Sustainability shapes the future of conferences and events

By Kate Birch
As digital transformation and sustainability drive business travel change, we look at how events are being reimagined for a hybrid future

In September 2021, one of the largest privately-owned businesses on the planet, Mars, announced it was planning to cut corporate travel by 50%, booking 145,000 fewer flights each year. Marking one of the biggest moves yet by a corporation to shift its post-pandemic approach to business trips, the confectionery giant told its staff ‘fly for purpose, not presence’.

For a multinational like Mars, whose business travel costs were huge and whose green goals include committing US$1bn to becoming ‘Sustainable in a Generation’, the pandemic has proven that business on a global scale can still be done without splashing the cash or poisoning the planet (thanks Zoom). And that when travel restrictions are eventually eased, and physical global events return, businesses may be more selective about the type of travel they sign off, in a bid to cut costs and boost sustainability efforts. 

The truth is, the last 18 months has revealed the business value of virtual eventing with video conferencing platforms like Zoom being leveraged throughout the pandemic to stage millions of meetings and events. And many of these have gone off without either a hitch (or carbon footprint) saving execs money, time and even the planet. 

So, what does that mean for the future of physical events? Has the pandemic’s digital transformation leap put a nail in the physical conference coffin?

Physical does have a place in the future of events

Not according to various recent studies which have confirmed that Zoom fatigue really is a thing and that people are yearning for a return to in-person events.

In fact, if anything, the all-consuming use of digital technologies during the pandemic for meetings “has proven and reiterated the value of meeting face to face”, Kai Hattendorf, CEO of UFI, The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, tells Business Chief. “Just as there was a big rush to digital-only in 2020, there is now a big rush to physical-only – and we are seeing this in Europe, the US and China.”

And recent data from UFI, Explori and SISO’s Global Recovery Insights research backs this up with 86% of both visitors and exhibitors at digital trade shows declaring the face-to-face format superior to digital-only events. 

Strong appetite for physical events

This appetite for a return to physical events is stronger in APAC, according to UFI data, with “exhibitions in Asia-Pacific likely to see stronger growth in participation from both visitors and exhibitors, compared to the rest of the world”, adds Hattendorf.

Australia is certainly looking promising with Tourism Australia global research revealing a “real appetite for the resumption of business events”, Robin Mack, Tourism Australia’s Executive GM Commercial & Business Events, tells Business Chief. Some 79% of association decision-makers and 69% of incentive decision-makers indicate they are likely to visit Australia for an event in the next two years, rising to 82% in the next three years. And the leads that Tourism Australia is seeing from key international markets supports this, says Mack.

“While hybrid events will continue to have their place in the short-to-medium term, especially with the association sector, overall, I believe in-person interaction will always be powerful and unlikely to be replaced completely by virtual events,” adds Mack. “In fact, more than ever, incentives will likely play an important role for businesses, bringing colleagues together after a tumultuous period due to the pandemic, to create a unified team and ultimately helping businesses get back on track.”

Based in Singapore, Mel Shah, Vice President of dmg events, a leading organiser of global events with presence across APAC, is also seeing a strong appetite for a return to live in-person events. “Personal connectivity and relationships are critical focus areas for all our clients and there is therefore a large pent-up appetite for a return to MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Exhibitions) and business travel.”

This is especially true of Asia, says Shah, where “relationships are of paramount importance” and so the in-person approach is needed. “To succeed in Asia, you need to be here, you need to build deep relationships and you need to constantly network to expand and grow your brand equity and business opportunities. This will mean that as soon as the first lanes open, you will see businesses go for the first mover advantage post-Covid which bodes well for executive travel.”

Optimism is high for the return of physical events in 2022

And movement in the physical events and conferences space is already happening in APAC in 2021 with several markets having opened up in June (think China and Hong Kong) and “a whole array of major shows running successfully across China,” says Hattendorf.

Hong Kong, which tops the charts in The Economist’s Global Normalcy Index (a measure of getting back to pre-pandemic life) recently held its annual seven-day Hong Kong Book Fair, pulling in 85% of pre-pandemic levels (830,000 visitors); while Singapore, which has achieved high vaccination coverage, has put plans in place for progressively larger capacity limits for physical events and in October  welcomed 600 international exhibitors to the ITB Asia show. And Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) estimates that small groups of business travellers (20-40 senior execs) will be able to re-enter the country following the roll-out of vaccinations.

