Crisis, what crisis?

Never waste the benefits of a great pandemic! Prof. Dirk De Wachter, a well know Belgian psychiatrist and author just published his latest book in which he wishes everybody a ‘pandemic of consciousness’. Because of the Covid-19 crisis, we have had time and have been forced to think about things. Everyone has had creative ideas, and nobody believes that everything will be the same again after this. Or will it? Have not we learned from the ‘history repeats itself’ syndrome and going back to our old habits? Many of us have been thinking about overconsumption recently, as shopping became extremely limited. We went back to local producers and local shops, although we could have done that before. Instead of that we settled for the easy solutions. The same applies to mass tourism; leisure travel will probably never be the same again. But what can we learn and what opportunities for the meetings and events industry can we draw from this?

De Wachter hopes that we will think more about the WHY of travelling (I guess he as well watched or read Simon Sinek’s inspirational thoughts). Our future travels should become more conscious experiences. The times of sun, sea and sinful beverages are fading away. Going to another country to do, drink and eat the same as we do at home are supposed to be a thing of the past. Meeting other cultures, being in touch with history and art make our live better. Some trendwatchers state that that people will look with more stillness, durability and sustainability towards life and business, but I do not believe it will change that much. It is going to be too easy to fall back into the old patterns, the old ways of doing things. In the short term for sure we will see people (re)discovering their own country, visiting their own museums, and enjoying the local produce of the land. But once the gates are open again, many will fall back into the old and easy habits.

What’s in it for us now?

In my opinion, the same will apply in our meetings and professional events industries, wherever we are. Due to constraints we will not travel far in the immediate future. We will not be in massive gatherings either. But there is a market in our own countries and regions that we can tap into and who will not travel abroad this time. That is why I believe the market for the foreseeable future will be a domestic, regional even continental market if we are lucky.

I’m writing this article in preparation of a SITE Africa Summit tomorrow where we will debate what opportunities lie ahead for the meetings and events business in Africa. Many of us have not sold to our local market in the past. We have always focused on the long haul inbound or outbound markets. China, the United States and Canada as well as Europe have been the major generating markets for Africa’s tourism and events sector. Unfortunately they also happen to be the highest hit countries by the pandemic. Now regions will have to depend on their closest allies and neighbours. Africa for Africa, Europe for Europe etc. Therefor our national or city convention bureaus and tourism boards must change strategy and create a new and positive imaging, appealing to the short haul markets. We have the advantage that social media are an easy and cheap way of doing this and most of us, who were not social media conscious before, now have had the time and learned to navigate the digital newswires.

At the same time, destination marketeers will need to continue focussing on a number of topics that were hot in the pre-Covid19 age but often put on the backburner: sustainability, ecological load and impact and an economic recession that was announced already before the pandemic on top of it. After the Covid tsunami, we risk of being hit by an even bigger recession tsunami and whatever is left after that will risk destruction due to the climate crisis. 

The power of face to face

People travel to dissociate, to take a distance from things and focus for a short while on a different topic or other people. Our meetings and events industries are not so different from that. We go out to a meeting to focus, to learn, to network with people whom we are not dealing with daily. Or to reinforce distant relationships with a face-to-face experience, using all the senses we must understand, share our questions or ‘sell’ our ideas.

With what we have learned during our months of confinement, it is up to us, the industry, to set the new standards, streamline new ways of doing things. Support, letting people work together in a hybrid way. Governments need to be facilitators for this, they must stimulate, support, and create new chances and opportunities. In many countries for instance, unique venues and palaces are not open to the public. Governments can support the industry of giving access to these unique and iconic places. Places of heritage are the jewels in each destination’s crown.

What should government support look like?

In the first phase, governments have tried to support the victims of the Corona crisis in the short term with social security packages and funds. The European Community was leading in this, but some countries have produced almost no support at all. Massive lay-offs and workers being furloughed were in nobody’s plans and for those who forecasted a mini-max in the first quarter of the year have all seen the worst-case scenario becoming reality. The accommodation, restaurant, and cafés industry, together with the business and public events industry have been hit the hardest and were almost wiped off the board. And it is not over yet. Some of these support packages will need to be extended up to at least the end of 2020. It does not suffice to open borders and accommodation again; our industry also has lead times of at least 3 months leading up to an event to cover. Will our business survive? Do we have sufficient reserves? Will we get institutional support?

Now that the gates are opening again, the Belgian government for instance just gave a blanc cheque of 300 Euros to each Belgian; to be spent in hotels, cafés or restaurants or in cultural events. Thai people got the equivalent of 3000 Baht and in Japan the government has handed out cheques of 20.000 Yen plus offered 50% discount on domestic air, sea- or land transport. Blisters on a wound and in political terms leading to a get better feeling of the population. But do they help our live events industry? On top of it, allowing manifestations to take place whilst we keep our doors shut of meeting- and event venues has had very negative feedback from the public.

