How the US Event Industry Deals with Corona - David Adler (BizBash)

How is the US events industry dealing with the pandemic? An open conversation with David Adler (BizBash) about the current corona status in his country and the future for our sector.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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Hi David.

Hey, how are you?

Fine, thanks. David, you're CEO of BizBash.

We're colleagues but you're based in America.

Yes, however, I got a bump up.

A year ago, December, I sold the company, 80% of it, to a company called Tarsus and I'm now the chairman.

Okay, sorry. I missed that last bit.

So, today, I don't have to worry about payroll anymore.

Congratulations on the selling then. Today we're going to talk about...

Well, we're doing a series on the impact of the Corona-crisis around the world. Can you tell us a little bit on how the last few months were in the United States?

I think that the right word is terrified. People are very nervous about the variant virus.

They were ready for the pandemic to pick up in the fall. Thinking: oh no, we were told that this would happen. We didn't expect it to be as bad as it was. But we also thought: it will be clear sailing as soon as the vaccine comes out. And, you know, then we had the problem with people not being vaccinated properly, because we ran out of supplies. And it's just been a mess. So, I think everything has been pushed back a little bit.

So, there's a sense of malaise, I think is the right word. Like: oh no, here we go again. But, on the other hand, there is optimism that there is the vaccine. There is the pent-up desire for people to want to, eventually, meet and gather and get together. And we have the model of...

In 1917 and 1918, it was followed by the roaring twenties. So, what does the roaring twenties mean? Events, gatherings, people. So...

The only bad is: we got a depression afterwards.

Yes, we're all looking forward to meet and party again.

I don't know: how was that in the US? Because here in Europe, we were forced to lockdown. We couldn't organize events anymore. Is that the same in the US?

Yes, pretty much. Although, you know, we have fifty different states. Hundreds of cities. And so everybody is doing their own thing. And then we had this, sort of, blind spot, politically. That people thought they can go out and do everything they wanted. And it looked fine. The weather looked fine outside. And it turned out that a lot of places, that were very lax, turned out to be some of the worst places right-now.

If you're outdoors, you're getting this false sense of hope and things like that. And so I think that, you know, sometimes that outdoors feeling, when it's beautiful outside all the time, gives you that false sense of hope.

When all those businesses in the event industry had to close. Is there any government support to get them through it?

There is some. I mean, we did this first round of...

We called it PPP. Which was...

I forgot what it stands for but it was about giving help to people. But we had...

The last one just came out just a few weeks ago. They gave us another about a billion dollars’ worth of funding. And nobody's really gotten all that money yet. And I think our industry is hurt more than anybody. I mean: twelve million people in the hospitality industry, that are challenged. And don't have jobs and things like that. So, we're very, very challenged and I think the event industry has been hit like one of the hardest. Because we don't fit neatly into a bucket. Like: what are people doing in our business? They're not working in the restaurant business. They're not in the airline business. They're not in a hotel. And there's a lot of independent mom-and-pops that are in our business. So, it is very challenging. It is very challenging.

How is the industry dealing with alternatives like virtual events and stuff like that?

Virtual was the holy grail. For the beginning of it. I remember we did tons of webinars and podcasts in the early days of...

Actually: hug our customers and hug our clients and our listeners. And people were very excited to get on virtual. But, right now, what's happening, is that the engagement factor is way down. Because people are, kind of, bored with Zoom and all these virtual platforms. And, you know, it's great to have the technology but it's nothing like face-to-face. And so, I think that people are just frustrated. That, you know, it's not the same thing. And also, they're busy all day and people are taking care of their kids and their families. You can't be in front of a screen 24/7.


And it was, kind of, like the days when...

I'm old enough to remember. Like, all of the sudden they came out with colour TV. And it was like: oh my God, it's on colour.

Now it's like: okay, Zoom, okay, big deal. Or whatever the virtual platform. There's a lot of innovation happening though. And I think that we're ready.

Yesterday I did an interview and I said: where are we in the innovations phase? Between the brick phone that we had, remember? In the cellular days. And the Apple 13, or whatever it is now. And most people said: oh, we're probably in the Apple 6-part. That our kids are playing videogames and are so much more advanced than we are. And they look at what we're doing, virtually, and they say: what the...

You know. What the hell, you know?


Yes, I was talking in an interview, a couple of weeks ago, with Peter Decuypere. Who was talking about: we're doing virtual events all wrong. We need to look at our kids. They all have virtual glasses. Walk around and have a whole experience. Like we would have at a normal event. But for some reason that didn't break through yet.

No, I don't think we're there yet but I think we eventually will be there. I think that there's companies that are controversial, like Magically and things like that, that are doing some really interesting things, that are turning an entire room into a canvas. And so: pre-poll programming a room. And I think there's...

There are certain...

Like: Allseated has some really interesting projects that they're doing.

Everybody is doing really innovative things. But I just don't think it's there yet. It's kind of like when you're a little bit too ahead of the game, in terms of ideas, that the execution isn't a 100% aware of where our head is at.

I do believe that the biggest frontier is going to be hybrid. What is hybrid? I mean, hybrid is not going to be: turn on the camera and have people just look at it. Because I think people will be bored out of their minds. So, people are talking, now, about this concept called: how do you break the fifth wall? And that was really interesting. And the fifth wall was : connecting the people that are in the live event with the people that are virtual. And how do you do that?

