The meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions (Mice) sector stared into the abyss as soon as the Covid-19 crisis began wreaking havoc in the first half of 2020. Events producers had to cancel hundreds of events and figure out ways to stay afloat in the midst of the global pandemic.

The threat soon turned into an opportunity as companies active in the sector quickly pivoted to digital events. It was a moment of reckoning for the whole industry as digital events showed they had potential way beyond being a temporary fix while the pandemic runs its course. This has forced a rethink of the industry’s business model, one in which live and digital events come together in hybrid forms to improve reach and delivery. As countries across the globe ease their lockdown restrictions, “there’s probably going to be a flight to quality on live events”, says Paul Miller, the CEO of US-based events company Questex. 

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Q: What were the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on Mice professionals like yourself?

A: We started to see some impacts early on in Singapore in the January-February 2020 period where our team was telling us that we were unable to put on live events. That spread very quickly to Europe and then eventually to our US business. We ended up shutting down about 90% of that revenue stream, which made up 70% of our revenues, so we were back to just our digital revenue streams. The impact financially was pretty enormous, we really had to scramble for survival. In some ways we were a little lucky in that we had a digital business to fall back on and we pivoted very quickly to virtual events. These two things together enabled us to keep alive and indeed in some cases thrive in that our digital revenues grew by 35% last year.

Q: The pandemic has forced many companies to accelerate their digitisation strategies. Do you believe that technology will substitute for face-to-face meetings in the future?

A: Even before the pandemic, it was our belief that just relying on live events was a little bit antiquated. We have to engage with the communities 24/7, 365 days per year and then use the data from those engagements, the content consumption habits, to make a better event.

The issues with live events are that they do take a lot of planning, they do take a lot of time, there is a sort of cycle to them that can be months long. Whereas in the digital world you are working on tomorrow; so those cadences are different. I see this [digitisation] as an opportunity to bring more of an audience together around a live event.

There are lots of community advantages to being live and to networking and the fun aspect of it. There are also a lot of advantages to sitting in your home office or indeed your workplace and dialling in without the issue of travelling. There’s probably going to be a flight to quality on live events, I think people will probably go to fewer [live events], although if they offer the hybrid option that might be the opposite because people might attend more events overall, live or hybrid. I see it as an opportunity to broaden the size and the reach of the event. I don’t think travel is going away but in some areas it’s going to be slower to come back. Once technology gets its hands into an industry it tends to disrupt it, but I don’t see it as the total threat that probably some of my colleagues in the industry see it as. 

Q: How has this digital disruption impacted business models in the industry?

A: The business model in some ways has turned upside down and it’s up for grabs now. The answer to that really is to innovate, to try to act more like a tech company; try things, fail fast, realise what didn’t work and try something else. Again, I think the quality angle is going to be important. 

There are a lot of unknowns, but what we are seeing is that people want to come back to events. We hosted two events in May 2020. The second one, which was for owners of gyms, which have obviously been very impacted by the pandemic, was oversubscribed. We’ve got more people that want to come to that event than we can cater for. So I do think it’s far from doom and gloom, but there is a fundamental shift in the foundation of the business and that’s an opportunity and a threat.

Q: In which sectors and locations are you seeing the most potential for growth?

A: That’s a bit of a mess, to be totally honest. Just speaking from a US perspective, you can now host an event in Las Vegas, in Arizona, in Florida. There’s no real mask requirement in two of those three states. You cannot do so in New York and similarly you will be able to host an event in the UK in late June but you’re not going to be able to host an event in Berlin until continental Europe, and Germany in particular, gets its vaccination act together. So it’s a very lumpy kind of comeback in terms of geographies.

Sectors-wise it’s a similar story. I will give you an example. Our largest event is the International Hotel Investment Forum. It takes place in Berlin every year and it’s basically for owners and operators of hotels meeting private equity and large investment companies, and lots of hotels are bought and sold at that event. You would think a pandemic would slow down that investment, and indeed it has to a certain extent, but the interest in the buying and selling of hotels is at an all-time high because people believe we’re going to enter a Roaring Twenties type of environment. 

In other words, you can go to an event to buy and sell products like a typical trade show. Some events are very educational. And then some events are very much networking-driven, you can do some buying and selling, you can do some conference work but there’s also a lot of networking going on off-piste. And it’s that last one that is very hard to replicate in a digital way although I personally believe that technology will find a way to do it. The conference can be replicated to a certain extent in a digital way, but there is a feeling that those other big trade shows where thousands of people come in to buy and sell stuff, they may be the last ones to come back – outside of places like China – because there’s a lot of international travel involved, there’s a lot of density involved and those two things are at the moment the antithesis of how to respond to the pandemic.

Q: What is Questex’s current focus for 2021 and beyond?

A: We’re quite bullish. We kicked our strategy around pretty heavily last year [asking ourselves]: ‘Are we in the right markets? Are there ones we’re missing?’ We’re in travel, hospitality, wellness, we’re also in life sciences, healthcare and tech. They’re kind of our six markets. We came out of that process with a doubling down [response]. We’ve reaffirmed that we like the markets we’re in. We believe they’re all going to come back; in some cases they didn’t go away. Tech, life sciences and healthcare actually performed very well. We do believe that our mix will probably be more 55-45 [in favour of] live events [over] digital so we believe our digital growth is going to continue and we think events are going to come back to 2019 levels sometime over the next two years I would say, 2023 at the latest.

There’s a sort of recalibration of the growth. We’ve already made one acquisition in the first quarter of 2021 and we’re looking at more so we definitely believe in the fundamentals of connecting buyers and sellers, whether it be live or digitally and using data to make those connections more efficient. We believe that that fundamental model is not going away.   

We’ve looked at some adjacencies too. We’ve entered higher education, for instance, where we think there is massive disruption [with] blended learning and hybrid learning so we think there’s an opportunity there. We like the experience economy in general. We believe humans are going to crave experiences after being locked away for a year and I think you’ll see the evidence of that as soon as people can get out.  

With regards to the flight to quality I mentioned earlier, I do think that live events were in oversupply so there is going to be a bit of a reckoning there. We’ve got to do things differently. We’ve got to first, make live events safe and second, events have to be compelling. The experience itself has to be worthwhile.

Q: You mentioned before that live events must be safe and that health and safety is important. What impact is health and safety having on Questex’s operations?

A: Health and safety remains an interesting issue in the short term. As vaccinations roll out, it becomes less of an issue we hope. It’s going to be a very crowded last five months of the year because we’re all moving events to the last five months. Certainly from my perspective, I’m expecting fewer people to attend and fewer exhibitors to be there.

Q: Finally, do you have any key takeaways from last year?

A: My key takeaway would be to be aware of what happened when print transitioned to digital. And as Mice organisers, don’t get carried away when everybody comes back to events over the next year. Understand that underneath that foundationally, technology is in the space and you need to make the most of it. Disruption is coming, so be prepared for it. 

Paul Miller is the CEO of Questex. 

This article first appeared in the June/July print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.