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The future of meetings during COVID-19 pandemic? Un-conventional

Colorado’s $1 billion events industry shifts to online offerings, virtual reality and more to keep things happening.

June 23, 2020

By Cory Phare

When COVID-19 hit in March, the massive Outdoor Retailer trade show made the decision to cancel its annual summer gathering, recently announcing an online replacement – replete with demonstrations, panels and even networking – to run July 21-23.

Another Colorado staple – the long-running Great American Beer Festival – similarly plans on delivering a virtual equivalent of the suds-soaked event now slated for Oct. 16-17.

Total economic losses in the events industry due to COVID-19 stand at $1.8 billion, with anticipated totals ranging from $14 billion to $22 billion, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. Locally, Colorado employs more than 36,000 events-industry professionals in a sector that generates more than $1 billion, which is why recent reopening guidelines from the state outlining gatherings of up to 500 people are a lifeline in this hard-hit area.

“The events industry is reeling,” said Christina Mooney, senior manager of private meetings and events for Kroenke Sports & Entertainment. “It’s at a huge standstill, but there’s still an opportunity for professional development, gaining skills and building new tools that we haven’t seen before.”

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Being on lockdown has afforded the 2019 Metropolitan State University of Denver hospitality graduate the chance to develop her team into “triple threats” – in addition to running full-suite live sporting events and concerts, they’re now able to navigate the transition into the online event space.

As the industry adapts to this new approach, Mooney sees it as a critical step to meet the anticipated demand for virtual event planners – and a skill set that’s likely to stay even when things return to more in-person offerings.

High-tech touch

Events are increasingly being “hybridized,” said Shawn Jung, assistant professor of hospitality at MSU Denver.

“Less-touch is more high-touch these days,” he said.

That means more technological solutions. Think contactless registration thanks to facial-recognition software or self-service kiosks to scan in a QR code and print out a badge.

Some of the most promising developments include virtual-reality integration, an area of Jung’s research expertise. Attendees can put an avatar in a virtual environment, navigate to a booth complete with a company logo, then “examine” digital products and watch embedded demonstration videos, all inside a simulated space.

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And though technology such as VR isn’t necessarily new, its innovative implementation can prove to be a lifeline for endeavors such as trade shows, which Germany and China have deemed “essential businesses” central to commerce, Jung said.

“Content is king but within context,” he added. “But every event is unique, with its own purpose and mission. That should be the strategy to drive the right technology solution.”

With the improved technology, Jung sees the approach as an engaging tool and a cost-savings matter. And though the price points may be reduced for a la carte options, it also means greater overall attendance with a lowered barrier to access.

“You don’t have to spend on accommodations or travel all the way to an event to effectively make decisions and go into business with bidders,” he said. “I think it will be almost as good as in-person experience.”

WATCH: MSU Denver leads the way in hospitality

Mooney agreed, noting the often-cost-prohibitive nature of events and trade shows.

“The virtual side is so important until people feel comfortable congregating together in large numbers again,” she noted.

That said, Jung is quick to note the irreplaceability of the face-to-face experience to build trust and appeal to our innate need for connection.

“Tech is great, but it just can’t replace some of the components of in-person interactions,” he said. “At the end of the day, we need that human touch to create meaningful connection.”

The new normal

The industry will also experience a transposition of certain roles, Jung forecasted. COVID-19 has moved formerly behind-the-scenes workers such as cleaning crews to the forefront with the heightened focus on sanitized areas.

“We saw this first with the hotel industry, which the events field has been studying from, along with those people who work in travel. It’s really about the entire hospitality industry learning together,” he said.

Additionally, Mooney noted that the shift to digital events involves deeper engagement via social media, a focus on unique and micro-engaging content to combat “webinar fatigue” and breakout sessions to facilitate more-personal interactions.

RELATED: COVID-19 brings beer boom and bust

She also sees a substantial shift in the way contracts are worded to incorporate pandemics into their “force majeure/acts of God” articulation. This has come into play as events were canceled and vendors weren’t refunding client deposits and wound up being blacklisted.

“It’s definitely a conundrum business owners have been forced to confront,” Mooney said. “In these impossible circumstances, they’re asking, ‘How do we honor our obligations while still being able to keep the lights on?’”

Risk management is central to answering that question – and something she credits to a military background steeped in logistics and her senior class with E.J. Kang, assistant professor of hospitality at MSU Denver. Mooney recently returned to Kang’s classroom as an accomplished guest lecturer to share her advice on moving up in the events world at a time when adaptability and insight are keys to survival.

“As a whole, the industry is learning to adapt to this new norm,” Mooney said. “But these folks are resilient – and where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

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