Reuniting the industry

Following the disruption and challenges brought by the COVID-19 outbreak, event organisers are preparing to safely bring the profession together

silmo optical event
Earlier this year, as cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept across countries and new measures were introduced in efforts to control and slow the spread, event organisers made the difficult decision to cancel or postpone their conferences and trade shows that had been planned for the spring.

Mido, the Italian trade fair due to have been held at the end of February, was postponed before a new date for the event was selected for 2021. Vision Expo East, set to have been held in March, was postponed, with elements of the event to be consolidated with the September show Vision Expo West. Optrafair, in April, took the decision to postpone until September.

In the first few weeks of March, UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, suggested more than 500 trade shows had not taken place as planned, creating a “escalating ripple effect for whole industries.”

In the UK, the British Visits & Events Partnership (BVEP), an advocacy group for the events industry, welcomed the Government’s latest adjustments of the lockdown measures, with a relaxation of the two metre physical distancing rule and reopening of parts of the sector, however the group called it “shameful” that the events industry had not been addressed.

The BVEP warned that if the industry is not allowed to open up safely, and quickly, it risks losing in excess of £50 billion of direct spend, and the loss of over 500,000 jobs.

Now, as countries ease lockdown measures and move into new phases of recovery, event organisers of shows due to be held in the autumn have been sharing updates on their plans, including heightened health and safety measures.

Vision Expo West, due to be held from 23-26 September, has opened registration, while Silmo Paris, set to take place on 2-5 October, has outlined the themes for the show.

OT caught up with the teams behind Vision Expo West, Silmo and 100% Optical, to find out more about how they are responding to the challenges posed in a post COVID-19 environment.

The impact on event organisers

“We were very excited to unveil a major reimagination of Vision Expo at Vision Expo East, with new neighbourhoods and a brand new CE,” explained Mitch Barkley, vice president of trade shows and meetings at The Vision Council. “While it was disappointing to not be able to launch the reimagination at Vision Expo East, we are looking forward to incorporating many of those exciting elements into Vision Expo West.”

Attendee registration for the Las Vegas event opened on 11 June. Sharing some of the challenges of preparing for Vision Expo West in the wake of the outbreak, while also incorporating elements of the postponed spring event, Mr Barkley said: “One of the biggest challenges around planning Vision Expo West has been being at the mercy of a city that is reopening in the midst of a pandemic.”

“While we are eager to share more information with the vision community about our plans, we are awaiting further guidelines from Las Vegas on what the rules and regulations will look like for larger events and tradeshows,” Mr Barkley added.

The event organisers have relaxed and extended its standard policies and deadlines for exhibitors, with Mr Barkley suggesting the team wanted to ensure companies “that are just getting back to business or reopening have enough time to make their plans.”

While 100% Optical 2020 was able to go ahead as planned in January this year, Media 10 has felt the impact of the lockdown on the other events in its schedule.

“We were very lucky that 100% Optical 2020 took place when the virus was still contained to China. In March we sent staff home a week before lockdown and, luckily, were able to adapt quickly,” commented Nathan Garnett, event director. He added, “We run over 30 events of all shapes and sizes a year, and so far 100% Optical is the only event we have been able to run.”

“Our plans for 2021 are still underway, and of course, we will be making adaptations to comply with whatever government guidelines will apply at the end of January 2021,” he added.

While planning is in progress, with many people in the UK furloughed (approximately 8.9 million) communicating has been a challenge, Mr Garnett explained. “We are glad people are returning now so we can re-start planning and make up for lost time.”

Organisers for the trade fair Silmo Paris have outlined plans for the autumn show, with chairman Amélie Morel recently commenting that the team has been “all hands on deck” to prepare.

“Like most companies, we organised teleworking to pursue preparations for the trade fair,” Eric Lenoir, exhibition director, told OT. “This did not really cause a detriment to our planning, since the intense phase of trade fair preparation begins in June and lasts until September. Lockdown began to be lifted in mid-May, so we are confident in terms of event organisation.”

The key challenge in this time has been handling the uncertainty of the situation, Mr Lenoir added.

“We implemented an active ‘wait-and-see’ policy: anticipating, not rushing to conclusions, and upholding our commitment to open the trade fair,” he said.

Event organisers have highlighted that 700 companies have confirmed their registration, achieving an exhibitor attendance rate of 80%.

“We must continue growing to increase that number, especially since the French government has confirmed that trade fairs, conventions, conferences and other large-scale events will be able to go forward as of 1 September,” Mr Lenoir said.

Moving online

Over the past few months many new webinars, live discussions and virtual events have sprung up to offer opportunities for training and development while many people were furloughed.

