The move to online events, driven by decreasing event capacities under the various COVID alert levels, birthed a ‘new normal’, which we, in the events industry, have accepted and strive to deliver. However, the months of lockdown, and the move to online engagement, created an insidious preference for seclusion amongst many attendees.
In the first few weeks after South Africa went into lockdown, the events and exhibitions industry scrambled to offer their clients alternatives to the planned in-person events that were cancelling left, right, and centre. Clients, organisers and event companies welcomed the advent of hybrid and virtual events as a short-term solution. In all fairness, these events have sustained many companies during an unprecedented industry collapse, and we look set to continue along the hybrid path for the foreseeable future. Yet, several of the decisions made early on have come back to haunt the events and cultural industries.
Early on, museums, artists, theatres, dance studios and event companies across the cultural space began hosting free online events, showcasing their owned content as a goodwill gesture to a population holed up at home. This way of retaining the connection with their audiences proved very successful and the world went through an online, quasi-cultural-renaissance during what we imagined would be just a few weeks of black-out.
Weeks turned to months without any respite and businesses sought to keep their audiences entertained and informed by hosting webinars with compelling topics, sought-after speakers and robust debates. In many instances, the performers, organisers, publicists and technical providers supported each other on a pro-bono basis to retain traction in the industry. Most of these events were offered free of charge to incentivise attendance, and they proved both popular and necessary to keep followers in the know under the constantly evolving circumstances. This strategy also created an unforeseen by-product – an expectation amongst attendees that participation in events, webinars and hybrid conferences need no longer be paid for.
Later in 2020, as the lockdown relaxed its stranglehold slightly, event capacities started increasing. Albeit small, the industry saw some scope to increase its revenue and began hosting smaller events around the country. Because restrictions under the pandemic threat made it impossible for the events industry to earn sufficient income, organisers continued adding an online element to supplement venue attendance. By then, however, audiences had become accustomed to attending events from the privacy of their homes, free of charge, in comfy clothes with a hot coffee to hand. In-person attendance has become less than optimal and our attempts to reassure and build confidence have not yielded satisfactory results.
Our audiences seem to be beset by apathy, finding the effort to get dressed, get into their cars and drive to an in-person occasion prohibitive. Of course, anxiety about viral spread also contributes to their choice to attend online. Yet many of these same people host gatherings in closed spaces with friends, go to the malls to shop, buy groceries at the supermarkets, and attend funerals. The stringent COVID-specific protocols in place across the events industry have ironically made it safer to meet face-to-face at a business event than to participate in many of your daily activities, but the stigma around events remains.
The early part of 2021 saw the ratio of attendees at hybrid events hovering around 80/20, with only 20% of the overall attendance being in-person. Although more and more people realise that virtual connection is not as effective as face-to-face, the event platforms on which sellers connect with buyers are hamstrung by the virtual element they themselves have implemented. Genuine business relationships are formed face-to-face – let's face it! Deals are closed when you sync with your buyer's mood and can read the subtle signals in person. Virtual has afforded us something to hang our livelihoods on but, unfortunately, it's not everything!
Unless we consciously choose to meet in-person rather than online, we may forever lose the opportunity to experience the emotional charge that a face-to-face experience evokes.
We need to understand that creating an event costs its providers – in the instance of hybrid, for both the venue and the virtual components separately. Until we start paying for the privilege of attending events with grace, we are disallowing our cultural community the ability to earn a livelihood, negating the potential of our industry to restart and preventing the events and exhibitions industry from contributing to the economic recovery of our country.