MMBC chair Clark Grue chatted with The Future Economy about how COVID-19 has changed business events, and where we go from here.
The Canadian and provincial governments must rethink the restrictions on the business event sector as a continued shutdown will cripple the industry.
Operators and professionals within the business events sector are capable of delivering safer, more controlled events.
Event organizers need to innovate on ways to adapt events to a changing world by introducing more technological components and flexibility.
The government faces a challenge in balancing health and the economy. Restrictions placed on the business events industry due to the COVID-19 crisis have been crippling, but it is important to remember that the industry is made up of 229,000 jobs. Bringing back controlled and scaled down events can help restart the Canadian economy in a safe way and allow Canada to get back to work in every industry.
What did the Canadian business events industry look like before the COVID-19 pandemic?
Before COVID-19, Canada was the number six market in the world for business events, so we were actually batting a bit above our weight class. The top sectors for business events in Canada include information technology (IT) and health. Health is a broad term, which encompasses a wide variety of services and products, including medical equipment, medical devices, artificial intelligence (AI) for health, and more. Other significant sectors are finance, energy, and engineering.
In our industry, there is a range of jobs that are filled by professionals, tradespeople, engineers, service people, and more. That mix brings significant diversity and has allowed us to be accessible to jobseekers from all walks of life. It is important to cultivate a balanced industry gender-wise that also provides opportunities for a significant amount of people who are new to our country.
How does the business events industry contribute to Canadian economic growth?
Conventions, conferences, exhibitions, and annual general meetings (AGMs) are all events that stimulate interaction between business leaders, thought leaders, government leaders, and dealmakers in general. These events drive business transactions, bring investors to Canada, and build ties that increase our exports. This intellectual superhighway of business and innovation is part of Canada’s economic backbone.
Prior to COVID-19, the business events sector supported around 229,000 jobs across Canada. These are people in the hotel, airline, taxi, restaurant, audio-visual, convention centre business, and more, which together make up a very diverse cross-section of the Canadian population. These jobs create a significant taxpaying base across the country that is a major contributor to our economy.
The work that business events do supports the health, finance, information technology (IT), energy, agriculture, manufacturing, education, and aerospace industry. Pre-2020, the business events industry contributed over $19 billion to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Canada. This is roughly half of the GDP of the tourism sector, and the tourism sector itself is quite significant.
What challenges has COVID-19 brought to the industry?
Part of our challenge is that business events get thrown into the mass gatherings category, and mass gatherings during this time are not seen in a positive light. That being said, I think that fear is unwarranted as we do have the ability to scale down the number of people we host and implement appropriate safety measures.
In Alberta, we can have a maximum of 100 people indoors, and in Ontario, it is a maximum of 50 people. The truth is, you cannot do much with 50 people. You can hold a business meeting but you certainly cannot hold an exhibition or a conference or some form of consumer show.
With the restrictions placed on gatherings, many of the businesses in the events hosting and facilitating space will not survive. They will either end up moving into different businesses or they will lose a lot of their capability in this space to host or facilitate events.
A lot of individuals running our sector are entrepreneurs and therefore do not have much support from government. As such, some of the programs offered have not exactly been accessible, and so there is little respite. For instance, the ,,Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) does not help a company that has no business and therefore zero revenue.
What are some solutions moving forward in terms of reviving the business events industry?
It is going to be more difficult to travel for the coming years – there will either be certain restrictions or certain immunizations or vaccinations one will need to have in order to travel, which means some people may just prefer doing these interactions entirely online.
Good event planners will need to adapt and continue finding ways to make these meetings happen regardless of their physical structure. In a physical setting, there will need to be proper measures. People will need to wear masks. There should be proper segregation where needed, social distancing, and the possibility of the provision of or allowance for clear shields in place of masks. We can implement plexiglass dividers where needed as well. We will have to eliminate buffets and opt for individually served meals, as well.
One positive aspect of the online format is the increased accessibility to speakers, business leaders and thought leaders from around the world, and given this, one possible solution is to combine the online and in-person format. That said, hybrid events pose an interesting technological challenge because people will be interacting live, and there will also be a program on a stage being recorded, as well as participants who want to engage from a distance. Technology is going to have to be very well managed.
In terms of advocacy, one point that is really important for us to get through to government is that business events are not the same as concerts, festivals, or shopping malls. Business events can fully control where their attendees come from, how the attendees interact with each other, how food is served and consumed, and more.
There is also certainly a need to win over the social licence with Canadians to do this. A big part of the fear comes from the way that government has set the protocols. To some extent, we are holding back business events and ways to get our economy going due to fear and not necessarily singularly due to the actual pandemic. The opportunity then is for government to take a bold step forward and allow us to meet and do what we do safely. Governments must, of course, feel free to adjudicate us but allow us to do it in a way that will create that social licence to operate in a safe and professional way.
What do you see in the future for the Canadian business events industry?
Canada can rank even higher as a destination for business events post-COVID-19. A really important part of Canada’s brand is that we are recognized as being a safe country that has handled COVID-19 appropriately. This will help us when we are through the crisis. We are also one of the most connected countries in the world in terms of our trade agreements. Aside from that, we are also known as a welcoming country full of diversity with a rightful focus on equality and inclusion – all of these factors are great for Canada’s image on the global stage. These are all considerations that matter in terms of attracting business events.
The rise of digital platforms and online events has been coming for a number of years. However, digital events never really replaced live events until the COVID-19 pandemic. It takes significantly more work and interactions to build trust online than it does in-person.
Obviously, production of these online events has increased in quality and I can see them becoming a more significant part of business meetings in the future. That said, I think we’re headed towards more of a hybrid direction, wherein both live and online components are incorporated.
We need the support of all levels of government and for them to understand what this industry does for the Canadian economy. Right now, we often get tucked into tourism and that does not shine a light on how business events support Canadian industries. The ability to host events of 500 people now and more in 2021 will play a significant role in kick-starting our economic recovery.