Ready for a tough ride

Clear directions, innovation and concern for staff are deemed necessary for riding out the business event’s biggest crisis in modern times, notes Uniplan’s chief of Greater China, Geraldine Chew.

The current crisis is often described as being a strange and challenging time for the travel, tourism and events industry. What is the most peculiar and challenging about this crisis for you, as head of Uniplan Greater China?
When we heard about the first cases of Covid-19, we didn’t really think much about it. We thought the pandemic would pass (like the others), but as the number (of infections) started rising we realised we needed to react. We needed to rethink our format, so that we will be ready when activity starts to pick up again.

Uniplan has been in Asia for over 35 years (and) a part of our business is in tradeshows and exhibitions. Those were badly impacted (by the pandemic) because they rely heavily on international travellers. There was very little we could do about that.

We also have a very big experiential events business, and our clients found that they could no longer go out and reach their audience.

Fortunately, there are so many platforms and channels in China that we can use. So, we thought, well, we need to enhance this and offer our clients solutions (to stay connected with their audience).

We digitalised a lot (since the outbreak), in terms of how our events are done and how we communicate with our clients and teams. We are fortunate to have started to digitally transform the way we work since early last year. We were moving onto a Microsoft Teams platform, and were 65 per cent there (when the pandemic happened).

How did you approach the crisis with your staff?
We went into business contingency planning very early on. We told our teams that we have to ride this out, figure out what we can do to stabilise (the company), and keep as much of the team as possible. We had to determine our action plans for if the crisis lasted for three, six or nine months, or even worse, a year.

I am very lucky to have teams in different offices who are fighters and who came up with a lot of ideas (to get us through). We made sure to also consider how our teams feel because ours is an industry that relies heavily on people.

We had to make some tough decisions in planning for everybody, but I’m glad to say that we managed to keep most of our staff. Our teams were very supportive when we had to take cost-cutting measures, which included salary reductions for a period of time.

It has been rather difficult to project how business events will rebound, given the different restrictions in many countries and the second- and third-wave infections that have emerged in some cities. How is your team helping clients to have as much stability in forward event planning as possible?
We need very close collaboration with all partners (to facilitate) changes that can happen within an hour.

We’ve seen that happen, you know. We have had fantastic build-ups in China that expected hundreds of visitors, but within 36 hours something would happen and we had to quickly transform into an online event.

We had a project that was part TV broadcast and part onsite, but suddenly we had no audience and had to switch it to fully broadcast. We often get just 36 to 48 hours of turnaround time to switch and create content that will work for filming in different locations with little rehearsal.

Experience plays a big part in our ability to deliver every time, and we really cherish the talents we have on our teams.

We can no longer run without a (digital) contingency plan, along with (all possible manners of health and safety requirements) because nobody knows what new and intense measures may be imposed (should something happen).

Clients need to be aware of all that, and this may have an impact on their budgets. However, a lot of effort typically goes into every project and nobody wants to waste all that by not being sufficiently prepared to go on with the show.

How do you think the delivery of brand experiences through events will change going forward?
The format will be different. Clients now have more than just two or three different ways to do their events and can have greater segmentation of their audience. I also expect activities to be more spread out, like a campaign rather than a single event. There will be more personalisation of experiences and these changes will be long term.

This is good for the industry, as it forces stakeholders to innovate.

How do you see Uniplan’s past successes in delivering award-winning physical events, such as those that recently attracted Eventex wins, enabling the company to innovate and ride out this crisis?
We have a very strong heritage. We are a company of 60 years and have been here in Asia for a long time. So, we have both an international mindset and a deep local footprint. Our clients also trust us.

I think these have helped us whenever we want to try new brand experiences in different formats for our clients.

Storytelling has been an intrinsic part of what we do – especially in the last three years – because technology has shifted and there is fatigue among consumers in how they want to get their messaging.

I think this will keep changing, even during this crisis. In fact, we have become busier. There was a lull (in events) for about a month and then people came back thinking about what they want to do and how to do it differently.

For clients, doing a livestream or broadcast is at the forefront of what they have to do but they want to execute that with partners they trust.

Uniplan is highly experienced in show productions, dealing with content and having access to different online digital platforms. That has helped us to navigate out of the crisis.

We were already rolling out our first fully online project by May. We had five to seven days to put together a proposal and a month to develop an entire studio, the content, and what Artificial Reality (AR) content to go into the screen, etc.

When you develop content for the screen, it is very different compared to a live environment. There are some things you can never take away from a live experience, like the feeling of your first concert, when the first beat of the drum drops and everyone goes crazy and gets goosebumps.

I think everyone craves that live feeling now, but it will take some time before we can go back to that. So, we are now looking at an in-between, a hybrid of events, and for that we need to come up with a unique hook (for the audience).

How does your business events in China now compare to pre-Covid?
Our head office is in Germany, so we have a lot of work in Europe as well as in the US. Whenever I share what we have done in China with our colleagues in Europe or on LinkedIn, I get so many responses. They would get very curious about the measures that we took, what restrictions were in place, were the aisles wider and were there distancing in the queues. And when I told them none of the sort was done, they’d be so shocked.

The China market is completely different from the rest of the world. We started coming back to physical events much earlier than everyone else. China has handled the outbreak very well right from the start, and that has enabled physical events to resume quickly.

The thing is, the people in China – and in Hong Kong too – are very careful about how they behave in public now. That has helped the events industry come back.

There was just this dip in July when there was an outbreak in Beijing, but we have since bounced back and are now better than we had expected – just not as good as the same time last year.

We do a lot of roadshows and pop-up activations across China, and we have seen a pick up in activity. Consumers are coming in, although there are some restrictions on the number of people allowed each time at a pop-up.

There have been talks about how the crisis is creating a demand for virtual event managers. Uniplan is rather advanced in its experience production, so I want to know what your thoughts are on this.
I don’t think this crisis is creating a new breed of professionals. People in our industry are very adaptive and creative. Whether they are managing a conference or a festival, they will adapt quickly to whatever comes their way.

We actually get excited when we are thrown a challenge to do something we’ve never tried before. This is an evolution of what we do, so we are just layering new skills over what we already have.

Did Uniplan send staff for training to prepare for the digital evolution?
We have training and courses, but a lot of what we learn comes from hands-on experience. We are learning as we go along, from our partners and our own observations.

Prior to Covid-19, we would send our people to fantastic exhibitions and tradeshows to see how others are doing things. Clearly, that is now restricted.

What is the one thing you think is critical for the events industry to rebound steadily?
Confidence, perseverance, faith that a rebound will happen, government support and a vaccine. That’s more than one but I do think they are all needed! (laughs)

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