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Remember when an event meant meeting people face to face

Yeoh Siew Hoon

I’ve done many things in my life: bungee jumped, tandem skydived, climbed Mount Kinabalu, trekked many trails, ran into armed gunmen in Thailand, rolled a jeep in Namibia, contended with a scorpion sting in the middle of the night in Botswana.

But until recently, I had never run an event in the midst of a pandemic. So I guess it’s worth writing about.

At the time we decided to go ahead with our little event on Penang Island, Malaysia, things were still fairly calm. There was one case of Covid-19 on the island, but local tourism and convention authorities had declared it safe, and our event consisted of fewer than 100 people in a government building with plenty of outdoor spaces (one of those lovely old colonial homes with huge gardens).

Plus, it was a largely local event with a handful of overseas speakers, so we thought, “Let’s soldier on.”

These are trying times for the kinds of small businesses at which our WiT Indie (Web in Travel) event is aimed, and we needed to come together to talk about survival for our businesses.

Thirty-six hours before our event opened, the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic. We started rechecking local and national advisories. We called up the state convention body to seek guidance. They told us an event was currently being held and one event was going ahead. They updated their advisory the following day to say it was still safe to hold events but to be mindful of precautions.

So we took all the precautions: temperature checks, health declaration forms, QR codes for registration so there would be no crowding at desks, crisis response processes (isolation room, telephone numbers to call), outdoor catering, individual plated meals (Penang street food is perfect for this), event safety briefing at the start.

I felt a bit like the cabin attendant doing an airline safety briefing, parroting all we had been advised that we should do: wash hands; sanitize; cover your mouth if you cough; don’t sit too close; if you feel unwell, let us know.

In the end, the event was declared a success by attendees. In a way, we all felt like we were survivors of a shipwreck, and it forged a sense of camaraderie. But we didn’t flinch from the reality that a lot of businesses will go under if this crisis is prolonged. So we brainstormed ideas for survival.

Running the event amid a pandemic brought home the fact that events need a major rethinking. This outbreak makes you question everything about events: the way they are organized and delivered, the way people are seated and fed, the way we network in huge clusters, the parties.

Venues, hotels and event organizers are going to have to do some serious thinking about how they reset their services for an industry in full disruption.

When I transitioned from journalist to event organizer, launching WiT in 2005 here in Singapore, I wanted to do things differently, but I was limited to how content is programmed and delivered. It was hard to change the physical nature of events, the way hotels sell their event spaces, banquet offerings and ancillary services (I remember the running battles I had over WiFi).

Even trying to change seating from tables of eight to tables of two or four was a challenge. I wanted to mix it up, give people space yet a sense of intimacy. Now we will have no choice.

Trying to change catering from buffet to individual/bento-style boxes was hard within hotels, but we managed to do that with some of our events held in nonhotel spaces. There’s less waste, I feel, with individual prepackaged boxes.

I understand the restrictions hotels face regarding food. You can’t bring in outside food because there could be liability concerns, but surely there are waivers that can be put in place. Yet, now I think hotels have to rethink how they cater events. If they can’t do it, let someone else.

The events business is essentially a communications business. It’s a medium by which we deliver knowledge, information and learning/education, and they forge networks. They are vital for exchange on the intellectual, social, political and economic level, and they are vital to trade and human exchange.

But today it is undergoing its biggest disruption.

Covid-19 has made it impossible for crowds of people to meet physically, and there’s been a surge in virtual communications and collaboration tools as the business world adapts to the new world of remote work and isolation.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe virtual events alone will do it for society. We need both. And if this crisis has done anything, it has forced us to blend online and offline in a truly dramatic fashion. Remote work with tech tools, video calls instead of physical meetings, cross-border meetings without having to travel, webinars, podcasts — we are throwing every medium of communication into the mix in order to stay connected.

Bless us for our ingenuity in our quest for survival.

So what will the future of events look like? What will a blended experience look and feel like? That’s something we have to explore and experiment with. The execution could be a challenge because physical assets are hard to change, and business models will have to be reexamined.

But if that’s what will give customers confidence to meet physically in the future, it must be done. And we also have to give customers even more reason to meet, which means making events truly live. No more cookie-cutter approaches.

Here’s to life in the time of coronavirus. (Now why does that remind me of a wonderful book?)

Note: Soon after I wrote this, the Singapore Ministry of Health issued guidelines for events in Singapore up to the end of June: No events over 250 people, including rules on event seating, participant screening and ventilation.

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