What is the new normal?


by Nurdiyanah Mohd Daud, ICCA Data Research Executive 


“The post-pandemic world paints a very different picture of the industry we all have been so accustomed to. Both offline and online meetings will thrive together as we discover newer ways to connect. We will return to our face-to-face events with better, more creative solutions, but we will also continue to explore the opportunities our robust technology and digital world have paved for us. Perhaps our industry will advance to stages greater than anything we have seen before a world where physical and digital meetings synergise – The Next Normal!” 

— “Association Meetings Moving Forward: An Observation” 

This statement was published in 2020, accompanying the report “ICCA Market Intelligence on COVID-19 Affected Meetings.” Three years later, what does the industry look like, and where do we go from here? Which trends have continued and evolved, and what challenges have unexpectedly come up now that business events are back in full swing? 


The Trends That Stayed 

Everyone was affected by the pandemic one way or another, and by varying degrees. Some organisations had to reinvent themselves just to stay afloat, while others implemented specific changes to suit demands at the time before reverting to status quo. Associations saw their business models stretched to their limits, most notably those that depended on membership dues as their primary, if not only, source of income. Associations had to adapt, re-prioritise their strategies, and adopt a combination of different business models in order to become more sustainable. Tactical changes, such as revising bid manuals, event guidelines, and websites to include health and safety procedures with emphasis on avoiding contact risk and adding sections dedicated to health protocols specific to local government is now commonplace. 

Contrary to the popular belief of a few years ago, blended or even all-virtual events were not necessarily cheaper to produce than in-person events. Designing an event’s virtual counterpart required different platforms, different workflows, different sets of skills, and sometimes different teams altogether. Thus, virtual events now came with their own budget plans, making organisers feel like they were planning two separate events in one. 

Do people still want to meet? Of course! Are people still claiming hybrid or blended events as the best mode of meeting? Debatable. This depends on the event itself as well as what the event organiser hopes to achieve. We have seen face-to-face events come back with a vengeance, and both delegates and organisers could not be happier. Hybrid events have become a mainstream option to allow more flexibility, accessibility, and overall convenience to delegates. A destination may have 99% herd immunity and venues with the latest crowd-control protocols in place, but a delegate can still opt to join an event virtually simply because they do not have the time or budget to fly out. Virtual events, when implemented wisely, can be cost-effective option or an alternative to having no event at all. 


Wants and Needs 

“There’s no technology in the world that can replace the experience of human connection,” said Cvent Director of Sales & Head of International CVBs APAC, EMEA Nathan Sharma during “The Client’s Wants and Needs” panel at the Malaysia Business Events Week (MBEW) in August 2023. 

Though meeting technology accelerated dramatically, and tools of the trade became more sophisticated, one of the biggest struggles event organisers still face is audience engagement. One could have the most advanced gear and the most top-notch virtual, gamified platforms available, but if organisers do not engage with their delegates and make them feel like they are a part of the event from the comfort of their home, an objective was not met. Also, partly due to the population still recovering from “screen fatigue” people most likely want to meet face-to-face when given the choice. 

“That’s because conferences aren’t just about information. They’re about connecting. They’re about meeting colleagues, partners, vendors, customers and your friendly competitors and talking shop face to face… they’re about roaming and thinking and brainstorming and sharing ideas. You don’t get this kind of experience at a virtual event,” wrote Gene Marks, a columnist for The Guardian and owner of Marks Group PC. In this case, most have realized that face-to-face interaction and connection are both a want AND a need. 


Rising Expectations 

However, lagging engagement might also be due to rising client expectations. Once the pandemic gave way to relative normalcy and borders around the world relaxed, it was almost overwhelming for the business events industry because people were content to just meet face-to-face again. Travelers were coming and going in droves; airports and hotels were exceeding their 2019 numbers; and venues were swarming with people once again. Fast forward a few months, and that sense of euphoria has died down. Delegates are now asking organisers “What more can you offer me?” 