That said, most companies in all regions expect international exhibitions to reopen. According to Hattendorf, we are at a stage where “exhibitors in Asia-Pacific are now much more optimistic about their budgets, and the number of events they are planning to participate in has recovered to pre-pandemic levels”.

In fact, UFI’s Global Barometer forecasts a return to 50% of exhibition industry revenues in APAC for 2021 (compared to 2019), slightly ahead of the global average and a “general consensus that in major parts of the world, the industry can reach pre-pandemic levels again by 2024”.

Putting safety at events centre stage

To do so, however, requires industry adaption, not just in the pandemic’s immediate aftermath to ensure safety of delegates, but also long-term with sustainability and digital transforming both how we travel and meet.

“I think health and safety, sustainability and flexibility will continue to be on the agenda and asked for both by our corporate clients and by travellers,” explains Inge Huijbrechts, Global Senior VP Sustainability, Security and Corporate Communications at Radisson Hotel Group, which recently collaborated with SGS to put in place Radisson Hotels Safety Protocols.

As such, industry organisers and world-class venues are investing to set new standards to lure business travellers back. Both MEET Taiwan and the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy Indonesia have introduced initiatives to reassure companies of the health and safety of visiting delegates; while AsiaWorld-Expo Hong Kong has installed an advanced ozone disinfection system to give venue users greater peace of mind; and Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC) has put in place a host of preventative measures from reduced capacity to wider aisles.

“The key priority for the business community will be to know that any event will be managed in a secure and safe way, ensuring that all safety protocols are adopted,” explains Shah, pointing out that dmg events has its own ‘All Secure’ protocols, which includes mask on events, safely distanced and managed stand spaces, regular cleaning and disinfection protocols as well as density management.

Communication too will be key in fuelling business travel confidence with the ‘new normal’ seeing a “greater focus on quality of buyer connectivity whilst adhering to what are now normal safe management measures”, adds Shah. “We are seeing a need and want from the industries we serve to be provided with interesting relevant insights at regular intervals in the run-up to attending one of our events. Organisers will be judged on content leadership and delivery, the quality of relevant connections and safe efficient event delivery.”

New demands for a new normal – events and conferences

To lure business travellers from their safe digital-only event spaces, it won’t just be a question of Covid-19 safety protocols, however. With cost-cutting and sustainability high on the business agenda, companies may need bigger and better justifications for both travel miles and event costs and may choose only those where they get more bang for their buck. 

While Shah believes that execs will still want what they have always wanted from events, which is connectivity, exclusive insights and relationship-building environments, they will “be very focused on the seamless experience factor combined with ROI centricity”.

Hattendorf concurs, explaining how future business events “will be less about the experience, and more about the outcome”, meaning events will benefit from clear focus on deliverables. “For tradeshows, for instance, there will be a focus on the trade function, and of deals being closed. For events that focus on connecting people and thoughts, this will be the key asset participants will look for.”

And with the pandemic having accelerated developments in events that were seen pre-2020, Hattendorf predicts we will see increasing regionalisation from one global show into a portfolio of regional shows under the same brand worldwide, more digital products and services to support the attendees at the physical event, and a lot of investments into sustainability and low carbon to carbon-neutral events productions.

“A new emphasis will be put on connecting the physical trade shows and business events with year-long offers to support the business success of the communities that a trade show is serving,” says Hattendorf, adding that while a lot of this will be digital, it will also be through focused local and regional events throughout the year.

Digital transformation of the events space

With the pandemic having turned the industry from physical-only to digital-only overnight, everyone from organisers to venues have had to up their digital ante to deliver virtually and compete in what is predicted to be a hybrid future.

And APAC leads the way according to UFI’s Global Barometer with 67% of venues/organisers having added digital services and products to their existing exhibition offerings during the pandemic compared to the 58% global average; and Australia, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore especially prolific on the digital front.

