HQ Report: The Case for a Hybrid AIPC Annual Conference

7th Oct, 2020

The 2020 AIPC Annual Conference took place in Paris on the 24th-25th of September, but also on our screens. As the president Aloysius Arlando, “because we want to reach as many members as possible, the 2020 edition will be a hybrid one, combining on site and virtual”. HQ attended the event and discovered a whole new range of opportunities.

On the first day, we had two morning discussion panels followed by four perspectives sessions. Speakers focused on innovation and, perhaps most importantly, the customers’ point of view.

After Jan van den Bosch, from RAI Amsterdam, and Pablo Nakhlé Cerruti, from Viparis, welcomed all guests, the first panel saw Matthias Schulze, of the German Convention Bureau, SAP’s Stéphanie Dubois and CISCO’s Gerd De Bruycker discussing threats and opportunities related to the use of technology. Quite rightly, business events were compared to sport matches or races. While some people “will make the effort to travel” and others will simply watch them on TV, the first group will enable the second to stay home by paying for a special experience-treatment. Online events can be more inclusive and diverse, finally offering experts in the field the chance to participate no matter their location and availability to move. So, will this balance be lasting? Or will it only exist to overcome the immediate future? The three panelists agreed changes are there to stay, also because hybrid means an increasing reach: basically, “the best of two worlds”. “Nothing changes is never going to be the answer today,” Dubois added.

In the second session, Vivienne Hsu from Cognito invited us to put ourselves in the event organisers’ shoes. She joined Deutsche Bank’s Christoph Woerman, UNLEASH’s Marc Coleman and D.C. United’s Harry Hardy and asked them what is the holy grail that would convince them to organise a physical event. Woerman suggested more attention should be put on mitigation, which is “the elephant in the room”, while Coleman recognised “all models have been broken by the crisis” so we need new ones. “We are coming back to you, but as different you and different us,” Hardy finally stated.

Metaphors went on in the afternoon, too. “Think about Netflix. Everybody is binge watching on Netflix right now, so what you are doing as a smart organiser is you are delivering according to the desires and consumers’ behaviours of your attendees,” said Dahlia El Gazzar, founder of Dahlia Plus. El Gazzar was invited by James Morgan of the University of Westminster to talk about the future of big events given the current circumstances, alongside Wee Min Ong from Conventions & Exhibitions Marina Bay Sands Pte Ltd and Colja Dams of VOK DAMS Events. The industry panellists discussed the economic feasibility of events “to binge watch”. “COVID-19 has turned everything upside down and pushed technology up to the front,” said Min Ong. “At the end of the day, hybrid events need to provide ROI (return on investment) and this is where the money is,” added Dams. They also recapped the conversation later, with questions from journalists and more metaphors: this time, Dams compared hybrid events to the online chat website Chatroulette where “you interact with people in real life and in a digital Tinder-like situation at the same time”.

The second afternoon presentation was all about the symbol of speed for excellence: Formula One. Mark Gallagher, from Performance Insights, gave us a glance of big events’ future. Gallagher has been working in senior leadership roles within motor racing over the last 30 years, side by side with Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button, David Coulthard, Mika Hakkinen and Jacques Villeneuve. At AIPC, he presented Formula One’s loìnger terms plan and initiatives designed to cope with COVID-19. “We are now forced to renovate our business,” he said. “We rely more than ever on a connected environment.”

It was then the turn of Isabel Bardinet, from the European Society of Cardiology (ESC), who, in a session titled The future of big events, suggested us to replace the expression "virtual congress" with "digital congress".

Finally, István Ujhelyi, Vice-Chair of TRAN Committee, and Neil Brownlee of VisitScotland analysed respectively European and Scottish policies regarding events. “Business events do change the world,” said Brownlee. Eventually even “the telephone has changed over the years”, so everything has the potential to do the same.



The second day of the conference charted an agenda similar to the first. After a brief introduction, Allan Agerholm, chief hospitality officer of BC Hospitality Group, presented the first panel of discussion composed of members of AIPC, UFI and ICCA. Michael Duck from Informa Markets, together with Michael Kruppe from SNIEC and the CEO of Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) Taubie Motlhabane, put the most pressing issues of international venues and PCOs on the table. Rise and reliance on technology to resort to in-house studios and hybrid events like this.
Kruppe said that “the Asians are world champions in adapting to the circumstances”, and predicted that “the new-normal will look like before with less exhibitors and visitors”. For Michael Duck, trying to “emulate the best convention centres” is a key factor while managing their 3,000 events in Asia Pacific. Being a great connoisseur in the Asian market, Duck also left the warning to be more proactive as the industry to lobby national authorities. "We are not at the top of governments' list!" he concluded.
From the southernmost point of the globe, Taubie Motlhabane highlighted the impact of technology and digital events on the CTICC agenda. “All countries are playing catch-up to learn from those who are doing better,” which is a statement used by Motlhabane to make the meetings industry work even more closely and collaboratively.

