Showing a lead

Żaneta Berus (pictured) examines the changing role and style of leadership brought by the pandemic and, together with a selection of industry leaders, points to new opportunities for the events industry.

The pandemic has turned the entire business events industry upside-down. Many companies have been lost and many people have changed jobs, some migrating to industries that are more predictable and not closed down every time a new wave of the virus arrives.

Now, countries are reopening their businesses, including hotels, events and trade fairs, but will we be the same as before the pandemic? I don’t think so. 

Role of the leader

Let us examine the role of the leader during and after the pandemic. What has changed and what demands are being placed on managers now? 

In many trade fair organisations, posts have been cut, and managers have lost their jobs. Many have had to deal with completely changed relationships and conditions.

I asked a selection of colleague-leaders how their roles and philosophy have changed, and what new opportunities they now see.

I spoke to Berislav Čižmek, CEO CBBS - Management Consulting and EU Lobbying Company (Croatia), Mary Larkin, president Diversified Communication US Division, and to Edward Liu, managing director CEMS in Singapore.

From my conversations, it struck me that the most important traits of a leader in a pandemic is an ability to exude calmness, composure and to be able to reassure your team that the pandemic will end. It is tough, and there are many moments of doubt, but our people expect strong leadership. 

Berislav Čižmek believes the key role of leaders is to maintain communication both inside the company and with customers, “Leaders need to show empathy with the people around as well as confidence combined with realism”. 

Edward Liu adds that “to stay afloat, it is important to keep the focus on our core business and preserve the integrity of events and their stakeholders”. 

Mary Larkin adds: “It was very important [during the pandemic] to take each day in one’s stride so you could navigate the unknown and the ever changing landscape that our businesses faced.” She also highlighted the need for empathy with one’s staff who may not only be fearful, but weary from cancelling and postponing shows, only then to start all over again. “Clear and honest communication meant that staff and customers trusted what you had to say, were patient and stuck with you,” she says.

What then has changed in terms of leadership qualities required post pandemic?

Certainly there is a need to think strategically and to be able to normalise hybrid work after the pandemic. A strong leader with a vision for the company’s development and a clear message to the workforce is what many companies need today. 

Larkin, points out: “Managing and moving with the ever changing environment is a test of patience and resilience. During the pandemic, successful leaders were those who stayed in front of their staff and customers, understood the impact of the unknown, sought realistic opportunities and now, as we move towards the new normal, are making the most of what they can improve on and learn from this past 18 months.”

Liu believes a leader must have a vision. “Our leaders must always be strategic in vision and outlook. We must now look beyond the horizon and envision the future in a New Normal.”

Čižmek stresses it is important to be able to mobilise teams to be proactive and adopt to ‘new normal’ as quickly as possible.”

“We need to remember that the measure of our success as leaders of event companies is our customers and their willingness to trust us after a pandemic and their willingness to attend events in the ‘new opening’,” he adds.

Most clients want a quick return to face-to-face meetings, but with all safety rules implemented. And Čižmek points out that this is especially important for small and medium sized companies. 

Larkin agrees customers definitely want to return to live events. “For those events we have run, attendees have been effusive about how happy they are to be back in person… We need to remember that small businesses rely on events to fuel their growth. They are the most eager to return and to get in front of new buyers and new opportunities.”    

This is all linked to the issue of risk management, yet not all facilities want to share risk and are using special clauses in case of further lockdowns. Čižmek expects customers to be willing to share some risks and accept some additional costs. “However, they would expect organisers to deliver results and good quality buyers/trade visitors. Events not able to bring such value to customers will be crossed off the list for future participation.”

According to Liu, we have to learn to live with the risk and the pandemic. 

“Most of our customers are keen to reopen their businesses. So are we. However, we must ensure that we are reopening to a safe environment in the New Normal - living in an endemic condition.” 

The pandemic showed the power of technology to help run companies and manage teams remotely when the lockdown reached us all. 

Larkin highlights the complete change in office work styles. “The use of new technology for remote working from home has shown that employees want flexibility with their schedules and technology has provided that.”

The big question for all organisers of online and hybrid events is the monetisation of them. While clients have accepted forms of remote training and conferences, remote exhibitions are still approached with some caution. No wonder - trade fairs have always been a platform for face-to-face meetings, where scientific achievements were presented, the best of a given sector was showcased and could be absorbed live with all the senses. 

Čižmek again: “Event organisers have to be more determined in offering to the market options to participate in an event both live and/or in a digital/hybrid way”. Any digital version, he notes, should be offered via a well thought through pricing model, too.

According to my colleagues, most large B2B events organised in both a live and digital/hybrid format were charging between 50% and 65% of the price of the live event for digital only participation. 

An important aspect of monetisation relates to visitor numbers. Online meetings can achieve higher visitor rates, an example given by Čižmek is the Infobip Shift Conference, 8-9 September, 2021 in Zadar/Croatia. “That was a big success and gathered 3,000 live visitors, plus 10,000 digital visitors.”

Liu points out that event organisers must win the trust of their customers in offering effective solutions between exhibitors and trade visitors and buyers. “Only when exhibitors are able to meet face to face with their visitors online can they properly trust the efficacy of such a virtual platform,” he says. 

One positive aspect of hybrid events, of course, is that you can ‘reach’ completely new customers, who normally would never come to your event. 

In Poland, the feeling is that the future belongs 90% to trade shows and live events, and the current return to normality only confirms this behaviour. In the conference and training sector, however, the situation is volatile, as many online organisers have recognised the opportunity to create new sources of income.

Čižmek believes the market will expect to have both options to choose from in future.

Larkin says: “Where hybrid comes into play is with events where content can be streamed and repurposed for on-demand options.”

“In some cases,” she says, “we have found new customers who would never plan to attend the in person event but now can join online for education and training purposes. This has opened a new revenue stream for the portfolio. Online will be more evolved but certainly not replace the in-person event.”

With the MICE sector a great driver of the economy,  you have to have a vision for development, keep creating and believe in what you are doing.

Čižmek’s final words of advice for everyone is, “Be brave, learn fast and act even faster!”

Liu urges us to “let our imagination take flight in the New Normal”. 

So let’s navigate towards a new post-pandemic reality and be strong and give hope to our teams. A leader after a pandemic must have a strategy. It always gives hope for a new deal.