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Thousands of jobs wiped out as COVID-19 shuts down in-person conferences, industry events

It’s no surprise that an industry dedicated to bringing large groups of people together in enclosed spaces would be crippled by the global pandemic.

But the scale of devastation caused by COVID-19 to Canada’s business events industry is mind-boggling.

Hotels, airlines, taxis, event planners, keynote speakers, providers of audio-visual services, restaurants, entertainers — even family farms that supply fresh ingredients to caterers — are all hurting.

Close to 229,000 people are employed in Canada’s conference and event sector, which generates $33 billion a year, according to a study done by Oxford Economics.

Destinations Canada released a report in January saying close to 1,800 business events that involved travel had already been scheduled for this year, including 500 that would have brought international delegates to spend money in Canada.

Delays and cancellations

So, just how many of those gatherings won’t happen as planned?

“Like, all of them,” said Clark Grue, this year’s chair of Meetings Mean Business Canada, a coalition of major players in the field. “Basically, the industry has been shut down.”

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A man cleans a handrail at the Convention Centre in Montreal in March, Close to 229,000 people are employed in Canada’s conference and event sector, which generates $33 billion a year, according to a study done by Oxford Economics. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Grue, the founder of an event consulting firm and the former chief executive of the Calgary Telus Convention Centre, says Meetings Mean Business Canada was formed after the 2003 SARS crisis to advocate for the sector.

“The challenge with business meetings is that they don’t just get turned on overnight,” he said. “Many are delaying their conference until next year, because getting delegates into the different markets right now is a huge challenge.”

Early in March, 23,000 people from around the world attended the three-day annual mining convention hosted in Toronto by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada. A man from Sudbury, Ont., who had been at the conference later tested positive for COVID-19.

Although there were no reports of a widespread outbreak related to the event, it rang alarm bells throughout the events industry.

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Patrick Turcot, executive chef at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, is just one of thousands of people who depend on conferences and professional events for business. (Meetings Mean Business Canada)

Earlier this month, B.C. Premier John Horgan said large-scale gatherings are prohibited until there’s a vaccine or successful medical treatments.

“Until these things happen, B.C. won’t be hosting rock concerts or conventions,” said Horgan.

Limitations on the size of gatherings vary by province, but none are considering large group events at this time.

500 speaking engagements wiped out

For Speakers’ Spotlight, an agency in Toronto that books keynote speakers for events, the pandemic has been crushing.

“Within a period of probably a week or two, we had 500 speaking engagements wiped off the calendar,” said Martin Perelmuter, who founded the agency along with his wife, Farah.

They’ve had to lay off eight of their 35 employees and estimate that revenue has dropped as much as 90 per cent.

“We’re confronting the reality, and the brutal facts are that there are probably no in-person events coming back for a year,” he said. “So, we had to make some really tough decisions. How do you survive in the events business when there are no events?”

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A panel discussion at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver last June. B.C. has said it won’t allow large events until a vaccine or effective treatment is found. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

Perelmuter says some clients who initially moved conventions to the fall are now talking about 2021 while others are looking at virtual events.

“Most speakers charge lower fees for a virtual event,” he said. That means his agency’s commission is also reduced.

“It’s not going to be the same as meeting in person,” Perelmuter said of online gatherings, “but a lot of things conferences set out to accomplish can be accomplished virtually.”

‘The future is virtual’

Trish Knox of TK Events, a company in Oakville, Ont., says demand for online conferences is skyrocketing.

“It’s exploded for us,” she said. “We’ve got clients in Canada and the U.S. and Australia. It has allowed event professionals to discover there’s a way to reimagine an event, and it can work.”

Knox handled primarily live events in the past, with virtual gatherings as a tiny fraction of her business. But since the pandemic began, she says she’s booked 30 virtual business events. And every day brings new inquiries.

Although Knox says that it’s impossible to replicate the “magic” of a live event, but online conference platforms try to deliver a similar experience virtually.

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A venue ‘lobby’ as it appears on the online platform provided by TK Events. Virtual conferences have taken off during the pandemic, the company says. (TK Events)

“Once you enter the site, you land in a venue lobby, and in that lobby, you can see through a doorway to the main stage, and you can click through,” she said.

“You can go to an exhibit hall with booths. We have an attendee directory, so you can set up one-on-one meetings. There’s the opportunity to join a general session or a breakout session.”

Conference organizers pay between $10,000 and $60,000 to host a virtual conference, depending on the number of people attending, the number of days the event will run, and whether they want features such as an exhibit floor, one-on-one meetings, breakout sessions and interactive elements.

Virtual platforms, hybrid events

“We’re booking into the fall and beyond,” said Knox, noting that some of her clients are seeing much higher registration for events because of the reduced expense of attending a conference via computer.

Banks, drug companies, car makers and others are all looking at moving trade shows, shareholder meetings and conferences to a variety of virtual platforms, according to Toronto-based marketing agency Bond Brand Loyalty.

Clark Grue says that previously, virtual events were seen as the “ugly stepchild” of the industry. “Nobody really wanted to do them, and they weren’t necessarily as effective. That’s changed a lot with this.”

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An image of the main stage area on the TK Events platform for virtual conferences. A number of ‘rooms’ can be visited on the platform for presentations, along with one-on-one meetings. (TK Events)

Now, he says, a lot of people in the industry are saying that the future will include “hybrid” events, where some people attend in person and others visit virtually.

But he notes that a virtual event doesn’t offer anywhere near the same level of economic benefit to a local community that an in-person conference does. Instead of booking hotel rooms, flights and restaurant reservations, or making trips to local attractions and gift shops, virtual attendees stay home.

And there’s another problem, he says.

Some won’t survive

“One thing I’m noticing is that a lot of virtual events are free,” said Grue. “That’s great for the attendee, but as far as those who are trying to monetize the industry and create something people will spend money on, we’ll have to see how that shakes out.”

Many in the industry are naturally taking advantage of the various government supports that have been offered, such as loans and wage subsidies. But there’s little doubt some companies and jobs won’t survive.

Speaking agent Perelmuter says the event business faces particularly difficult challenges.

“We’ll probably be the last ones to return to any sense of normalcy,” he said. “Restaurants have been hit hard, but they can start to reopen soon — maybe with limited capacity — but I think people will be comfortable going to a restaurant.”

He’s waiting to hear when the NBA and NHL will resume their seasons.

“If 20,000 people can attend a game in a stadium or arena, there’s no reason 500 or 1,000 people can’t gather in the conference centre next door.”

12 to 18 months away

Barry Smith, executive director of Convention Centres of Canada, an association for 23 venues across the country, says conferences could resume as soon as the fall. But he says it should be done gradually, with similar safety measures as those being introduced by restaurants and retailers.

“The evolution to this type of approach that we’ve seen in other parts of the economy is something we hope to see quite soon,” says Smith.

Perelmuter expects any semblance of normalcy is 12 to 18 months away, but he remains optimistic.

“We know we’ll get through this,” he said. “Failure is not an option. Too many people are relying on us.”

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