The second morning session with the event professional, James Morgan, as moderator, put three new speakers at a digital distance, trying to explain what we learned after 3 months of exit strategies. Mary Larkin, president of Diversified Communications USA of UFI, sees an unprecedented collaboration right now but warns us to be better advocates for the industry. “We have to modernise as we go, because the speed of adaptation and online service companies will only get better and better,” she said. Aloysius Arlando, president of AIPC, stressed the importance of developing better content for online events and to pivot digital in the business. “There's a new baseline we cannot underestimate. We need to understand the strength and reach of digital and how to make hybrid events flexible in different parts of the world.” In a very fruitful conversation, James Rees, president of ICCA, pointed to the fact that the industry is adapting very well and that automation will be a huge tech development for us. “It is absurd to continue with a plastic holder to make a registration that can be done digitally. We are going to witness a huge shift in our working culture and practices.”

In the afternoon session, attention turned to the themes of connectivity and accommodation with three silver-tongued presentations by professionals in the hospitality, aviation and public transport sectors. After the host Sven Bossu welcomed back the audience and virtual viewers, the next slot was given to Franck Gervais, CEO of the multinational Accor Group, who took us on a guided tour of the hotel rooms in times of crisis. In fact, the travel industry lost 3 trillion euros so far putting 100 million jobs at risk, despite the best indicators in 2019. The head of Accor focused mainly on economic recovery in Europe, the continent that leads the ranking of events worldwide, in an industry that employs around 40 million people. Gervais set out three main pillars of resistance: solidarity; health and safety; tackling the future. The Frenchman also proposed humility in leadership positions to listen to your teams, be resilient and inventive at a time when small events are becoming more and more popular. “If the events are not coming to us, we should open our spaces to the streets, offering our services to the local communities.”

In the second perspective session, André Schneider, CEO at Geneva Airport, gave us a darker picture of his sector after the poll results to the question: when do you think flights will return to 2019 levels? “Aviation industry will not be back to normal until 2024 for a midsize European airport like Geneva.” From March to mid-June, airlines plummeted around 60% with the majority of the business-oriented hotels behind closed doors. According to Schneider, “airlines don’t want to fly if they don’t fill up their rates” in what is the biggest crisis since WWII. Finally, “until we don’t get a coordinated solution in Europe on a higher level, we won’t see an uprising in all these industries.” 

In the last individual session of the event, Kaan Yildizgoz, senior director of UITP, was a little more optimistic about the sector he represents. Despite the evident drop, urban transport is reacting better than the aviation sector, as “we need efficient public transport to develop cities that are the engine of countries”. However, this requires greater demands for hygiene and safety measures. As a matter of fact, it is impossible to organise an international event without resorting to urban transport circuits, which motivated UITP to create a checklist for events with service development, procedural organisation and staff management. The digitalisation of services is one of them, with Yildizgoz promoting the cases of Hong Kong or Geneva as exemplary in the integration of smart ticketing for meetings and events.

At the end of this annual event in 2020, we had an Eurasian panel to discuss the repercussions and effects of this health crisis, from the perspective of destination management. Moderated by our regular contributor at HQ, Interel’s Benita Lipps, the conversation started in Singapore, passed through Dubai and ended in Paris. Three destinations of excellence in our industry that sent us to the state and evolution of MICE activities a bit everywhere. Carrie Kwik, Regional Director of Singapore Tourism Board, referred to the different stages of recovery with local stakeholders and the importance of remaining a safe, reliable and trustful partner in the marketing perspective. “We saw industry players really rising to the challenge, partnering with singapore tech players with stakeholders coming behind us to embrace domestic tourism”, she said. Destination marketing promotions and network between government and private players were just other two topics on discussion. Steen Jakobsen of Dubai Tourism argued that the success of the collaborative alliance between private and public has been crucial. Like he said, “in order for us to definitely reopen our business events, we need to test first how it will be working with venues and conference centres. Health and safety have risen to the agendas and destinations are playing a great role on a long term impact legacy for delegates and associations.” Finally, Corinne Menegaux, Executive Director of Paris CVB, hopes to reconnect the Parisians with the city and fill emotions with digital. “People want to see Paris behind the scenes, in a very experiential and qualified tourism. The collective effort will be very important in the way the city will evolve in the coming years”, she concluded. 

Final remarks: there is a clear new demand that customers expect to see filled with better knowledge and social experiences to meet the needs of the industry. The rapid tests of the COVID-19 will be a game changer and major events will be forced to create and prosper a whole new scenario.

Report written by Emanuela Barbiroglio & Manuel Fernandes

1) (Cover Photo) Franck Gervais, Accor Group CEO;
2) Cape Town ICC Presentation;
3) Pablo Cerruti, Executive Director of VIPARIS;
4) Accor Group Presentation;
5) UITP Presentation.

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