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The Future of Conferencing

The Conference and Events Industry is fraught with uncertainty at the moment. In the midst of a global pandemic, our industry has been hit hard. But, if there’s one thing that we do know for certain, it’s that the industry is working harder than ever before in light of COVID-19, to ensure that event organisers and their delegates receive the very best possible service, and experience, through enhanced communications, flexibility and adaptability.

Even as destinations around the world strive to find their way, the one question on industry’s lips is what exactly will the future of conferencing look like? With our expert team, over 50 years of experience, and insight from many industry webinars later, we’ve pulled together our predictions on what the future of the conferencing industry will look like, in both the short term and the long term, and what factors event organisers should be considering when putting plans in place to move forward, and pave the way for ‘the new normal’. 

How has the Conference and Events industry been impacted?

The conference and events industry has always followed the mantra of ‘putting people first’, and it has a whole host of passionate professionals who have been working their hardest to achieve this. All around us, as the lockdown progressed, the industry has proven how resilient and adaptable it can be, and despite the challenges that are being presented, it’s been truly wonderful to see how quickly industry professionals have acted in adapting their cancellation policies, postponing events and even bringing events online.

For example, Leeds Digital Festival, the UK’s largest tech event, was amongst one of the first to be cancelled, but was soon brought back to life through a virtual, online platform. Offering a total of 50 sessions, ranging from social media masterclasses through to SEO strategy, web development education and automation talks, the home-grown event was able to adapt and change practices in order to continue running for delegates. The festival itself received a huge amount of support, and proved to be a wonderful success for all involved, but perhaps the biggest success of all, was the stronger and supportive community that has come out of it.

But what’s next? Davies Tanner’s April 2020 COVID-19 Business Events Sentiment report states that event planners and venue teams broadly agree that September is expected to be the most significant month when it comes to recovery in enquiry and booking levels, with 38% of respondents believing this is when they expect to be re-opening diaries or to begin making firm enquiries. What’s more, the research also states that event planners and venue teams are anticipating that the industry will not return to a sense of normal until 2021.

What fundamental changes do you think will need to happen in the next six months, so that events can run again?

One of the main, underlying issues bubbling beneath the surface for the future of events is consumer confidence. Before events can begin to go ahead, it’s crucial that delegates feel safe and secure with the new measures put in place by the venue and the conference organiser. This includes implementing a strong emphasis on the health of customers and delegates as the very first priority and a certain level of confidence will need to be achieved across all aspects of the delegate experience before the industry can realistically start to bounce back; from travel and accommodation, right through to catering and networking. Organisers and delegates will need to have an understanding of what the ‘the new normal’ will look like, to be able to successfully manage expectations going forward.

Travel is a huge element to any event, and one that has been significantly disrupted due to COVID-19. Aeroplanes and trains are now running at a much reduced capacity, in order to align with social distancing measures. Yet despite this, there may well (and understandably) be hesitation from delegates to consider any kind of travel via public transport. Of course, first and foremost, travel plans will need to align with the Government’s safety measures, which will be dependent on lifting the all ‘non-essential’ travel ban on public transport. Event organisers can tackle this challenge by hosting events closer to home, and as consumer confidence begins to increase, and social distancing measures are relaxed, explore other destinations further afield.

Accommodation is also a crucial factor for any conference or event, and many hotel chains have spent the last few months reviewing and creating their cleaning and hygiene policies. For example, The Hilton Hotel has recently stated that it will look to create an entirely different policy moving forward. This new policy is set to involve a 24 hour period post-checkout, before cleaners are able to disinfect and deep clean a  room. There may also be an increase in virtual check-ins, as well as implementing social distancing measures in elevators and managing traffic on floors and corridors by running at a reduced capacity.

Catering for an event will also need to be closely re-evaluated. Self-service buffets which were once a popular catering option may now no longer be possible, and pre-sealed options could quickly become the new norm. An extension of this, of course, is very first priority and a certain level of confidence will need to be achieved across all aspects of the delegate experience before the industry can realistically start to bounce back; from travel and accommodation, right through to catering and networking. Organisers and delegates will need to have an understanding of what the ‘the new normal’ will look like, to be able to successfully manage expectations going forward.

Davies Tanner’s COVID-19 Business Events Sentiment report also states that general sentiment is that individual businesses will begin to pick up in the next six – nine months, whilst the impact on the wider business events industry will be longer lasting, with 50% of all respondents believing that the industry will not return to any form of normality for at least 12 months.

What is the long term impact on conferencing and events?

Our industry is well known for its resilience, flexibility and adaptability; all three of which have definitely been put to the test! With that in mind, it’s important to note that whatever the outcome may be, whether we are able to run events again in September, or things take a little longer, that the industry will recover. That we know for certain.

