Covid-19 Exclusives: Running an Event in A Pandemic – Worse than Bungee Jumping but It Gets You Thinking About the Future of Meetings

By Yeoh Siew Hoon

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You read it here first! Our Covid-19 online exclusives.

I’VE DONE MANY things in my life – bungee jumped, tandem skydived, climbed Mount Kinabalu, trekked many trails, ran into armed gunmen in Thailand, rolled down a jeep in Namibia, contended with a scorpion sting in the middle of the night in Bostwana – but I’ve never ever run an event in the midst of a global pandemic.

So I guess it’s worth writing about.

At the time we decided to go ahead with our little event in Penang, Malaysia, things were still fairly calm. There was one case of Covid-19 on the island, local tourism and convention authorities declared Penang safe, and our event was fewer than 100 people in a government building with plenty of outdoor spaces (one of those lovely old colonial homes with huge gardens), plus it was a largely local event with a handful of overseas speakers – so we thought, let’s soldier on.

But running the event amid a pandemic brought home the fact that events need a major rethink.

These are testing times for small businesses which our WiT Indie event is aimed at, and we needed to come together to talk about survival for our businesses, which support livelihoods on the ground.

Thirty-six hours before our event opened, WHO declared it a pandemic. We started re-checking local and national advisories. We called up the state convention body to seek guidance – they told us an event was currently being held and one event was going ahead, all small, mostly medical, conferences. They updated their advisory the following day to say it was still safe to hold events, but mind the precautions.

So we took all the precautions – temperature checks, health declaration forms, QR codes for registration so no crowding at desks, crisis response processes (isolation room, telephone numbers to call), outdoor catering, individual plated meals (Penang street food is perfect for this), event safety briefing at the start…

I felt a bit like the cabin attendant doing an airline safety briefing, parroting all we had been advised we should do – wash hands, sanitise, if you cough, cover your mouth, don’t sit too close, if you feel unwell, let us know…

In the end, the event was declared a success by those who attended – in a way, we all felt like we were survivors of a shipwreck, and it forged a sense of camaraderie among us but we didn’t flinch from the reality that a lot of businesses will go under if this crisis is prolonged. So we brainstormed ideas for survival.

But running the event amid a pandemic brought home the fact that events need a major rethink. This outbreak makes you question everything about events – the way they are organised and delivered, the way people are seated and fed, the way we network in huge clusters, the parties…

Venues, hotels and event organisers are going to have to do some serious thinking about how they reset their services for an industry in full disruption.

When I transitioned from journalist to event organiser, launching WiT in 2005, I wanted to do things differently but I was limited to how content is programmed and delivered. It was hard to change the physical nature of events – the way hotels sell their event spaces, banquet offerings and ancillary services (I remember the running battles I had over Wi-Fi).

Even trying to change seating from tables of eight to tables of two or four was a challenge. I wanted to mix it up, give people space yet a sense of intimacy. Now it will have to be done.

Trying to change catering – from buffet to individual/bento-style boxes – was hard within hotels but we managed to do that with some of our events held in non-hotel spaces. There’s less wastage, I feel, with individual pre-packed boxes.

I understand the restrictions hotels face around food – you can’t bring in outside food because there could be liability concerns but surely there are waivers that can be put in place – but now I think hotels have to rethink how they cater to events. If they can’t do it, let someone else.

The events business is essentially a communications business. It’s a medium to deliver knowledge, information, learning/education and forge networks. They are vital for exchange on the intellectual, social, political and economic level, and they are vital to trade and human exchange.

But it is undergoing its biggest disruption.

Covid-19 has made it impossible for crowds of people to meet physically and there’s been a surge in virtual communications and collaborative tools as the business world adapts to the new world of remote work and isolation.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe virtual events alone will do it for society. We need both. And if this crisis has done anything, it’s forced us to blend online and offline in a truly dramatic fashion. Remote work with tech tools, video calls instead of physical meetings, cross-border meetings without having to travel, webinars, podcasts – we are throwing every medium of communication into the mix in order to stay connected.

Bless us for our ingenuity and quest for survival.

So what will the future of events look like? What will a blended experience look and feel like? That’s something we have to explore and experiment with. The execution could be a challenge because physical assets are hard to change and business models will have to be re-examined.

But if that’s what will give customers confidence to meet physically in future, it must be done. And we also have to give customers even more reason to meet – which means making events truly live, no more cookie-cutter approaches.

Here’s to life in the time of coronavirus. Now why does that remind me of a wonderful book?

This article first appeared on on March 23, 2020.

Yeoh Siew Hoon

is the founder of WIT, a media and events company specialising in online travel. She loves to write and she loves to travel. And oh yes, she loves gadgets.