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‘One size will not fit all’ as nations begin to reopen, says Martin Sirk

Martin Sirk, of Sirk Serendipity, shares his thoughts on why some countries will be a lot more successful at reopening than others… 

Martin Sirk

Lots of commentary in our specialist media seems focused on the idea that “if that sector of the economy can open, why can’t we?”

This ignores the reality that until Covid‐19 within a county is either eradicated or reduced to such a low level that it can effectively be controlled, any mass gathering, no matter what safety protocols are in place, presents a “super‐spreader” societal risk.

This is why we’re starting to see careful opening up in specific countries but not others, initially for domestic trade shows and small meetings, where lots of space is available and controls and healthcare protocols can be easily implemented. However, whilst this can work for countries or cities with very low Covid‐19 figures, it can’t succeed where significant community transmission is still taking place. And international business events will initially only start-up for participants travelling between countries with shared low Covid‐19 profiles, and where there is mutual trust in the data and healthcare policies of the other party.

General international events can only reopen at the pace of the slowest participating country to get the pandemic under local control. One size will not fit all, in terms of either timing or protocols, and the reopening will be slow, fragmented, careful, subject to pauses and occasional setbacks, but, I believe, it is coming.

To reopen our industry in your country, the best action is to lobby your government to do everything in their power to get Covid‐19 infections down to as close to zero as possible. If your country has already succeeded in controlling the pandemic, encourage your government to help neighbouring countries reach the same status.

I’m also reading a lot about the existential damage being caused to the events industry, as though we were some homogenous entity. In reality, the pain is not at all evenly distributed, either geographically or by type of business. Hardest hit are small companies such as PCOs and DMCs that were 100 per cent invested in running live events, especially if they focus on logistics rather than strategic partnerships. The latter can more easily pivot to help clients achieve objectives through other means than face-to-face events, and we’re seeing lots of examples, AIM Group International’s recent announcement, for example.

DMOs that are reliant on bed tax face different challenges from those that are funded primarily by local governments, those that are ‘hospitality drivers’ are differently affected and perceived from those that are ‘economic development engines’.

Convention centres can be repurposed for other activities and are typically already supported by overt or hidden public sector subsidies that will allow core functions to be retained; hotels and airlines have powerful lobbying abilities, and whilst they are major business events players, we are typically a relatively small slice of their revenue mix; they are likely to be major recipients of bail‐out grants and loans, but this won’t be because of their business events role.

Meeting tech companies face a similarly mixed picture: some are absolutely thriving; others whose tech isn’t suited to virtual or hybrid events are suffering horribly. Professional speakers are either learning how to leverage their expertise online or reverting to the business or intellectual activities that made them such valuable on‐stage contributors; a professional speaker who can only survive from live events is someone you probably shouldn’t have hired to give your keynote in the first place.

The reason the business events industry struggles to advocate with one voice is because all our multifarious players are not aligned in their interests, nor in the type of support or policies that they would find useful, nor in the type of support that they can already tap into.

I’m a passionate believer in the powerful societal and economic impact of meetings and other business events and have supported collective action to advance this message for more than 20 years, but when policymakers accept that this enormous positive impact is real, and ask “so what do you want?”, we have never had a coherent single answer, nor do we have one today regarding Covid‐19.

Concrete support to protect businesses, save jobs, safeguard infrastructure and unlock travel is going to be delivered at a national level, and it’s going to depend on the local situation, both in relation to Covid‐19 status and the structure and specialisations of the local business events sector, as well as the strength of our local cooperative structures.