planner portrayed in movies from the 90s.

Coronavirus was the opportunity for all these players to truly advocate for the thousands of meeting professionals without a job or who were furloughed. Were they successful?

One thing for sure is that governments have no clue about the dynamics of business events.

Kayleigh Griffith, a UK based event manager says that her government has no plans:

“I think the UK government grasps the urgency of getting the economy going, but not specifically around supporting the events industry. We’ve already seen agencies closing their doors, and whilst many are still on the job retention scheme (furlough), I have spoken to friends in the industry who fear redundancy or are in the position of having to reapply for their jobs once the furlough scheme has ended.”

– Kayleigh Griffith, UK-based Event Manager

Her comments echo a recent statement by the UK advocacy group Business Visits & Events Partnership who warned of ‘a catastrophic and irreversible impact to the industry if the government further delays publishing clear and practical guidelines on the opening of the UK’s vital events sector and relaxing the current two meter physical distancing rule.’

Things are no different in the neighboring Ireland, where the Association of Irish Professional Conference Organizers warned of a potential industry collapse without government intervention. They quantified the damage: €200M.

France, Spain, and Italy had to go through the same level of pressure before receiving (last week) plans for reopening. Some in June, some in July, some in September. Once again, no logic whatsoever in countries that have pretty much the same numbers, are close to each other and are reopening borders shortly.

Canadian event business owner Aaron Kaufman, CEO of Fifth Element Group, shares his frustration with trade associations’ inability to clearly communicate the needs of the industry to different governments:

“While member companies, many unable to operate and on the verge of collapse, are being hit up for renewals (even with ‘help and understanding of challenges’), they continue to wonder why the industry goes unrecognized and can’t get help?  The associations and their members have developed no reasonable guidelines or barriers for the industry, but expect governments to render their debatable infographic statistics as reasonable.”

– Aaron Kaufman, CEO, Fifth Element Group

Austin-based Cindy Lo, owner of Red Velvet Events, a creative event planning agency deeply involved with events like SXSW, echoes the struggle:

“I don’t think the government understands how large our industry is. I am frustrated that there are guidelines for almost everything except for our industry to return. Because of how fragmented our industry has been, we are struggling to show the government how big of an industry we are.”

– Cindy Lo, Owner, Red Velvet Events


Meetings Feel the Weight of Regulations, While Leisure Thrives

As I am reporting from Las Vegas, locals have witnessed long lines from California and Arizona. Casino floors are very busy, with little to no physical distancing and hardly anyone wearing masks.

The libertine status of the leisure industry is, of course, upsetting epidemiologists, but also meeting planners.

As thousands of people flood the casino floor, shouting vigorously and emitting droplets (the coronavirus vessel of choice), event planners are raising their eyebrows.

Why are planned gatherings still banned in many states if in the same states indoor restaurants and movie theaters are allowed? Why can we fly with 300 fellow passengers but meeting with more than 10 is a high risk?


Safety First, but Give Us a Plan

The event industry is one that holds very dearly the safety of its attendees. Many planners immediately gauged the risks of superspreader events in helping the virus circulate. No questions were asked. Events shut down overnight.

Yet if a mass gathering is approved in Tulsa or Utah, a state with 394 new cases a day, can have indoor events with up to 3,000 attendees some planners question why they cannot hold a 250-person meeting in their city with a flattening curve.

Is it inconsiderate to run events while some states are adding 4,000 new cases a day and ICUs are getting busy again? Many would answer yes, but rules should be as unanimous as possible across the board.

In fact, it would be good to have rules to begin with.

As the WHO and CDC have only released some guidance in the past two weeks, the industry is still lacking clear direction that could instil the confidence to attend meetings safely.

In the midst of this confusion, virtual events remain the only low-risk way to make ends meet for many event planners.

Yet any further delay in clear guidelines for the event industry will damage not only planners but also suppliers such as hotels, DMCs, production and AV companies just to name a few who were almost entirely left out from virtual events.

It seems that very few seem to grasp the extent of the damage. The event industry is screaming for help. Who will step up and take the challenge of making local governments listen?