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Green shoots of recovery as world walks a tightrope

The axiom ‘build and they will come’ has never sounded so contestable, particularly when the building in question is a convention centre. Until Covid-19 is no longer a threat, large indoor events, particularly those with international delegations, seem a remote prospect. Even once the immediate health risks have passed and social-distancing measures have been lifted, the willingness of people to travel overseas to attend a conference, provided their employers will allow it, is something nobody can take for granted. How many people will take the virtual option?

Yet confidence in the future of face-to-face meetings is such that millions of dollars are being spent on new event spaces right now. On May 25th, as Madrid’s residents were emerging from one of the severest lockdowns in Europe, mechanical diggers were making room for another 50,000sqm of meeting space at IFEMA, the city’s exhibition complex, which will include a 14,000sqm convention centre. That’s just phase one of a €180m project that could add 250,000sqm to the original site-plan.

IFEMA president Clemente González Soler is bullish about the future.

“Taking it on right now demonstrates our confidence that we will recover the activity levels curtailed by the pandemic,” he says. “It is very important that IFEMA does not stop. Trade fairs, in addition to helping to stimulate the economic sectors, are a source of wealth generation.”

Meanwhile in Calgary, Canada, developers have unveiled $500m plans to enlarge the ageing BMO Convention Centre. It is hoped the expansion will allow the venue — built in 1982 — to host major international conventions, which have bypassed the city in the past because of size constraints.

Senior VP of Sales for Tourism Calgary, Carson Ackroyd, says: “From a meeting and convention sales perspective, this strategic investment dramatically increases the size of the market for our city. Calgary will be a destination with facilities to accommodate much larger meeting and convention business, meaning increased economic impact and job sustainability in the tourism industry.”

As the world eases out of lockdown, the fear is that a too-soon relaxing of social distancing will precipitate a second wave of coronavirus, potentially more deadly than the first. In most places, indoor events were the first activities to be shut down. In most places they will be the last to reopen. How soon? is the question.

We are already seeing the tentative opening-up of business events around the world, notably in places where the virus was most successfully contained: Switzerland, Poland, Germany, Dubai, Hong Kong, New Zealand. Typically, a phase-in approach has been adopted with domestic meetings leading the way. Elsewhere venues are setting out their own roadmaps to reopening.

International Convention Centre Sydney (ICC Sydney) has launched its EventSafe Operating Framework, a set of operating principles that will enable the venue to safely reopen and run events in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The protocols span 16 key areas of event management, including the customer journey, environmental hygiene, food service, technology and equipment, employees and public awareness, and covers meetings, conferences, exhibitions, and live events.

The framework integrates best practice from parent group ASM Global’s soon-to-be-launched VenueShield – a programme of hygienic safeguards, informed by public health authorities, medical and industry experts which will be deployed across ASM Global’s 325 worldwide venues.

CEO of ICC Sydney, Geoff Donaghy, says: “We’re proud that ICC Sydney’s EventSafe Operating Framework establishes an industry benchmark for the safe running of events. As Australia and the rest of the world starts to return to business as usual, it is critical that we all continue to safeguard against further outbreaks of Covid-19, especially when bringing people together.

Meanwhile Edinburgh ICC has launched a hybrid virtual model to deliver client conferences as managers plan for a phased return of business events later this year. The ‘Make It Edinburgh Live’ offering enables clients to run conferences and events entirely online or via a combination of online and in situ and its launch precedes what CEO Marshall Dallas believes will be a gradual return to smaller scale business events at the venue later this year. The EICC closed its doors on March 18th and has since been rescheduling conferences for Q4 of 2020 and Q1 and Q2 of 2021.

Says Dallas: “Following extensive dialogue with our clients, including over one hundred associations, we’ve discovered there is still strong demand for conferences and events taking place at the venue whenever that is going to be possible. In the meantime, which we hope will be the short-term, we have launched the hybrid virtual model for holding events as a bridge to that phased in return.”