A few weeks ago, the event industry was meant to be taking a much anticipated first step back to normality. The government gave us a date to return and all eyes were initially on the start of October: for those furloughed to return, for freelancers to finally be called back and for those live events to commence.
Yet, even with the furlough scheme being extended to next March, as England comes out of Lockdown 2.0 and enters a new period of tougher tier-based restrictions, it has become increasingly evident that we are not going to go back to normal anytime soon - it simply isn't possible in the short to mid-term for our industry.
This isn't, however, a bleak statement. We've seen enough of those in the screaming headlines about the billions lost through the lack of live experiences. Yet, running in tandem, we see effusive assertions around the boom in hybrid events with everything from virtual event directories launching through to courses to help event professionals upskill for a hybrid age.
The new skillset
There's no denying that where one phase in the experience economy appears to have imploded, with many agencies estimating a sharp decline in headcount, the next phase is set to enjoy exponential growth and we need to be prepared for this. We must retain our talented live specialists: retraining them to deliver events in the virtual world, while retaining their expertise in the physical one and upskilling them for a hybrid future, once restrictions are finally lifted.
We need to understand the skillset required to create experiences that may have limited physical audiences but which are destined for a wider audience to enjoy in real-time. If all the physical events that we are used to delivering now need to have live streaming, we have to be ready to produce that. This is no longer about letting our events appear on social media - this is about taking a live moment and streaming it - both for the live stream and content creation. Our producers will need to have a different approach to directing, taking into account these hybrid approaches, and understanding that the new approach will be less like broadcast and closer to a produced feed – that difference and understanding from a tech perspective is key.
Redefining brand experience
The restructuring of agencies may also precipitate a shift in how we are more widely defined. In recent years, many of us have invested in tech and in talent within our creative teams to ensure that we can produce the content that our clients need to extend the reach and longevity of their live work.
As studios take a more prominent role, is it time to step away from the brand experience categorisation? The focus of the mainstream media has placed a spotlight back on events, but many of us have evolved from our heritage and the narrow lens of looking purely at the physical element misses a wider picture that has been developing across our sector for years. I tend to call it "live marketing" - it's the sweet spot between digital and physical that delivers successful brand engagement.
Shaping tomorrow's agency
To truly future-proof the agency of tomorrow, it's essential to attract those young creatives who currently are rather sceptical about joining our industry. Put off by the negativity surrounding the future of live and being pushed towards more traditional sectors, this represents a real threat - we need their digital skills if we're to thrive in a hybrid environment. But the reality is, many agencies are facing a hiring freeze. We need to act flexibly to find a way through this: to stay nimble with a core base of 20-50 working full-time, and grow an extended global team of trusted and talented consultants. Let's go back to our entrepreneurial roots and harness that keen eye for spotting opportunities matched by an aptitude for building an enviable network of contacts. Our clients need to trust us to pull in the strongest bespoke teams, at a moment's notice.
The bottom line is that we need to continue to innovate, be creative and be a bit braver and trial things. After months of Covid-related restrictions, audiences are craving safe experiences and the brands that are bold enough to get out there will be well-received. 2020 has challenged all of us but rather than focusing on the events that never were, we should remember this as a dramatic year of disruption for the experience industry, and one that gave us a chance to reframe our future.
Mike White is chief executive and co-founder of Lively