The lifting of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a sense of tempered optimism within Calgary’s corporate event community heading into what has traditionally been the busiest season of the year.
Yet with uncertainties brought on by the pandemic’s fourth wave and some delegates still tepid to attending large public gatherings, event professionals say it’s less a matter of returning to the old normal and instead ushering in a new generation of the experiential industry.
“There’s definitely a desire on the corporate side to continue to use events and experiences as a means to do their business. There’s definitely pent-up demand,” says Lisa Marks, owner of Brand Alive, a local event management company that specializes in employer brand events, executive meetings and experiential marketing.
“However, there is a whole mixed bag of comfort levels; or desire to connect with those who you don’t know. So I believe we are entering the next generation of the experiential industry where organizations will need to communicate consistency and with empathy and curiosity with their invited guests in order to co-create opportunities to get-together.
“It could be as simple as … asking what would make guests the most comfortable. Or whether it’s important to hold a hybrid solution. This is an opportunity connect in advance of bringing people into a room. There are only opportunities for wins there.”
The idea of this tectonic shift within the meeting and event industry is echoed Kurby Court, president and CEO of Calgary TELUS Convention Centre. He’s seeing noticeable changes in the events planned at the downtown location for this fall and into 2022 that include additional square footage to allow for “more elbow room,” and a push for more hybrid events.
“We have a client right now that would typically be a 3,500-person convention in the U.S. who has instead decided to go to a hub model. Delegates attend in their respective country and then remote into the main convention. That’s something slightly new to our space since COVID-19,” he says.
“The event planner used to plan for one event. Now, they’re often planning two: the in-person and the hybrid version of that.”
He notes companies planning events post-COVID are likely going to see this hybrid model continue, leading to questions about everything from how to keep online delegates engaged to how many different camera angles they’ll need of the keynote speaker.
“The production square footage we used to use at an event has quadrupled,” says Court. “Every aspect of the event system has been impacted and changed due to COVID. And as we move forward, that will continue to evolve and morph into this new world. What will this new world look like? Get me four hours and the story will change.”
The desire to get together again is what led EnergyLink International back to in-person events. The Calgary-based supplier of air emission and noise management solutions was eager to pump on board as title sponsor for the first-of-its-kind appreciation event for the oil and gas industry earlier this fall, says Robert Reddekopp, director of marketing and company processes and systems.
Yet he also acknowledged the event looked slightly different than anything EnergyLink had participated in pre-pandemic. For one, they chose an outdoor venue – the rooftop patio at the Calgary Marriott Downtown Hotel – to give attendees what Reddekopp says was the safest venue for an event of this size.
“We saw it as if there was any hope to do anything in the midst of this fourth wave, it had to be in an outdoor venue – especially for a large group,” he says.
Strict safety protocols were also put in place that included temperature checks at the entrance, contact tracing, mandatory masks and sanitation stations. The venue also provided EnergyLink with the flexibility of cancelling right up to the event if restrictions changed.
“We found venues were more accommodating than ever, as well as focused on creating the safest environments possible so everyone can be successful,” says Reddekopp.
“For us, we felt getting people together was really needed, especially for the oil and gas sector. The great thing about events is they are an opportunity to introduce yourself and build those relationships for down the road. It’s something we’ve built our business around.”
After having to shut the doors to The Hanger Flight Museum for the better part of two years, executive director Brian Desjardins says his staff was eager to welcome people back to hosting events again at its unique space in northeast Calgary.
“We’ve lived in this world, together, for the last year and a half now. Most are now a bit better prepared and generally feel more comfortable. Just since re-opening in June, we’ve seen the same, if not more, number of people and events come to The Hangar as we did pre-pandemic,” he says.
“There are the usual questions around safety, including sanitation standards, availability of masks, floor plans that accommodate social distancing and such. But we are getting more excitement than anything that they can finally go ahead and book something.”
Desjardins notes events booking this fall so far have ranged in size from 30 to 100 people – with capacity at the museum around 200 – that ranged from off-site meetings to weddings and holiday parties.
“In fact, we’ve had bookings for corporate Christmas parties that start as early as October,” he says. “We’re not out of the woods with this pandemic, but we’re welcoming back these in-person meetings.”
Deborah Yedlin, the new president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, is not surprised to see the local corporate event scene heating up again. She notes the Chamber’s members have been clamouring for opportunities to get back face-to-face safely with their clients, or to toast their employees after a turbulent past two years
“We are social human beings. We learn from one another. We get energy from one another. It’s just not the same otherwise,” says Yedlin, noting the Chamber is also planning on hosting in-person events this fall with increased safety protocols in place such as on-site rapid testing.
Yedlin believes recent events such as the Calgary Stampede and Calgary Stampeders home games have demonstrated that people want to get together again, and that it’s possible to do safely when the right parameters are in place.
“We’re going to continue to see more measures such as vaccine passports and negative testing requirements deployed and people responding as they need to,” she says.
“More than 20,000 people showed up to the Calgary Stampeders’ home opener. That told me people wanted to be together and experience an event like that again. There’s a desire to do it.”
For Marks, after going through what she says was her lightest event schedule in more than a decade last fall, she’s happy with a good mix of client-hosted and employee-focused events this year. However, she notes there’s a heightened narrative that we need to, once again, be careful.
“My first and foremost message to companies that are considering using experiential as a tactic is, now more than ever, consider using a trained event professional,” she says. “It’s now not just a matter of great experiential design, it’s a matter of public safety. It’s a matter of managing brand reputational risk.”