The answer is both “yes” and “no”.
In terms of “yes”:
1) We have learned to be more agile. If you are reading this – and you didn’t lose your job or your company – then you’ve had to become quicker, bolder, more innovative, and more patient in order to survive. Whether it was developing ideas to retain both exhibitor and attendee money, creating new types of digital events, or deciding to shut down certain events given the market uncertainties or government mandates- we have all gained new skills.
2) We’ve learned to work together. An example can be found with organizations such as SISO and Freeman, who’ve become more accessible and resourceful in support of both members and the general event public. They’ve helped champion new standards by delivering advocacy and lobbying that can help the industry with future challenges.
In terms of “no”:
1) We have failed to create new business models that can help take the pressure off face-to-face meetings. Virtual events have generally failed as a replacement for face-to-face events, though several tech companies have certainly cashed in. Many attendees comfortable with face-to-face events are weary of digital alternatives and many exhibitors will begin to reduce their digital budgets as face-to-face re-emerges.
2) The idea of communities has also failed to gain traction. Most event organizers realize that it’s almost impossible to ‘own’ them. For a community to be a vital ‘engagement watering hole’ within an event they require constant attention and activity. Few event organizers have the interest or skills to sustain that engagement. There’s been no business model emerge that takes the considerable weight of managing communities off the shoulders of event organizers. That suggests that organizers are waiting for face-to-face to come back so that they can continue to operate as they did before – without the encumbrances of managing communities.
3) We’ve failed to get closer to our audiences. Most of the surveys taken during the last 18 months about interest in the return of face-to-face events were surveys of event professionals (who quite obviously wanted their livelihoods to be restored.) But most event professionals operate outside the markets they serve and have little real insight regarding whether our targeted attendees want to – and will – return. Could the decline in face-to-face events during the pandemic be a precursor to their broader decline, since some see event attendance as a corporate boondoggle? Of course, exhibitors want events to return, but can we deliver the quality audiences they have enjoyed in the past? Unfortunately, we just don’t know. We will find out if we can or we can’t, soon enough.
I believe that COVID-19 has been something that we have survived, rather than tried to leverage as a laboratory within which to test new revenue generators and develop new ways to deliver valuable experiences. We haven’t flipped the script.
If I were to grade our industry’s performance, I’d give us a B minus. And that’s mainly for remaining employed and able to read this.
But have we missed a great opportunity?