With everyone coming back to onsite events, concerns have switched from health and safety to finance and budget. Delegates are discerning which events are worth their time and money, especially in the face of possible economic downturn and sociopolitical instability. Now spoiled for choice, delegates are prioritizing events they think will provide them with the best Return on Investment (ROI). It's not just the delegates, either. Thanks to the major investment in technology in the last few years, event organisers also have a wide array of options and solutions available. Many platforms have become more accessible instead of niche, and many tech companies offer competitive prices for a variety of clients. 


Tech Growth and Concerns 

Technology is evolving, and always has been, but the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated its evolution beyond anything we had ever seen before as demands for safe, effective solutions skyrocketed. Experts have predicted that people will develop greater reliance on technology and digital goods, for better or for worse. This has brought a prominent concern to the forefront: the displacement of human workers in favour of the faster, more efficient and convenient output of automated machines, concerns similar to those seen during earlier industrial and technological revolutions. 

The reality is that AI is just another tool — an opportunity for humans to do more with less strain and risk. Rather than displace human efforts entirely, AI should be used to enhance, supplement, and amplify those efforts. AI programs can be used to help workers streamline tasks and offer better and faster services, without forgoing “the human touch.” The real challenge is figuring out how to incorporate such tools in designing a seamless journey for all parties — staff, client, and customer. There is no one-size-fits-all AI program that can magically make every company’s problems disappear. The program must be intricately customised according to an individual organisation’s specification, their variety of products, work culture, and the different ways each company serves its clients. 

With our growing dependence on technological advancements come challenges of digital sustainability. Referring to the responsible adoption of digital tools to lessen negative long-term impacts on society and the environment, such factors include the consideration of energy efficiency, production and disposal of electronic devices, and minimising digital waste and pollution. Whenever the topic of sustainability pops up, “digital sustainability” is not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s only briefly discussed if it's even mentioned at all. Topics such as waste management and sustainable farming tend to take up more of the spotlight, as they are tangible and actions that are easily seen. More often than not, because this sort of damage is invisible, it should be just as great a cause for concern, if not more. 

Technology was always supposed to make life easier rather than add stress and chagrin. While development is looking smoother with time, the stage of “seamless” synergy is still a dream. 


The Beauty of Human Resiliency 

“The year 2022 witnessed a remarkable “bounce back” of exhibitions, with companies from most markets achieving revenues close to their 2019 levels. This positive trend continues into 2023, with companies in almost all regions expecting to reach or even surpass their 2019 revenue levels. Globally, the revenues for 2022 and 2023 represent 78% and 97% of the 2019 levels respectively, indicating a progressive full recovery. This recovery now appears faster than expected 6 months ago, when companies were expecting to reach 91% of the 2019 levels.” 

— The Global Exhibition Barometer, July 2023 

 UFI conducted a survey and study with 351 companies from across 61 countries and regions with up-to-date information on the development and outlook of the global exhibition industry, showing some unexpectedly optimistic results. Companies, businesses and organisations are returning to pre-pandemic levels in terms of global revenue, showing near-complete or complete recovery. A few years ago, this might have seemed like nothing more than wishful thinking. According to the survey respondents, these last few years may have proven difficult, but they were not impossible to overcome. 

Like any other industry, the business-events sector must play its cards right in the constant “catch-up” game — keeping up with the latest trends and ever-evolving client expectations; staying ahead of the competition with new-and-improved business models and tools of the trade; staying relevant with what clients want; and solidifying what we have to offer. If the last few years have shown us anything, it is that we have always had the ability and creativity to do better, or more than what was previously done. Often, we are more capable than we give ourselves credit for, as both individuals and as the puzzle pieces of the larger picture. It was not the hand we wanted, but we dealt with the cards we got. Whatever comes next, all we can do is face it head-on and hope that we end the day better than how we started it. 

“Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.” 

― Elizabeth Edwards