If one thought the Travel and Hospitality sectors were the worst hit during COVID 19, think again. The Events industry isn’t far behind as it came to a standstill overnight as social distancing norms were enforced worldwide. Be it Music concerts, Sporting events, Stage shows or B2B Industry events, Roadshows and Town halls or Brand launches and Activations, all of it came to a shocking pause during March 2020.
This is a large industry in the Middle East, concentrated in UAE being the hub of the biggest events in the region, purpose-built venues, employing thousands of trained and skilled talent to deliver brand experiences on-ground. The lockdown has sent everyone in the industry reeling into a period of uncertainty with repercussions such as cancellations, rescheduling, layoffs and reduced pay. However a few have managed to swiftly adapt and move ahead from the largely Physical to Virtual world of events.
Here is a conversation had with 3 such companies who continue to do trail-blazing work as they change strategies, embrace technology and upskill their people to execute and deliver KPIs for their clients and sponsors. I take pleasure to introduce these leaders, whom I have had the privilege to know and work with.
- Rupa Vinod, Managing Director of Right Track Advertising, pioneers in integrated marketing solutions and brand activations and creating award winning event properties such as Western Union Camp Ka Champ, running for the 14th season for the blue-collared segment, amongst others
- Sudhir Syal, CEO of the region’s fastest growing Out-of-home entertainment booking platform – Bookmyshow
- Ganesh Iyer, Founder & Managing Partner of FLC Group a leading Marketing Services Agency focussed on Consumer engagement & Experiential marketing
How has your business evolved since the start of this pandemic? What are the steps taken to to prepare for the ‘new normal’
Sudhir Syal: Industries worldwide, including the entertainment sector, have been severely impacted by COVID-19. Almost overnight the events landscape changed and we, like so many others, have faced the harsh reality of rescheduling or postponing several events on our calendar. We have been challenged to assess our business model and recalibrate our portfolio. However, with every challenge comes opportunity and we’ve kept moving forward, leveraging new technologies to innovate how entertainment is curated, packaged and delivered. BookMyShow acted fast and, seeking out at-home entertainment solutions that would be viable both during and post the pandemic. In the UAE, we launched a new virtual initiative – ‘Live from HQ’ – in March. In collaboration with talent management agency Big Bad Wolf, ‘Live from HQ’ gives UAE residents access to a wide variety of content from the comfort of their own homes with free, daily 30-minute performances from some of their favourite artists.
The shift to virtual performances and new ways of connecting with audiences at home have resulted in unprecedented engagement on virtual platforms. While adapting to the ‘new normal’, our value proposition has not changed, the way we deliver it has. Agility and innovation are paramount and by continuing to listen to our customers, we’ve been able to adapt successfully.
Our goal is to continue offering residents some respite from daily life during these uncertain times with captivating ‘live’ entertainment. The launch of ‘Live from HQ’ has allowed consumers to stay connected to our brand proposition and helped us build new communities. Six to eight weeks after a successful takeoff of free virtual entertainment, we looked at additional ways to support talent and keep the industry alive. As a result of this and to combat the extensive impact COVID-19 has had on live events, we partnered with Comic On Nights to launch a ticketed virtual series with affordable pricing, as low as AED 25. ‘Ha Ha Ha-Bibi’ was launched to stream live, comedy performances on Zoom, the virtual aspect includes significantly lower overheads compared to live events allowing us to keep an affordable ticket price point and also drive income for talent and organisers who have taken a big financial hit as an industry. With both performances to date being ‘sell out shows’ – Vir Das and Jeeveshu Ahluwalia – it is evident there is an appetite for comedy and a willingness to pay for fresh streamed/ live content.
Rupa Vinod: First, we had to change our line of thinking and change our mindset towards virtual platforms to host live activations. Second, we had to devise ways the virtual platforms will ensure us achieving set KPIs /ROIs spelt out by each client e.g. reach, awareness, engagement, sale, data capture etc. Third and most important was to convince our clients to accept our new proposition at investments which may exceed the live activation costs at times due to initial investment in technology and training of the team. The response across sectors has been very encouraging thus giving us a new lease of business which is sustainable.
Ganesh Iyer: Apart from the ongoing pandemic being a severe health crisis, it has completely altered the way businesses operate, forcing us all to adapt unexpectedly. Given the business challenges the pandemic brought (declining budgets, lower demand, social distancing, lockdowns etc) it was easy to start questioning our business viability in the uncertainty. It was a matter of mindset. With an internal culture of endurance, we focused on forward thinking and smart strategic planning to achieve our objectives for tomorrow. Our focus has been to identify trends, evaluating how we can really add value and developing innovative solutions that address our client’s pain points as we navigate the new normal.
Which sectors have been the first-movers when it comes moving from Physical to Virtual events? Any specific example of an event having moved online during COVID?
