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If sponsored face masks are ‘the new normal’, then count me out

‘The new normal’ has become one of the more irksome phrases to enter common parlance since countries began implementing lockdown measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

It sounds so pleased with itself. ‘Get used to it’, it seems to be saying, as though the new world order, whatever that resembles when COVID-19 is no longer a threat, is something we all deserve.

The pandemic has spawned any number of meta-narratives to suit our tastes. From the revenge of nature to the end of capitalism – and it is often those with an agenda to push who seem most keen on ensuring we are fully aware of what ‘the new normal’ entails.

And yet, in most cases, the ‘new normal’ is either a temporary abomination or a prediction of the future based on a whole set of unexamined assumptions. It is mere speculation.

In the international events industry we’ve been hearing a lot about what we should expect from ‘the new normal’ and most of it sounds pretty outlandish – a sort of luxury dystopia, where, ‘your flight awaits, sir…once you’ve been power-sprayed with disinfectant!’

Venues have produced images of canteens reconfigured to show how diners can be seated two metres apart, at separate tables, presumably modeled on an exam hall. Or maximum-security prison.

Risk managers have explained how conference delegates might be heat-tested by someone in a Hazmat suit before receiving their lanyard on the end of a litter-picker.

Elsewhere we’ve heard how trade shows could funnel visitors through one-way traffic systems – chevrons on the floor ensuring they keep spluttering distance away from the person ahead.

All of these ‘ideas’ forget one thing: the customer. Business events are seldom, if ever, compulsory. If they start to resemble the fallout zone from Chernobyl, people, I fear, will simply stay away.

It’s hard to think of any industry more exposed to the coronavirus pandemic than international events and, three months into the crisis, we are starting to see the first signs of desperation.

This is understandable and should not distract from the fact that organisers and suppliers have responded to this unfolding disaster in an impressive, in some cases heroic, manner.

The industry has demonstrated the full panoply of its talents, ingenuity, and resources in the face of a cruel virus that has caused revenue streams, right across the board, to simply run dry.

The shift to online meetings has been the most obvious example of the industry thinking on its feet.

Some of these meetings are teaching new skills, while others seek to answer thorny questions around contracts, cancellation policies, and other problems bedeviling the supply chain.

Other events are taking place to offer comfort, support and solidarity to friends and colleagues, many of whom have lost their jobs or face the imminent threat of redundancy.

International associations have speedily transformed their meetings into virtual events, while others have come up with hybrid solutions for events that have been pushed back to 2021.

This switch to digital is the only ‘new normal’ we can take seriously right now.  Virtual meetings will never replace face-to-face meetings, but, for various reasons, including existing commitments to sustainability, it’s highly unlikely organisations will allow the new skills they have acquired in the last 12 weeks to slide by the wayside.

The next few years might see organisations alternate between virtual and face-to-face events, or host events that are open to domestic visitors in-person and overseas visitors online. The impact of COVID-19 might have finally broken the seal on hybrid events, with the online streaming of sessions regarded as standard.

Like most people I long for a return to (old) normal, when people greeted each other with a handshake, a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or all three. Nothing can replace real human interaction and it would be a grim world indeed if technology mediated our every experience. But used judiciously, technology can help us meet, work and live more smartly and more sustainably. That’s the new normal I’m holding out for: not sponsored face masks and keep-your-distance markers in the buffet queue.