In a panel on digital events led by the Association of Event Organisers’ Tech Group, Luke Bilton from Informa shared that, based on Google trend analysis, there is a spike in demand for webinars, with searches increasing by at least eight, ten, or even 20 times in some countries during lockdown.

Following the postponing of Vision Expo East, the Vision Council launched the Virtual Connections programme in April, to facilitate conversations and meetings for the would-be exhibitors and attendees who had registered for the event and allow them to “have productive conversations, forge meaningful connections, and, ultimately, keep doing business during a very disruptive time.”

This was in addition to the launch of the Virtual EYE2EYE Series of virtual panels and conversations, inspired by Vision Expo’s EYE2EYE educational series. The weekly events, which have been extended into July, have included panels originally scheduled for Vision Expo East 2020, presented in new formats, as well as topical conversations addressing the current challenges around the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the cancellation of Vision Expo East, we have been working hard to keep the vision community connected,” commented Mr Barkley.

An increased focus on health and hygiene

To prepare for the additional measures that will form a necessary part of life and business beyond COVID-19, partner and co-owner of Vision Expo, Reed Exhibitions, has created a Health & Safety Task Force to develop and implement policies and best practices for COVID-19 “response and prevention.”

“This is the first time we have had a task force like this in place as part of show planning,” Mr Barkley explained.

The task force will organise the event in line with guidance from public health officials, local governments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.

With safety and wellbeing a “top priority,” Mr Barkley added that the organisers are closely monitoring the Las Vegas reopening rollout and plan to develop and update protocols as needed.

For Silmo Paris, the event organisers plan to establish a health and hygiene protocol that is currently in force and established in a number of countries. Mr Lenoir explained that this includes: “Strict barrier procedures for both exhibitors and visitors: providing masks, visors and hand sanitiser, evaluating body temperature at the entrances, and setting up physical distancing parameters.”

“We are fortunate to hold the event in very spacious exhibition halls that make it possible to manage traffic flows easily,” he added.

While 100% Optical is still several months away, the event organisers told OT that health and safety plans are part of the preparation for the 2021 event.

Mr Garnett said: “We have put lots of exciting ideas and plans in place for the 2021 show, as well as plans to bring back some of the event’s trademark features and of course the catwalk shows. We have of course also been in discussions with ExCeL London on providing a safe and controlled environment for people to attend.”

“There will be familiar social distancing measures in place, similar to those being seen in retail and in optical practices up and down the country,” Mr Garnett said. “Stands will no doubt be adapted with safety features, and we will have wider aisles where needed, lots of sanitation points, larger seating areas to allow for social distancing, and spaced out seating in seminars to comply with the government guidelines at the time.”

The longer-term effects

Asked what longer-term changes may come to events as a result of COVID-19, Mr Garnett reflected: “All events will evolve from this experience.”

“I think technology will play an even greater role at the event for a number of reasons, allowing for contactless data transfer, apps for exhibitor directory and seminars, and putting some of the event online. Our use of space will change for sure with wider aisles, bigger stands and appointment systems for exhibitor and visitors.”

Mr Barkley has seen the value of connection growing over the past few months, commenting: “The importance of staying connected as a vision community has been reinforced again and again throughout the COVID-19 crisis.”

Highlighting the response to the Virtual EYE2EYE Series and Virtual Connections, Mr Barkley said: “Based on the positive feedback we have received from these programmes, we anticipate continuing this type of networking and collaborative conversation on a year-round basis moving forward.”

Looking ahead to the longer-term changes that COVID-19 may bring, Mr Barkley also sees the potential for greater use of appointment systems, suggesting, “We anticipate that as long as there are restrictions on social distancing and large groups, we may need to lean harder on arranging meetings by appointment and organising private showings than we have previously.”

Event director for Silmo Paris, Mr Lenoir, reflected: “There is always something to learn from this type of exceptional event.”

Digital technology is one factor that has become increasingly important, Mr Lenoir suggests, particularly where movement has been limited in the past few months.

He explained: “This is a subject that we have been exploring and investing in for several months now, and this crisis has accelerated the process. Considering that it is necessary to find the right tools and a good balance between ‘bricks and clicks.’

“A trade fair remains an important gathering place where people can meet and have face to face discussions: a place for discovery and business that must be maintained because it is essential.”

The event team has developed the Silmo Family concept, which aims to highlight local events. Mr Lenoir added: “We should probably consider developing other such concepts to better meet the local demand, which has been rising to the surface since the crisis began.”

A key theme from the interviews with all three event directors was that it will be more important than ever for the industry to reunite following the challenges brought by COVID-19, in order to highlight new products and technology, and help get back to business.