Events companies should innovate to beat the pandemic

Sudeep Sonawane,
Doha, 18 April 2020 –
Revival of Drive-In Theatre could offer a lifeline to organisers

COVID-19 pandemic poses a severe threat to global financial stability, besides healthcare emergency. A United Nations department report says the global economy could shrink by up to one per cent in 2020 because of coronavirus pandemic. This is a reversal from the previous forecast of 2.5 per cent growth. The UN warns the world’s economy could contract even further if countries extend controls and shutdowns on economic activities to prevent the spread of the virus without enough fiscal responses.

The analysis by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) says the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt global supply chains and international trade. International trade and business has stopped after almost 100 countries closed their international borders as the virus spread rapidly. This coronavirus pandemic has inflicted disease and deaths on the global community and disrupted routine life like no other health emergency in human history. Countermeasures such as shutdown and social isolation, though noble in intent, have caused chronic pain, hardships, deprivation and hunger, among financially challenged section of the society, particularly among developing countries in Asia and Africa.

While governments and health authorities all over the world do their best to prevent the spread of the virus, what should be the way forward to revive business and trade activities and spur the comatose global economies? For starters, governments could take well-informed policy decisions, specifically on health, business, trade, industries, labour and social welfare ministries and draw the road map ahead. Obviously, these decisions would not be routine, because the world is grappling with emergency. This calls for innovative strategies to defeat an invisible enemy.

In an editorial page opinion article published by The Hindu on April 17 2020, India’s former finance minister P Chidambaram, writes, “We need not make a choice between saving lives and protecting livelihoods. We can achieve both, through a ‘smart’ lockdown and careful economic management. Every sector of the economy in every nation has come to a screeching halt. It is important to diagnose the scale of the economic crisis accurately. The economic crisis needs a demand side and supply-side response.”

Besides macro and micro economic intervention, innovation and adaptation is vital. Failure to either innovate, adapt, collaborate or merge ensured the end of almost 90 per cent of Fortune 500 companies that thrived in the 1950s. The list includes globally popular brands such as Kodak (1889-2012), General Motors (1908-2009), Pan Am (1927- 1991), Polaroid (1937-2001), Toys R Us (1948-2017), and Blockbuster (1985 – 2010).

Although the last named is not from the 1950s, its refusal to adapt to the changing business environment standouts. Blockbuster Video home movie and video game rental services’ company, established in 1985, was world famous. It thrived in the first few years of the 21st century.

In 2004, Blockbuster employed 84,300 people worldwide and had 9,094 stores. Six years later, it filed for bankruptcy. The company paid a heavy price for failing to innovate and adapt to face the challenges thrown by rivals who had embraced digital technology.

It was not only about adapting, it was also about missed opportunity. In year 2000, owners of Netflix offered to sell their company to Blockbuster for US$50 million. Blockbuster rejected the offer since Netflix was losing money at the time. Blockbuster owners must rue their missed opportunity because Netflix had 103.95 million subscribers worldwide and revenue of US$8.8 billion in July 2017.

Tourism, destination marketing and events sectors have a symbiotic relationship. They feed off each other. They need delegates and audiences to succeed. If the authorities restrict peoples’ movements, these sectors cannot bounce back into business. These sectors would do well to learn from the mistakes some of the 1950s companies made. Tourism and events management companies need to turn every distress into an opportunity. This is easy to write and difficult to achieve. By definition, tourism, travel and events assemble many people in one place. This is exactly opposite to one of the remedies of COVID-19 – keeping a safe social distance. This is impossible. Can you imagine holding a major musical concert, an awards gala, workshop, seminar and conference while attendees keep a safe social distance from one another? It would be a logistics nightmare!

What is the way forward then?

The answer is an innovative solution that draws crowds to events whether seminars, workshops, subject-specific conferences, and musical concerts without compromising the health and safety of organisers as well as attendees.

We at XPLUS Inc believe in adapting to challenges by finding a solution that benefits all. We are open to change as long our new strategy conforms to government rules.

For example, consider our two-day cricket camp we had scheduled for school students in Doha before the pandemic. During normal conditions, a former cricketer from England and India comes prepared with video lessons to train our client’s school students. He explains these lessons indoors in a classroom followed by practical group sessions held on the cricket ground.

Under keep-a-safe-social distance norms, we would adapt by making smaller groups of students and provide the same training course in a classroom, say thrice instead of one lecture. Similarly, we would adapt the outdoor lessons to smaller groups so there is no close contact between participants. In fact, the cricket coach would be able to devote more time and attention to individual student in smaller groups rather than one big group. For this model to succeed under the lurking threat of a virus, not just COVID-19, participants would have to present fitness certificates issued by the health ministry and the concerned authorities allow organisers to hold the event.

Presuming the health ministry declares Qatar coronavirus free, the future of events and tourists arriving to take part in these events hinges on organisers enforcing the stipulated health safety standards in public places. This would be tedious because security staff would have the added responsibility of checking health certificates that declare the person ‘COVID-19 free’ or no ‘COVID-19 history’. However, its benefits outweigh the difficulties.

Under this model, an event gathering public in a safe zone away from COVID-19 hotspots could still be organised in Qatar. XPLUS Inc believes reviving drive-in theatres that were popular in the 1980s. Instead of a large cinema screen, the stage would be the platform for the event — whether an awards gala, musical concert or a cultural show. The audience can safely watch the event sitting inside their cars parked in the drive-in park. This would ensure safe social distance as an added health safety measure. Remember, the people attending the event are healthy since they have already shown their health certificates to the security staff. Drive-in shows have an advantage. Attendees do not have to worry about parking, as they would watch the event sitting in their respective cars in the designated area.

Qatar has many areas in Doha, Qatar Foundation, West Bay, Al Wakrah, Mesaieed, Al Khor and Dukhan that event organisers could use as drive-in theatres. If the authorities accept this idea, event organisers can immediately host musical concerts, awards gala, drama, and schools’ annual event among others. Event organisers’ budgets may increase by around 15 to 25 per cent because of additional arrangements like extending sound system and installing speakers on ramps on the Drive-in car park. They would also save money because they will not need chairs!

This is not a farfetched idea. Drive-in cinema was once popular. It died because it did not adapt to emerging digital technology and multiplexes. The pandemic gives Drive-In theatres the chance to resurrect. Event organisers should adapt this concept to find a solution to the current problem. If India could convert railway coaches into makeshift hospital beds, why not Drive-In parks for mass gathering events?

Another way to beat the pandemic is to use digital technology to engage participants in an audio-video conference, training workshop or seminar through Apps like Zoom that allows many participants to discuss simultaneously.

An event company assembles large crowds at its events. Crowds drive their business. If their event is an exhibition and conference then the number of people exhibiting and visiting the pavilions is usually in thousands. For event companies to thrive in a challenging environment, the brightest minds must of think of innovating and adapting exhibitions to ensure a safe social distance between people. People are the soul of a public exhibition. Events and destination marketing experts need to brainstorm and think of ideas that help stage large public gatherings without compromising public health safety.