Ganesh Iyer: Given the circumstance and availability of resources, most sectors that could move online, did so immediately.However, by far the events industry were the first to adapt this module. Hosting everything from corporate town hall meetings, brand experiences and even concerts virtually, the industry managed to stay connected with its audience. We have been working with – a leading global provider of smart devices (among other products) managing several events & activations for their new product launches etc. This year however, agile to change and the restrictions in large gathering, they hosted for the first time a Virtual Connect event during Covid times. They went on further to activate their first interactive digital consumer event and hosted a well-known celebrity to complete with a flash sale, instant vouchers and free gifts. It’s a time of firsts for a lot of clients & brands and our response rate to adapt will directly impact our growth rate.
Rupa Vinod: Brands/products in the money remittances sector, telecom sector and personal care products have responded well because they need be omnipresent amongst their TG. Specific to the blue-collared segment who lead limited digital lives, there was an opportunity to engage the customer on their well-being and health in times of crisis like this. At this point we are in the process of finalising plans with clients and will get more clarity in a couple of weeks
Brand experiences delivered on-ground is key to FMCG brands. How does one manage the sensorial aspects of the brand experience on-ground.
Rupa Vinod: FMCG brands we manage have been open to adapt to virtual means of awareness and engagement with customers. We are finding ways of a blended approach to ensure the sensorial aspects of the brand experience are retained on-ground through social distancing. For example, while entertainment and education can be done well online, when it comes to sampling we have moved from a ‘one-to-one’ to ‘one-to-many’ approach on-ground.
Ganesh Iyer: Brand experiences have largely been focused on in-person experiences to drive education and demand for a product/ services, at the point of purchase. Using key metrics, results could then be analyzed to evaluate ROI. Today, brands hosting virtual events are facing challenges in evaluating if the virtual space is truly for them and if ROI can be justified in doing so. Hence there is a hesitancy from sectors like luxury and even non – essential FMCG brands to jump onto this virtual events bandwagon.
Events, ground promotions and brand activations being in the traditional sphere of media, how are you ensuring your people have the needed skills to go Virtual?
Ganesh Iyer: At FLC, we have always inculcated a culture of being ahead of the game, being vigilant to trends and identifying how we can adapt to accelerate our growth. Our team is quite diverse and come from different professional backgrounds within the sphere. Hence during our work from home phase (+60 days) we all participated in multiple webinars, identified and collaborated with digital partners, shared learnings and even took courses to skill ourselves for a virtual world. We are prepared and moving forward
Rupa Vinod: We are all learning and also imparting knowledge across the organization. We are also taking up every opportunity to train our people- by enrolling them for external sessions and also giving them the opportunity to demonstrate these new skills in our internal sessions as well as client presentations. It is like starting to learn from scratch – since the need of the hour demands this they do realise that apart from training and the opportunity to demonstrate these skills , they are also motivated to learn and educate themselves as much as possible, on their own, so that they can survive and succeed in this Digital age
How do you see the industry phasing our post-COVID? Much like the Sports, Music and Theatre industries, do you see a blended approach?
Sudhir Syal: The entertainment industry will recover though inevitably it will have a very different look to the one it had at the start of this decade. As we continue traversing the current challenge, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there remains a huge appetite for entertainment and entertaining content.
Some forms of entertainment can exist without live audiences for the short term; for example, sport has already made a return with Bundesliga football league making a return in Mid-May and the Spanish league making a return in June. Meanwhile the NBA has announced dates to resume its season and various international cricket matches are doing the same. Sport has a unifying impact giving millions a chance to tune in and cheer their teams on; these sporting events are able to still carry on as revenues aren’t solely dependent on in-stadium audiences. TV and sponsorship revenues play a huge role, making these sporting events feasible at present. That said, in the longer term, there’s no disputing the vibe and spirit catch a live game offers for both fans and players, which we eventually will hope to see a return to.
Similarly, smaller exhibitions, theatre performances, and other small-scale events which can facilitate social distancing will also recover. Unfortunately, scaling down live events with social distancing makes them financially unviable; therefore, live music acts with social distancing and reduced capacities are tougher to organise. We believe that effective guidelines like contact tracing, testing, and health passports need to be in order to get to a situation where one can come back to live concerts with full capacity as quickly as possible.
Smaller events, exhibitions, and conferences are likely to return quickly – we have a do-it-yourself (DIY) product tailor made for this named ‘Townscript’, which is an event registration and ticketing platform that will allow organisers to create and manage a myriad of smaller scale virtual and physical events. We have already begun to see traction on the platform since its recent launch.
Ganesh Iyer: With the uncertainty of the situation, the virtual world does lead the way for the near future. Shoppers increasing online activity, means more brand focus on digital platforms to reach the TG. Having said that, we cannot discount the value of in-person experiences on creating lifetime impact for both brands and its audience. It has a more personalized approach and format, capable of emotional that we as humans have been designed for. As we move through a post COVID phase, the new normal does seem like an opportunity for a blended approach, optimizing resources as required to provide the ultimate brand experience to connect brands with shoppers and vice versa.
Rupa Vinod: We are unable to foresee this ,but in our plans to clients who still believe in live activations to achieve the desired results, we are recommending a blended approach. So yes our virtual plans are flexible and we can easily transit from virtual to live or vice versa as the situation allows or demands.