Having welcomed the rise of digital technologies, Singapore-based Shah believes that in an increasingly digital world, the sector needs to learn to complement and enhance attendee access to connectivity and insight by combining the physical and digital. “As we prepare to run more in-person events, digital gives us excellent pre-event connectivity to prepare businesses to do business at the event and after.

“We can see a big acceleration in the deployment and utilisation of deep tech technologies like AI, Automation and Machine learning for our sector. Industry players who will be at the forefront of embracing this pivot will make themselves future relevant and therefore successful. Beyond that we see operators investing greater monies in team capability building and the addition of diverse digital skill sets in the operating models.”

The future of events is hybrid

Venues are already investing in integrated hybrid studio capabilities to cater to what is likely to be a hybrid events industry future with 75% of organisers/venues predicting a definite or probable push towards hybrid events and more digital elements at events in the future.

During the pandemic, the International Convention Centre Sydney launched its Media Studio, a permanent space offering client broadcast recording services, live streaming and digital event solutions. In a HK$600m refurbishment, AsiaWorld-Expo Hong Kong equipped its venue with comprehensive hardware upgrades, including enhanced technology and connectivity to be the first in Hong Kong’s MICE industry to offer Wi-Fi 6 and a movable hybrid meeting booth Mobile Studio. While HKCEC, which has been hosting well-attended conferences since January 2021, has created Harbour Studio, a one-stop solution for hybrid events.

While acknowledging that “hybrid events cannot and will not fully replace face-to-face interactions” as physical events “build trusted relationships”, Monica Lee-Muller, MD of Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (Management) Limited (HML), says they are continually striving to provide customers with new solutions including the new online event space. “Harbour Studio is conveniently located as Port Café of the HKCEC, with stunning harbour views” enabling organisers to “host online live broadcasts, interviews, webinars and product launches with the perfect view and no hassle”, says Lee-Muller.

Seoul Tourism Organisation has launched Virtual Seoul, a platform to host online meetings that in-person attendees can also join in during hybrid events; and Radisson Hotel Group has partnered with Zoom to create a hybrid offering that combines the best of its in-person and virtual solutions and as part of its Hybrid Solutions. “I think business meetings and events will happen in clusters organised in a hybrid form with groups meeting in multiple locations and the groups connecting digitally,” predicts Huijbrechts.

Highlighting the benefits of hybrid, she adds: “A 300-person event, organised in several national clusters, had a 73% carbon reduction and a 72% reduction in time of all participants. These are the benefits of hybrid meetings built on key success factors like state-of-the-art digital and studio technology that companies like Radisson Hotel Group make available. This is the current way in which Meetings and Events are being organised, with the added benefit that more delegates can be reached.”

Hattendorf believes Asia-Pacific will be an interesting region to watch as recent research suggests APAC audiences are most open to digital innovation. “There is a stronger appetite for digital or hybrid events in Asia, with respondents more than twice as likely to have participated in such events than those from other regions. Visitors from Asia are significantly more likely to convert from attending a new event digitally to attending in person in the future – 64% compared to 48% from the rest of the world.”

Shah believes hybrid to be a great opportunity for dmg events and is embracing it. “We are able to reach for our customers a truly global audience and the hybrid model also helps us tick the seamless experience box. We live in the age of ‘connectivity now’ – hybrid helps us do that.”

In the future, Hattendorf believes we will see the co-mingling of online and onsite, where online provides the pre-show, post-show, omni-channel year-long engagement to the tentpole onsite events and could account for up to 15% of total revenues. “The business events sector, which supported nearly 26 million jobs and contributed US$1.5 trillion to global GDP in 2017, can no longer operate in the exact same way as it did before,” says Hattendorf.

“For a sector heavily dependent on physical interaction, the onset of the pandemic was a wake-up call for reinvention. Innovation will be key as business events gradually resume around the world. Industry players need to adopt a growth mindset, rethink their business offerings, redesign delegate experiences with safety at the core, and reassess how they engage with their teams.”

BizClik Media Group, publishers of Business Chief magazine, are organising Sustainability LIVE, being held in London 23-24 February 2022, with both in-person attendees and virtual. Featuring more than 60 international speakers from some of the world's leading companies, the two-day event will highlight best practice, discuss trends, address challenges, and provide executive insight on measures being taken to tackle climate change.

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