The Big Skills Share: Pandemic Reactions, Recruitment and Skills Gaps in B2B Events

Kevin Hosier

Between 16th – 18th June 2020, EVCOM (the Event and Visual Communication Association) is running The Big Skills Share, where EVCOM members and industry experts take part in bite-sized sessions via Instagram Live to share ideas, skills and tips so that we can all learn from each other and work through key sector challenges together.

Over the last few weeks, GCN Talent has been reaching out to leaders in the events industry to have insightful conversations around reactions to the pandemic, the current state of the industry, emerging skills gaps and what the future may hold. Our Co-Director, Kevin Hosier, took part in a Q&A session for The Big Skills Share where he discussed the findings of this research – you can watch the interview on YouTube here, or read a summary of the Q&A below…


 

How severe has the impact of COVID-19 been for employees in the B2B events sector?

It’s fair to say that the impact, in general, has been devastating. Almost all of our client base has furloughed at least 25% of staff, some up to 40%. Staff who remain are often doing the job of 2-3 people and we’re hearing reports of impacts on employee mental health and well-being. There has already been a wave of redundancies – the exhibition-led companies are particularly vulnerable in this respect – and we expect to see a significant second wave as the furlough scheme winds down.

 

How are B2B event companies reacting to the crisis?

Not surprisingly, there has been a desperate scramble to move events online in order to shore up revenues and deliver some value for customers who have already committed their cash. Some see this as a knee-jerk reaction and simply a means of survival for companies until live events are able to return in some form.

In certain sectors, it’s very hard to convince vendors and sponsors of value in anything other than live events. Others believe that the shift to digital events is here to stay and that we’re likely to see the virtual offering become embedded in the B2B event model.

At the moment, however, there’s a good deal of confusion and frustration around both the available technology and the business model. Simply replicating a physical event online is not sufficient in most markets, and no-one has really understood how to properly commercialise the offering.

 

What are the implications of this for those that are hoping to keep working in the sector?

I think it’s hardest at present for the sales function. Whilst companies seem to have been broadly successful in holding on to existing orders during the ‘pivot to digital’, driving new business is exceptionally challenging.

Often, the virtual event offering is untested, and with few certainties or guarantees, articulating the value of participation for customers is very hard.  Sales staff will need to become quickly comfortable in doing this – and will also need to develop a quick understanding of the technical platforms and what it is possible to deliver.  There are definite advantages around data capture and analytics in the digital model and sales staff will need to understand these positives and how they can be converted into value for clients. Staff that are used to a more transactional sales approach will struggle.

Unfortunately we’ve seen significant redundancies in the delegate sales function as many companies opt for the free-to-attend sponsorship-led event model. It’s unclear at this stage when and whether we’ll see recovery here.

Having said that, there’s also the opinion out there that some event companies have cut too fast and too deep. We’ve certainly seen this before in response to economic downturns and there has always been a recovery in the sector. Whilst we have never faced anything on this scale, we know that live events have the propensity to endure. The bounce back may just take slightly longer this time.

What about the functions beyond sales? Are you seeing skills gaps, and what can candidates do to prepare for the ‘new normal’ in event delivery?

If the shift to digital events is indeed a permanent one, companies will need to decide who will own and drive the technology piece internally. In some companies without a significant technical department – and this is the case for many SME event companies – this responsibility seems to be falling to the event operations function. So for an operations professional more used to dealing with the challenges of running a physical event, developing a comprehensive understanding of how to run a virtual event, and the technology options open to you, would likely pay dividends.

For the content production function, the challenge is less in the research and development of compelling event content and more in experimentation with format and understanding what works best. Many companies are finding it hard to move beyond the webinar at present and there seems to be little innovation in audience engagement and interaction. The responsibility for this will likely fall to the content function, so again those working in this area need to develop an understanding of what the technology can offer and how it can best be utilised to enhance the audience experience.

Marketers will do well to further develop their data tools and technical knowledge. As I’ve already mentioned, analytics will play a major part in demonstrating the success of your event. It can be challenging to get a complete picture across an entire event, especially where third-party technology is used, but the better the analysis, the easier it will become to demonstrate value. Data segmentation and highly efficient targeting will become increasingly important in the crowded online event space; there’s a lot of noise out there.

 

What do you think the future holds for the B2B events sector?

There’s a range of opinions out there. I think it’s clear that certain parts of the industry have been, and will continue to be, hit very hard. I’m afraid, as I said, that we’re likely to see a significant number of redundancies over the coming weeks. The exhibition companies will struggle to commercialise any virtual offering, even if the technology exists for them to actually move a show online.

The general feeling amongst our clients is that there will be no physical events in 2020, save in very specific geographies such as Eastern Europe and Asia. Most are predicting a return of some sort in Q1 next year, others as late as next summer. Companies offering content-led events who can solve the online interaction and networking challenge will likely fare better. Those who can offer buyer-seller interaction in the form of virtual 1-2-1s or round table style forums will likely fare best of all as the model is more easily transferred online. We’ve also heard good reports of success from clients with online training products. I’d say the majority of our clients believe the hybrid live/online event model is here to stay – but there’s a vocal minority who believe that as soon as restrictions are lifted, we’ll simply return to the way things were before.

Assuming restrictions are at some point lifted completely, I think the future shape of the B2B events industry will be determined by industry sector and client demand. Some sectors will embrace the online or hybrid model. Others will reject it and demand a return to the purely live model. One of our clients is anticipating ‘revenge participation’ in live events amongst his customer base and is preparing his business accordingly to take advantage! So I think the most likely outcome is a mixed picture.

But if there’s anything positive to come out of all this, it’s that the whole sector has been forced into a position in which it has to innovate. There’s a definite perception that the industry has been stuck in a rut for many years – some would even say decades. If some of these innovations stick, then it will be a positive for both the organisers and their customers.

 

A recording of the interview with EVCOM is available on their website, YouTube channel and IGTV.

 

Kevin Hosier, Co-Director of GCN Talent

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