“From heaven to hell in one day”
Q: How badly has COVID-19 affected the meetings industry in your country?
Catastrophic, but still not widely recognised. The problem is the meetings/event industry is not a clear entity of companies. It consists of various locations, congress centres, hotels, event agencies and most important – of many many support organizations and individuals, such as performers, production companies, moderators, translators, hostesses, transport organizations, printing houses, digital support companies (for invitation and payment systems) and many others.
We are not coherent as an industry and most of us are not focusing on organising events only. Hotels obviously offer other services, agencies also do other marketing and advertising services, for many individuals events are just a part of their job. I think that the Slovenian Convention Bureau is doing an excellent job explaining our position to our government, but we are still not close to a support package for the event/meetings industry.
Q: How much damage has the epidemic caused for your company?
We are on 25% of last year performance in the first half of the year. In total, this year we will have approximately 60-70% lower income compared to 2019. More than half of our income was event-related and in addition, some clients are also revising their plans and subsequently, we have fewer projects. It is much worse than the 2008 recession as the change was instant. From heaven to hell in one day, on Friday, March 13, 2020. I am actually surprised nobody is referring to that day as Covid Black Friday in Slovenia😊.
Q: How do measures put in place by regional governments help with exiting the crisis? What do you miss?
We are using government measures to keep our people employed. As much as we can to keep the agency fully operative for our clients. But in numbers, this support is not nearly enough. Not to mention the process to get this support is over-bureaucratic, complicated and payments are very late. The most bizarre is the measure of liquidity loans with state guarantee. The government guarantees for 80% of the loan and it is still impossible to get it – as banks are the ones to decide according to our financial situation, which is obviously bad compared to 2019. It is absurd. Catch 22. We have just finished almost two months process of getting a loan with our long-term bank and the outcome is humiliating. “Feeling like Oliver Twist”, would be my tweet, with hashtag SKB😊 . It is clear we are surviving only because our people understand the situation and they were prepared to sign to much lower wages.
Q: Do you think the situation will get worse before it gets better? Have you prepared any preventive measures in case of a second coronavirus wave?
Well, I think we are already in the second wave. It is still possible to organise some type of events, but as for business events, the future is bleak. There isn’t a client, especially big international companies, who would dare to have a live (or hybrid) event and potentially take the risk of bad PR. So, NO job for us, obviously. Our only option to stay alive through this crisis was very clear from the start – transform our agency to other services, not events. In March and April, we had some illusions that the lockdown may last for few months but as of June, it is very clear that business events will not be on the menu at least until late spring 2021.
Q: What has the epidemic taught us about the current state of the meetings industry? Will the epidemic also bring something positive
The meetings industry had five fabulous years prior to Covid crisis. The business grew and we had trouble finding specific resources from time to time. So, everything was beautiful and in times like this one rarely thinks about problems. As the lockdown happened so fast our biggest dis-advantage occurred – we were not organized as an industry, as a community. Everybody promptly understood the problems of the tourism industry and the solution has been found in the distribution of tourist vouchers to all Slovene citizens. But nobody understood the problem of the event industry and how many companies and individuals depend on it. I would claim that this is the best thing – we are much better organized. But I am afraid this process is taking too long for many small companies and freelancers. They are closing companies, looking for a job elsewhere …
Q: Do you think the quarantine period was beneficial for unwinding and gathering new creative ideas for the future?
Yes, of course. When times like this happen, it is likely that the urge for solving problems will bring new and sometimes fascinating ideas. Our own example – we are developing a new product with our partner ORO plastika d.o.o. and for us, this is a totally new area of expertise. The Product concept, industrial design, production … not usually on our menu😊. Another project has been launched in mid-September – an online platform where people can order video greetings from celebrities: www.hejhej.si
Both projects are a result of us looking for new areas of income – and on this road, we have somehow become a digital start-up company😊. But this is an investment in our work and money, also. And the money is a problem, as it is hard to get support for financing, as I mentioned before. Bad bad banks! I came across some bizarre transformations also. Two of our suppliers in event projects (printing house and identification systems) are now selling protective products for Covid. I wouldn’t say this is a new creative idea, but it shows how hard it is to survive in the event industry at the moment. Also, some great ideas and projects are developed around online and hybrid events. And this shows the great potential our meetings industry has. It would be a shame to find this industry in ruins next year. And it surely will be in ruins unless we are recognized by the government, maybe in the 6th wave of support measurements.
“There is no alternative to live events. Simple as that.”
Q: What are some alternatives to live events? Are live events a thing of the past or will we continue to meet in person after the coronavirus?
There is no alternative to live events. Simple as that. There are alternatives on how to organize a presentation, how to present a new product, how to pass some information to a group of people. There are great existing digital tools for that and even better are being developed as we speak. Platforms for online and hybrid events, AR and VR. But in no way is this a supplement for live events. Because, you know, we are humans😊. Even now it is very clear people need live events. Whenever there is an opportunity people will gather. Every organization that is not so concerned with the potential PR issue is doing at least hybrid events. So yes, live events will be back. The real question is who will be there to develop ideas and organise events if the meeting industry collapses.
Q: Do you think online events can replace the physical experience of live events?
No. I was very illustrative of that in my last answer. But partly this will be the case. I think that many events will remain online – especially if the main objective is education, content. I call them knowledge events. In a way, it is liberating to just open your phone or laptop and listen to 1,5 h presentation in the office or at home, not driving to some location and potentially lose half a day. So, I believe this kind of events, maybe even some conferences will remain in an online format. But if an event has at least some networking potential or a celebration moment, clients will go back to live events as soon as possible.
Q: How have you managed to connect the digital and analogue world at your events and in business?
Me thinking – this is not real science. Some tools were available, some developed or upgraded through the last few months. We realized soon enough that lock-down on events and work from home will be more permanent, so we adjusted our processes accordingly. I am appreciating many open supports from our clients and even from our competitors with finding proper and best tools. Especially some organizations (as Slovenian Chamber of Commerce, AmCham, for example) were great with legal and other support.
Q: In these turbulent times, what separates your company from the competition?
I would say the most important thing is that we are prepared to invest all previous year’s profit (and some future profit, too) to our people. Our aim is to keep the team. People are our value. And I am more than grateful to all of them for supporting our agency with lower wages and hard work. Everything else – our new projects, our good work for active clients – is based on that.
PERSONAL QUESTIONS FOR BOŠTJAN
Q: What will we be discussing over coffee at the same time next year?
I hope we will be saying: “Hey, dude, that was one crappy 2020!!!” And not: “WTF, the Covid crises still endures!!!” 😊
Q: Where do you find inspiration for events in these tough times? Do you have a favourite event agency or role model?
I’m very proud of the agencies and individuals who have done great work to organize our industry. Miha from the Slovenian Convention Bureau, Jaka from FM, all you guys from Kongres magazine. I think you have done tremendous work.
Q: What inspires you in your daily life? (music, books, nature…)
My three children. They keep me young, alive, and digital (I wouldn’t know about Fortnite and TikTok without them). But most of all, the moment they fall asleep. This is the highlight of the day for me. Then a book and a beer😊.