The impact of the lockdown to date has already been huge, both for the short term and the long term, and we can only continue to hope that the Conference and Events Industry will be back in action sooner rather than later. Due to the increased understanding and use of technology during the lockdown, the events industry will continue to harness digital opportunities in the future, not only to increase their audience engagement, but also to enhance delegate experiences and help to support the wider environment.

One thing that we believe is true, is that people to people meetings will be more valued, appreciated and sought after than ever before. The networking opportunities, which will need new measures in place, will be relished and appreciated, leaving us with no doubt that whilst it may take months, perhaps even over a year, for the industry to fully bounce back, it absolutely will and it will be like never before, for the better.

What will be the recovery process on regional, national and international events?

Whilst the impact across regional, national and international events has been the same, the recovery process will be very individual to the market, as well dependent on the organiser and delegate confidence in returning to the industry; something that is key for organisations like us to play a core part in once it’s safe to do so.

We are currently looking at implementing a recovery strategy, in which we are targeting our local and regional audiences first and foremost. This will involve supporting our venues with their local accounts, whilst working closely with our hoteliers association and independent venues. We believe that collaboration across the city will be critical and this increase in a closer community will lead to a surge in support for both Leeds as a city whilst raising the profile of the importance and value of conferences and events, whilst also supporting consumer confidence measures. Therefore, by working with the local authorities and implementing safety measures on a regional scale as a priority, we will be able to bring back conferencing and events to the city that we know and love.

However the national conference market can only be considered once travel restrictions on public transport have eased, and when consumers feel confident visiting other places. The international market provides a much more complex challenge, as each country will be operating under different restrictions amidst COVID-19. This means that, in comparison to hosting regional and national events, international events may take longer to come back, when compared to domestic business. What’s more, the balance between international travel restrictions and consumer confidence in travelling to a different country will have to be achieved, to help stimulate the market.

When this time does come, and it will, it’s crucial that all international delegates are fully informed on the UK’s measures, and that all delegates are able to abide by these in every step. This can be achieved through clear and enhanced communication from the very early stages of the event, right down until their travel home. The scope for international events will be led by our customers wants and needs, as we continue to place their priorities and their safety first.

Do you think there will be a wider reliance on digital meetings moving forward?

Absolutely, and we welcome it too! This time has presented itself as a fantastic opportunity for the meetings industry to move online, and we’ve seen technophobes quickly become experts. The industry has had to very quickly adapt to moving online via its communications, working processes, meetings and even running events. This is once again testimony to the incredible professionals in the industry who don’t let anything stand in their way – not even a global pandemic.

We feel that as a result of this pandemic, there will be a massive impact upon the way people are using digital technologies during their day to day work. Those people who  classed themselves as a technophobe are a thing of the past! We also predict that there will be a wider re-think around meetings in general. When once you might have nipped across cities for a smaller meeting, these will now have a greater tendency to take place online.

Going digital has been incredibly valuable, it has offered us all the opportunity to not only stay in touch with our colleagues, but our families and friends too. As a result of the pandemic, the introduction of a digital element within the industry could be here to stay! They have offered huge benefits whilst we’ve been in lockdown, but we also know that everyone is looking forward to engaging people-to-people, face-to-face. After all, it’s what we do best!

As we move into ‘the new normal’, it’s important for all of these factors to be seriously considered by event professionals, keeping in mind that customers’ and delegates’ health is the priority first and foremost.

Yes, the industry is going to change, and whilst we’re still identifying what that will look like, it will give the industry opportunities to change for the better. We will adapt, create, and come back stronger and better than ever before.

The conference and events industry is a truly fantastic one to work in, and is home to so many incredible people that are truly passionate about what they do. Despite the challenges we’ve all faced, we wouldn’t want to work in any other industry and we’re looking forward to seeing how we will all adapt, together.

For more information about ConferenceLeeds, please contact Shauna Madden or Stacey Kedwards on conferenceleeds@ilkagency.com

Notes to editors

Leeds is the 5th most popular conferencing destination in the UK, according to the 2019 BMEIS report, contributing £212.7 million to the local economy in 2017, (UKCAMS). The 2019 STEAM survey recorded that Leeds welcomed 30.42 million tourism visits in 2017, a 4.3% increase from 2018. The visitor economy sector is growing at an impressive rate, with day visitors up by 22% and overnight stays increasingly by 28%. 

ConferenceLeeds offers tailored conference propositions designed to delight and surprise. Offering a dedicated planning team, from venues and accommodation to catering and logistics, ConferenceLeeds works through every stage and detail to deliver an event like no other. 

Through an extensive list of partners, the ConferenceLeeds team provides unrivalled access to key people across the city, including thought leaders and industry bodies – opening endless doors to create exciting opportunities.

For more information visit www.conference-leeds.co.uk