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March 12, 2020

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What Can the Events Industry Learn From the Coronavirus Crisis?

The global health emergency presents an opportunity for us to rethink the industry’s messaging around the importance of face-to-face meetings.


Over the last few months, the meetings industry has been impacted by a global health issue which has had the power to cancel massive events such as the Mobile World Congress Barcelona and has left people around the world questioning their interest in attending events.

While many of us may be hoping that an increased understanding or containment of coronavirus will mean a back-to-normal approach to face-to-face meetings, it is worth asking the question: Could coronavirus be the first of several sustainability issues the event industry faces in 2020?

There are many definitions of the term sustainability — confusingly, many dictionaries offer separate definitions of economic and environmental sustainability. Coronavirus will likely be one of many economic sustainability threats our industry faces in the near future.

So, can we learn something from the industry’s response to coronavirus that will help us as we face similar challenges down the road related to climate change (flooding, rising sea levels, food scarcity, etc.)?

Time is of the essence when responding to crises. A study released in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2009 concluded it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become a norm. Based on government reactions to coronavirus around the world, it would seem that the next 66 days are likely to bring further regulations designed to stop large gatherings.

As travel regulations increase and panic spreads, could it become the norm for people to want to meet via technology during this uncertain time rather than face-to-face?

Only time will tell, but as Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” So, what can event professionals learn from the challenges we are currently facing? Is there any action we could be taking as an industry to help communicate the importance of meeting face-to-face and ensure that event attendees understand why health risks are taken and carbon footprints are made?

Modern Messaging


If there is one obvious lesson to be taken from the last few months, it is that choosing to attend events is an emotional decision made by each attendee. As an event professional passionate about the potential of face-to-face collaboration, I often forget that most people take time to consider why they should attend an event.

But I was reminded of this last December, when I had a fascinating conversation with a journalist who told me his 8-year-old son had cried the night before he left for a trip. The reason for the tears? The son knew his father was going to be flying the next day and didn’t want to see him polluting the planet.

The coronavirus is another emotional reason why average event attendees and their families could have concerns about meeting face-to-face. But the current crisis also presents an opportunity for the events industry to reevaluate its messaging.

For too long, we have been relying on an “economic impact” narrative to justify meetings. It is becoming clear that coronavirus and sustainability concerns, coupled with the next generation’s tech-savvy ways and demand for ethical choices means it is time to revisit this messaging.

As an industry, are we telling the story of the importance of meeting in a way in which Gen Z will understand? (Remember, their ethical and transparency values means the traditional, economic-impact messaging won’t necessarily connect with them.) Are we ready as an industry to tell a story beyond this?

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Partnering Up


The second obvious lesson to be taken from the coronavirus outbreak is that the World Health Organization’s guidelines on large gatherings are being used globally. In times of unexpected crises, governments and businesses around the world often look to organizations such as the United Nations for guidance. This presents an opportunity for the events industry. 

Since 2017, Positive Impact Events has had a number of memorandums of understanding with different United Nations bodies, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. One of our responsibilities within this memorandum of understanding is to encourage event industry alignment with UNFCCC work (e.g., getting feedback from the industry on measurement tools).

Another responsibility is to collaborate, so UNFCCC are able to focus more on the event industry; the fact of the matter is that governments focus on tourism — so the UN has a mandate to act on tourism, not events. 

Seeing the use of the WHO guidelines is an example of what could happen to our industry as climate change issues increase. It likely won’t matter what guidelines we produce as an industry via our associations because businesses and governments don’t know our industry associations; they know the United Nations.

So, it’s in our industry’s best interest to create a strategic relationship with the UN and work together to address major issues, reaching beyond individual associations or experts to develop guidelines.

There’s no better time to start than right now — 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. To mark this, the UN is delivering a year-long initiative which they describe as “the largest, most inclusive conversation on the role of global cooperation in building a better future for all.” The UN75 initiative will spark dialogues throughout 2020 in diverse settings across the world.

Any event professional reading the outline of that campaign will see it as a direct reflection of our job description — bringing people together for a global, inclusive conversation.

So how will we use 2020 to align with this major UN campaign and raise the profile of events? Will we start using language and context that businesses and governments will understand?

Will we tell a story of how events can be used to provide education and inspiration, which is vital to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals? Or will we continue to talk only about economic impact and assume that people will continue to meet face-to-face simply because they always have in the past?

If this has inspired you to act — which is the purpose of “Better Meetings, Better Future,” the Positive Impact Events and Northstar Meetings Group initiative — please sign up to become a Positive Impact Events ambassador and use your voice to champion a more sustainable event industry. If you do, we will send you materials at least four times a year. Consider also asking your peers, clients or associations how they are communicating the role of events to create a more sustainable world that works for everyone.

Fiona Pelham

CEO of business’ creating a sustainable events industry

Chair of ISO 20121

Honorary doctorate from Leeds Beckett, Member of UN expert advisory committees.

Changemaker, Storyteller and Global Entrepreneur

Originally published at: Northstar Meeting Group