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Covid-19 recovery could make industry even stronger, says QEII chief

In this piece exclusive to M&IT, Mark Taylor, chief executive of The QEII Centre in London, says the business meetings and events industry’s recovery from the impact and the threat of Covid-19 could see it become even stronger…

As Alan Watts said: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

This concept, I believe, is one that will apply to the business and events industry if it is to be successful. Covid-19 has already forced changes on our organisations, and we must understand these changes, and adapt as we plan our return.

What is apparent is the situation changes rapidly. What looked likely six weeks ago is now looking unlikely. Subsequently everyone’s plans – both organisers’ and venues’ – are continually evolving. This makes it difficult to plan, but we can begin.

Meetings and events associations, trade bodies, organisers and venues around the world are studying the measures they should apply to their operations post-Covid-19. AIPC has just published a Good Practice Guide for reopening, while UFI has released a Global Framework for reopening exhibitions and B2B trade events – both of which draw upon the immense experience from their global memberships.

New reality

The QEII Centre has been on an interesting journey already with Covid-19. I believe we were the first UK venue to have a delegate attend an event in early February, who was subsequently diagnosed with the virus a few days later.

Mark Taylor.

Mark Taylor.

We implemented a range of measures by mid-February: hand sanitisers were installed across all entrances, floors and meeting spaces and increased cleaning frequency measures were in place.

This new hygiene requirement will, in the immediate term, become a new reality, and when the industry re-opens, health and security – ensuring that customer environments are safe and that organisers and delegates are confident in our measures – will be key to success.

We have reviewed additional measures and equipment, including thermal body temperature scanners to read temperatures of anyone entering the venue; hospital standard room disinfection for rooms, furniture and equipment; sneeze screens for reception and registration desks and a catalogue of other operational measures and signage that is all ready to roll out when we get the green light.

Like other venues, we’ve also assessed our meeting rooms from a social distancing perspective. We know this will reduce capacities, but the big question is which guidance on the measurements will apply – 1, 1.5, or 2 metres? By the autumn some think that prescribed social distancing may not be applicable at all, so we will have to wait and see.

Hybrid model

One area that will inevitably become the ‘new normal’ for events, especially those that usually welcome international delegates, is the hybrid model, where delegates can attend the event in person, while others attend online. Like others, QEII is expecting, and is already planning for, the expansion of our internal audio-visual operation and have created event packages offering virtual connectivity and live-streaming of our clients’ events. It is hard to say at this point how much hybrid will become a new norm and for how long.

We have seen some organisations replacing all their live events with digital ones, while others are adamant that streaming will not be part of their event formula because face-to-face contact is paramount. What has been encouraging to see is the progressive approach to business recovery being taken by different cities and nations, based on the timing and severity of the virus’ impact in their region.

I have been genuinely excited by news of recovery elsewhere. Berlin’s large consumer electronics and home appliances fair, IFA, is happening in September and Munich is commencing its trade shows in the same month; Paris will start with smaller events in June and July and larger events from September while Finland will hold some events in June and July, and a fuller programme for August.

Bodes well for recovery

Meanwhile, Austria has implemented new maximum numbers for events with 100 people from 1 June – rising to 250 people by 1 July and then to 500 people by 1 August. This all bodes well for the sector both in the UK and across the globe and provides those countries, who are phased slightly later along the Covid-19 impact curve, some real learning, guidance, and optimism.

While venues across the globe and our clients are planning enhanced hygiene measures, we still can’t be absolutely sure how effective they will be, particularly with the lag time for virus infections so apparent. Therefore, it seems obvious that the concept of organised events, where attendees are tracked, traced and vetted is definitely a positive way for the business events sector to commence the process of recovery. Germany, Australia and Malaysia are among those adopting this principle, and organisers and venues across other countries, including the UK are lobbying for the same approach.

All these factors must be taken into account as we plan for the industry’s re-opening, but most importantly, I think it is essential that the industry works together to ensure its future success. Venues must work proactively with event planners in a stronger, and more collaborative partnership approach.

We all need each other in order to flourish, but in order to do so, it is crucial that all parties act openly and fairly across every area of the supply chain. If we can all adapt to these new measures and ways of working, stay agile and respond to updates, be flexible in accommodating every party’s needs, and support one-another, I think we will do more than successfully rebuild the industry, we will have the potential to make it even stronger.