Are we witnessing the death of the events industry?

Venues such as ExCel London have embraced digital events. But where does that leave small business suppliers, asks Natalka Antoniuk

As we know, the events industry is suffering at the hands of Covid-19. Let’s not dwell on that.

The #WeMakeEvents campaign has proven the strengths of the industry. The events workforce is highly confident that, in time, the events industry will thrive again. Until then all they can do is wait and hope that the government recognises its value.

But what about those companies that can’t wait?

An industry survey conducted by Feast It found that 61 per cent of businesses operating within the events industry have six months left to survive. Most of these businesses have not raised an invoice since March.

This might be why they are throwing everything they have at what was once believed to be a passing trend. Virtual events have dominated the lives of many event planners this year. And now businesses are adapting their product offering to tailor towards this niche.

As the UK’s most popular venue, ExCel London, announces the opening of its virtual event studio, can we assume that this marks the end of the events industry?

First to close

The events industry was the first to be shut down. In March, when Boris Johnson announced a ban on mass gatherings, planners and organisers began cancelling or postponing a swathe of live events.

By September, event suppliers like Quadrant2Design saw its entire 2020 calendar wiped out. Quadrant2Design designs and builds custom modular exhibition stands. When no exhibitions were taking place, they had no business. And that is a recurring theme across the entire events industry.

Virtual events

People wanted to attend events. And organisers didn’t want to sit around waiting. It wasn’t long before some of the biggest live events transitions to a digital environment.

Virtual events aren’t a new concept. Companies such as Event Industry News were trialling them as a sustainable, cost-effective way to bring large groups of people.

‘The virtual event industry cuts out the majority of the supply chain’

In some cases, they work well. A virtual event brings people together in an online environment. Visitors can interact via live chats, watch video streams, connect and share new experiences.

So what’s the problem?

Events industry vs virtual events

Virtual events were a great alternative. They opened opportunities that had never existed in the events industry before. Organisers had a lot to do trying to transition their event online. And people were excited by the idea of attending the “new normal”.

The problem is the virtual event industry cuts out the majority of the supply chain. Venues weren’t required. Neither were caterers. Entertainment, interior design, furniture rental, stage builders, sound and lighting engineers, cleaners, and exhibition stand builders. All of these roles disappeared the second virtual events took over.

The NEC is the UK’s largest venue at 182,000 square metres and it too has seen its 2020 calendar wiped out. Event organisers don’t need space to host a virtual event so what are these businesses meant to do?

Scraping the barrel

The events industry was given a restart date of October 1 as to when people could return to venues. Unfortunately, the number of coronavirus cases within the UK began to spike.

As the UK prepared for a second wave, Boris Johnson decided to put the events industry restart on hold.

This is understandable. Public safety must come first. But as you can imagine, it came as a huge blow to the thousands of businesses in the event industry supply chain.

With no restart date, no access to additional support, and no money coming in, businesses in the event industry supply chain have no choice but to find additional revenue streams.

Those who had once not been able to make a revenue from the virtual event market are finding new ways to tap into this potential income.

Virtual event studio

On October 15, 207 days after the event industry was closed down, ExCel London launched a virtual studio for businesses to have a dedicated space to host online events. The virtual event studio is equipped to broadcast video within a central, self-contained area.

This appears to be the only option for businesses involved in the event industry supply chain. However, by supporting the virtual transition ExCel London is supporting the demise of the events industry.

Rather than stand empty with no revenue, ExCel decided to find a way to move forward. Although the virtual event studio leaves more than 90 per cent of the venue empty, it does allow it to make money.

It isn’t fair to pick on ExCel. All year, event organisers have been making the digital switch. It is unclear whether they’re aiming to bring you the events you love or desperately trying to keep some of their annual turnover. Unfortunately, they have given the government the evidence that they need to believe our industry can move online. Thousands of businesses can’t do that, but the government have all the evidence they need to exclude them from further support.

Is this the only direction for the events industry? And if so, where does that leave the suppliers?

Death of in-person events

For a year, I have stayed positive. The events industry was promised a restart that never came. Now, some of our venues are preparing to remobilise the NHS Nightingales and we’re being told these restrictions could be in place for a further six months.

If virtual events are the way forward, what hope do the businesses that can’t move online have? And, if the biggest players in our industry are supporting the transition to a digital-only market, then what hope do the SMEs have of survival?

Of course, I’d love to tell you that this is a passing phase. I’d love to say that when all this is over everything will go back to normal. Unfortunately, as the days go on I can’t see that happening.

Events will be back. But the industry will never recover. Businesses operating in the sector must learn how to reposition. It appears a digital transition is our only hope of survival.

Natalka Antoniuk is a content writer for Quadrant2Design

Further reading

Best video conferencing tech for your small business

Natalka Antoniuk

Natalka Antoniuk is a content writer for Quadrant2Design.

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