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The uncertain future of the events industry

Cycling races, association meetings, concerts and family reunions are just a few of the events that would normally be traveling to and from Durango or taking place in our region this year. Coronavirus has changed everything, and the events industry is no exception.

We have all felt the surreal experience of connecting with total strangers in a crowd. Maybe it was a stadium-wide chant for a sports team, a feeling of connection to our fellow worshipers in church, or the simultaneous sway of attendees at a live music event. There is something about the collective experience and linking of minds that can happen in large groups that is not replicable elsewhere. It’s a catch-22. In a world of social distancing, quarantines and isolation, we need social connection now more than ever. Yet gathering socially or professionally in large groups is no longer an option. For now, we have lost the benefits of these group gatherings out of necessity. But this can’t go on forever, can it?

Event organizers are some of the most stressed professionals since the beginning of this COVID ordeal. Initially, all group events were postponed, then some were canceled, while others moved to a virtual format. As time goes on, the industry is learning to adapt. These organizers are realizing that there are alternatives beyond cancellation.

2020 is the year of the pivot, and the events industry is proving to be one of the most resilient. Part of the reason organizers are adapting is because the potential ramifications of cancellations may not be easy to bear.

Even the most well-known, highly attended events cannot cancel with the assumption that, when they do come back, everything will be “back to normal.” No one has that crystal ball to show either when events will be allowed again or what events will look like in the “new normal.” It’s safe to assume that COVID will still be a concern into 2021. Annual event organizers must come up with solutions, because while canceling an event for one year may be survivable, an annual event that cancels two years in a row may have a doomed fate.

If organizers do postpone or cancel, they’re not simply pretending this year didn’t happen and going silent. Attendees need to stay engaged with the event or brand. Events which plan on making a post-COVID comeback will need to keep their audience informed and up-to-date on when they can expect the next event, virtual or in-person. Connecting past-attendees with each other may be a helpful way to keep momentum through 2020. The events that find a way to keep their consumers engaged, with the brand and with each other, will weather the storm the best.

Even when events do return, that does not mean the economy will come back as quickly. With this recession, consumers will have less disposable income for life’s non-essentials, such as live entertainment and recreational events. Even professional conferences will have trouble reviving, as businesses in the travel and other industries have been forced to make major cutbacks. Budget for employee travel and professional development were some of the first to go.

Events with the longest history and biggest following will have an easier time than others. Decades-long annual events will be able to keep interest from sponsors and ticket buyers easier than others. Newer events will have a tougher time selling to attendees when they do return.

The situation right now is a careful balancing act of maintaining connection and brand awareness without breaking the bank. If events use too many of their resources in a non-income generating year like 2020, they won’t maintain enough of a reserve for their eventual comeback. Events must find a way to maintain ROI without going silent.

For some events, the exercise of transitioning to a virtual platform has presented a fun and creative challenge. But only 40% of events which have tried to switch to a virtual format have succeeded. And for those who are not able to go virtual, the future is uncertain. When in-person events do return, we will likely look at the crowd that surrounds us in a whole new, and much more appreciative way. Virtual events will never fulfill the joy of the human connection that can be experienced only in a crowd.

Rachel Brown is the executive director of Visit Durango. She can be reached at 261-1052 or rachel@durango.org.