A Zooming Virus …. with a Virtual Reality

What a cyber life I’ve been living! I’ve been Zooming, Skyping, Facetiming, Housepartying, Netflixing, Quizzing, Gin O’Clocking, Sweating, Singing (with choirmaster Gareth and PE Joe!). I’ve never been more social while staying-in. I’m virtually exhausted!

I have so many apps open on my desktop, if I catch a quick flash of a notification alert, I often miss which one it came from – so I have to go ‘hunt the text’ through the myriad of tools! While this all sounds like fun, I know there is a very serious reality which is impacting all of us with travel and events being the hardest hit industry coping with the impact of COVID-19. With a ‘pause’ on live events and ‘normal’ life, despite the shocking ‘screen time’ hours, the last couple of weeks have provided a rare chance to reflect as well as think ahead to the possible landscape beyond the virus.

The irony of it! Just four months ago, at the end of a busy 2019 for my small events and marketing agency, I was scheming and strategising on how I could REDUCE the number of events in 2020 requiring my direct involvement. Oh, hindsight!

With my relatively young business, founded on a personal hands-on approach supported by my trusted freelancers, I was looking to cut back on travelling to allow me to focus my energies on the ‘ology’ side of my  business and my other passion … MICE industry marketing collaborations and support.

With my 2020 events calendar looking healthy, I launched into January with aplomb.  With a new website in design, working on some marketing industry partnerships and exciting plans to reignite my senior level networking group, I was on fire! With a small splattering of UK events in early January / February, I followed news of this virus with interest.

With two international events planned to India and Spain in April, like many, I registered for daily updates from FCO and monitored both Spanish and Indian government controls. The early statistics, while of concern, it did not convey a sense of urgency with event decisions as to travel or not. In those early stages, my two destinations were relatively low on cases – and India imposed a robust non-visa clamp down on travellers from China – directly or indirectly.

Still, it remained a distant story initially, but then ‘zoom’ – at record speed, it hit my world as well as everyone else. In mid-February, with eight weeks before travel, and no FCO advice against travelling or airline issues, we remained committed to plans as, like many, we were into full financial commitment and had no resistance from winners about travelling.

As we’re all now fully aware, this epidemic rocketed to pandemic status at breakneck speed where every day there was a new perspective on plans ahead and the measures soon to be considered. Spain subsequently has become one of the hardest-hit European destinations behind Italy.

Like many planners in the early stages of this drama, I am sure most considered postponement. However, with increasing uncertainty as to the timeline of the crisis and the economic implications, and with lockdowns imposed, no flights – many will have taken the ‘force majeure’ route to recoup costs for their forthcoming events.

So, with March and April postponed/cancelled and most other events put into hold mode, my little wish for more personal time to develop other areas of the business has become a reality. But sadly, not under the circumstances any of us could have imagined.

It is unbelievable to think it was only a few weeks ago we were commiserating our woes at M&IT Awards, and I undertook a final recce to Spain to put the finishing touches to an event. My last business appointment in the UK before the lockdown was with a client recce to the stunning Cliveden House (a stylish one before lockdown!).

These final meetings were mostly dominated by virus talk, as we awkwardly fumbled while coming to terms with the early stages of social distancing before it really kicked in. We nervously joked as we offered elbow greetings. As an industry of ‘mwah mwah’ kissing luvvies, how would we come to terms with this new business social greeting!

Sign of the times as I lost a coat while out on business yet had little concern for the item itself. Just gutted I had my last and only bottle of hand sanitiser in the pocket!

A week later, after my Cliveden meeting, we’re into lockdown and coming to terms with an unprecedented experience. There is no dressing for what a seriously dire time it is for the industry. But personally, now is not a time to lament but seize the opportunity to prepare and keep fit for the exit from this drama.

Undoubtedly with staff redundancies, furloughing, unpaid holiday etc. it is a brutal time for the industry. Sadly, some businesses may not survive it, but some will become stronger because if it.

I consider myself a young-spirited ‘baby boomer’, who has been around long enough to see the impact of travel embargoes, recessions, IRA bombs, 9/11, Gulf wars and other epidemics. I possibly have a more considered approach and mental ability to handle the pressure than our younger generation who are having to face a new level of stress and anxiety in these difficult times.

There is an exceptional spirit in the MICE industry. Made more potent by the ‘we’re in it together’ mindset. There is an abundance of empathy. Every single personal interaction has been understanding, sympathetic and sensitive to the needs of the corporate sector while firefighting their own personal quest to have vision and security for the rocky months ahead. Undoubtedly, this is the most uplifting part for me in a troubled period.

Businesses will bounce (or slumber) back and there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Just the question on everyone’s mind, after their health and safety considerations, is when is this light going to appear?

The landscape will always be different after a significant global event such as this. This crisis undoubtedly will help the world focus on its learnings and the delicate state of the world. We’re already seeing confinement bringing positive experiences to the family unit (some!) and an appreciation and slow down to our everyday lives.

There are some views, that long haul travel from the UK will be severely disrupted in the aftermath as the corporate community seeks to support UK and possibly European destinations such as Spain and Italy.

Social media and our current online presence is the most significant friend right now but can also be the root of many evils. Undoubtedly, virtual engagement is helping teams, companies and industry colleagues stay connected. Micebook brilliantly seized the opportunity to engage both buyers and suppliers to knowledge share best practice and create a unique community to support one another through this period.

However, not all have the great ability to filter social and mainstream media positively. The negative media and quality of inaccurate information can exasperate situations and anxieties. I have managed to make sound practical use of my own ‘personal filters’ in most cases and have managed to get enjoyment or qualified facts from online content.

With a ‘Key Worker’ wife, I’m an enforced ‘Stay at Home’ dad to look after my young daughter. Unable to support the much-needed community externally, I’ve been thinking about how could I help with spare time beyond any home-based essential community support? With a ‘half glass full attitude’ to most things in life and some MICE wisdom and experience, I am exploring a suggestion of a SITE Young Leader in the idea I might be a good industry mentor! Perhaps find a way to channel some positive energy for business guidance with a splattering of morale-boosting industry optimism for the brighter times ahead. Anyone reading this, feel free to reach out. They can help me practice – FOC, of course!

As a MICE marketeer, as I’ve seen many times before, as the industry exits a global recession, a downturn, travel embargoes etc. there will be an almighty scramble for buyer engagement and business opportunities. The smart ones will have been using their home working time wisely to re-sharpen their product, messaging and communication plans and strategy with a sensitive and considered approach – delivered at the right time. Many suppliers will add more noise in their old ways as if nothing has happened. The smart ones will shine if they understand the toll on the corporate community as well as their own.

There is one given from this sad story. Those who see virtual and digital events as an alternative or threat to live event experiences … think again! Travel and live will still play a vitally important role – but with a new landscape beyond COVID 19, I hope we are a more sensitive group of travellers with the lessons learned and appreciate the sensitivities of this planet.

While the ‘virtual’ way is our saviour at the moment in keeping us connected, engaged and educated, rest assured after several months of home confinement, when we’re allowed to travel and meet, people won’t want to be looking at building blocks of faces for quite a while!

Although it has helped me become damn good at PE and choir singing! Must dash, gin o’clock calling. Oh, and I have that website to complete.

Keep safe and well … and at home!