The global events industry generates more than $1 trillion in economic activity. Needless to say, it has been decimated by the coronavirus. After the lockdowns end and our health authorities tell us it’s safe to gather in groups, we need a plan to ease people back into real events. Virtual events won’t cut it in the long term — not just for participants but also for our economy.
The typically busy spring lineup of galas, receptions, multiday conferences, and fundraisers has been wiped out. Democratic convention planners last week announced they would delay until August, but questions abound about how exactly that would work and still keep people safe. Campaigns, advocacy groups, and charities, meanwhile, are scrambling to adapt and think about what the fall will look like — and whether they’ll have a fall at all.
The stakes are high. In the United States alone, the event planning business generates $325 billion of direct spending and helps support more than 5.9 million jobs with $249 billion of labor income. These jobs support the planners, audio-visual technicians, caterers, venues, cooks, waiters, and everyone else who helps produce the events we all enjoy.
When health authorities begin allowing people to gather again, the unease and anxiety will almost certainly linger. We need some ideas for that transition period from isolation to early socialization when we know it’s safe but people are still feeling on edge.
Here are a few.
Let’s bring back themed events to make new social norms (like wearing masks) less jarring and even fun. Designers are already starting to market fashionable masks.
Technology should play a major role. We should merge the virtual and live experience. For those who can’t make it in person for health reasons, give them a small role in the event, such as introducing a speaker or giving a toast from their living room. Or organize a chat group for virtual attendees during the dinner course. They can chat with their “tables” just as they would if they were at the event.
The dinner table needs a makeover too. We should bring back white glove service, which has typically been reserved for only very high-end events. We can protect your salad from drive-by sneezes by ending the table “preset” — event industry jargon for the first course that is already set about 30 minutes before guests arrive. We should also say goodbye to the bread basket and replace it with tableside bread service, where servers with tongs walk by and place bread on your bread plate. And finally, let’s reduce table sizes to seat six people instead of the standard 10.
We should also use app-based check-in technology to avoid the swarm of people gathered around registration. Also, make sure that any remote technology firm you use, whether it’s Zoom or others, has cybersecurity measures in place.
There are plenty of unknowns. Will people be dying to go to an event? Will some more vulnerable groups be told they still can’t go? There is no guarantee that the crisis will be over by August or even September, and travel could still be difficult or even dangerous for some. We have to plan for all of those scenarios.
We’re all longing to be able to eat and drink together again at events that we all enjoy. Now is the time to think creatively about how.