Rigid health and safety protocols need to be put into place

In the end, it’s up to us to come with solutions and suggestions. In the tourism and professional events industry tourist guides and DMCs will probably be the first enforcers on safety measures in travelling and accommodating. With a first task to safeguard the health and safety of their clients and their client’s clients, the ultimate travellers, visitors, and delegates to an event. An important task for governments will be to support training in this matter. But we need to draft the content!

For African nations, tourism has become an important sector in the last couple of decades. In an article I recently read that, according to the World Bank, one in 20 jobs is in travel and tourism related industries. The vulnerability of our industry comes easy but as we learned from the past, we are also in an industry that bounces back quickly after a disastrous period. Resilience and recovery are opportunities for growth. But as a counter note, we must remain vigilant for the impact of the traditional and social media that can distort the picture even more.

How safe is it?

This is the main question that any event client or organiser will ask. How secure is the destination, what measures have been taken? What we have learned from previous disasters (natural, health, terrorism, etc.) is that this is the first question that will be raised by potential clients. Companies will raise the questions for their staff or guests and make sure that their insurance company will give a go green sign. Legal and insurance now play a massive role and that is the reason that the health and safety topic is a conditio sine qua non. We will only have certainty in about a year from now when hopefully the crisis is over. The cancellation of IMEX America this week is once again a sign that our clients are not ready yet to make these decisions.

Going to a new hierarchy of needs in the meetings industry?

The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) came with a disruption study last week revealing threats to run incentive programmes. One of the main findings was that Covid19 was not the only threat they discovered. Severe weather, travel hazards, politics and economic downturns all claim their share of the disruption cake. But in all instances, safety matters prevailed. After lockdowns and confinement, people crave to go out and meet again in person. There will be a greater focus on new experiences at safe destinations with shorter traveling times. And until a vaccine is found and distributed at large, numbers of attendance will remain low.

What is important is that the concept of incentive travel will remain important as it is a motivational tool for higher performance. Corporations will continue to use them, but content and destinations will probably change in the short term. After all, incentive travel is a much stronger tool than merchandise or gifts although in the short-term companies may go for the safe option. Unless we can be creative and offer solutions within our own or neighbouring countries. Travel incentives remain the most cherished reward.

According to some research done by Skift, there is also a shift in priorities. Meaningful connections, entertainment and content now lead the way. Content – who used to be king – has dropped down from the first spot and networking as such has been replace by much more meaningful connections.

Recommendations in the short term

In the meantime, stay connected! Your clients and prospects have more time on their hands to listen and debate with you than they have in their normally stressful agendas. This is the time to reach out to them, inspire them, question them.

Call or meet with your suppliers, or partners as I prefer to say. Time to develop new products and services – be creative! Time to review terms and conditions in your contracts because I promise you, this is not the last crisis either. Use what we have learned when we were cancelling and rescheduling business projects with lots of empathy.

One thing that we all learned during these Covid 19 months is that pivoting to digital was a short term solution of turning live events to online events. Some of us had already taken that road and it has been the strategy of our company to become a master of the game. These digital solutions are here to stay and they will continue to be perfected.

As business owners, we must be vigilant and focus on community development as well as digital, influence and data solutions. Take care of your core teams, your true capital, because you will need them soon. Train them, work with them on new solutions. Health and safety and first aid is definitely a learning topic that you will be able to monetise later. 

I have often said that the profession of a DMC is changing and it is probably the business unit that is most under threat for the moment. DMCs that have not changed their traditional business model to an added value and consultative model and not embraced technology, as a tool but also as a revenue generating item are now in trouble. Digital solutions are easy to sell but you need to master them first yourself or have partners who do. Some of us for instance are looking into and testing the technology of virtual site inspections. A tool that can help you now to win business for tomorrow when our clients can travel again. But let’s be honest, there is nothing better than meeting face to face. Big virtual hug in the meantime!

Published by hugoslimbrouck

I am a destination marketer with a specialisation in meetings, events, conferences and incentives. Destination marketing, training and consulting as well as business networking are the things I'm good at. For the past 14 years I worked for the MCI Group and managed our global portfolio of strategic partners for the Ovation Global DMC brand. I'm also a past president of SITE and JMIC. During my career, I travelled an average of 120 days which allowed me to build a global network of buyers, prospects and influencers. Please check me out under my LinkedIn profile as well, either under my name or my alias hugosmartypants. I'm a father of 4 and grandfather of 6. Hiking out on the countryside is one of my favourite hobbies.

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