And, actually, one guy, one group, was telling me: well, you know, we're going to do this thing where you walk in and there'll be all these iPads on the wall. And they'll have people on them. And you just carry the people around with you, as your buddy.

But that's a very good idea.

That's a great idea.

Another way you can do it is like having hubs, small events in local places, and connect them through digital means.

Yes, I wrote a story, in April, called: the hub-and-spoke method. And I believe that the hub-and-spoke method, when done correctly, will bring more intimacy to events than ever going to an event for 30.000 people. Because if you can create 100 people in one room, in the town that you're in, you get to know almost all of them. And how many times have you gone to the opening reception of a big event, and you never talked to anybody? Because it's just so overwhelming and everybody's in there with their workers and co-workers.

So, there is a whole problem, I think, with the way we're doing events, to begin with. That we're going to have to change.


Yes, for example, this year...

I don't know whether you're familiar with it or not. But you have Dreamforce, the largest event from Salesforce. Normally the whole of San Francisco is full of people from all over the world. But a lot of people are starting to think out loud now: is it even a good idea to do such a thing? Or shouldn't there be other formats for that?

Yes, I think so. But, I mean, we put Dreamforce...

We list the top 100 events in the US and they're always on it. Number one. Number two. And the beauty about Dreamforce, though, is that it is a destination. You know, people are going...

I believe that learning and Development is in a whole category of itself. And to me Learning and Development is that serendipity-effect. And I think that...

It's not so much fun to go to school. But going to this school with your friends and colleagues, you know, it's like going to high school. So, there's something about that that is really fun. So, when we had to reinforce our tech-report...

Like: I've got to go to Dreamforce, I've got to go to Dreamforce. They are not going to Dreamforce, just because the high and mighty part of it...

It's every other aspect of it that's make it fun. So, I don't think we're going to lose that. But I do believe that it's going to...

I think the program is going to change a lot.

And that, you know, the one thing I was thinking about, earlier, is that I was going to start a newspaper in Washington DC. And I had started a magazine out of college. I did it for, like, fifteen years and I sold it. So, it was like: oh my God, I did my first big magazine and I sold it. No, like: big deal, all this. And I was looking into starting this newspaper. I talked to one of the guys, that was sort of my mentor in the business. And I said: you know, you're not really in the newspaper business. You're in the habit business. And it takes years and years and years to build a habit.

Now, the biggest disruption that we have in our business, is that we have blown the habits. So, everyone is starting from scratch. So, even the biggest events in the world, are now at a disadvantage. Because those habits are hard to rebuild again.

So, this is the time for renewal. And start up new things. Because we're starting in a whole new era. The slate is clean. So, I think the biggest thing that nobody has talked about is that is what is going on in the event industry. You know, this post-Covid era is not going to be anything predictable.

Yes, it will be a challenge for some companies that aren't willing to adapt. But I think it's a great opportunity for others who are open for change.


And new brands, I think you're going to see new brands.

You know, when people don't have that every year habit anymore, they're going to look at new habits. Our lives have changed dramatically. I mean: I just go walk from my bedroom to my home-office. I don't have to commute anymore. You know? I used to travel every week. Somewhere. And I don't really miss that so much.


No and a lot of that will stick with us. Because we aren't going to go to the office everyday anymore, in the future. That's what I believe. That that will stick.

Well, yes. You know, the...

What I also have found is that there's been a shift in the mentality of the relationship between the C-suite and the event organizer. The event organizer has become the de facto Cultural Officer for a company. Because all of a sudden, when this hit, the CEOs and the marketing people were saying: oh my God, what do we do now?

The closest people to the employees and the customer base were the people in the event world. So, they have become the de facto Cultural Officers. Because they know what was going on, on the ground. And I think it's an opportunity that I think most people should not pass up. To have a seat at the C-suite because of that. And I think that, you know...

Even going to the office, now, is an event. So, that's why, you know, I think that this whole idea is more important. I believe that event organizers are not event organizers anymore. I call them collaboration artists. Because they need to know how to connect people. And that's more important than the logistics. Because we had the logistical rug pulled out from under us. So, it now becomes: how do you get the girls to dance with the boys at the high school dance? Or the junior high school dance. You know, it really comes down to: how do you actually make it happen? As opposed to just: oh, here's opening the doors.

Yes and indeed not focussing on the logistics anymore. But more, rather, on the storytelling. Bringing people together. All that stuff is getting so much more important than before. On the other hand... And that's also fascinating to see.

A lot of event planners went from people who decorated rooms to, now, TV-studio producers or something like that. And I think it will be interesting, if that knowledge comes back to the events, I think events will also be better. Just because we have a lot of extra experience with us now.

Well, I think that they also understand that content...

I was at a point where contact was King. For a long time. So, it's who you meet in the room. And now content is back as King. But, you know, I've been, sort of, really surprised, when I go speak at events and things like that, nobody even asks me what I'm going to talk about. And now, they need to know. Because they're creating, you know? You're really doing it on video and things like that. So, they have to edit and things like that. So, it's a different world.

Although I think your losing a lot of the interactivity, with a one-way conversation, is a problem too.

Yes, indeed. And a lot of my guests always use the same story. If they are talking about that.

You have that fancy event. Great stage. Immense videowall. And everything you need. And then you ask: what will be going on? Oh, our CEO is going to tell us something. We don't know what but that's happening. Yes, that won't be happening in the future anymore. We need to know what is going on there. How we will bring that story. And make it a full experience.

That interacts with the people in the room.

I mean, we always talked about: participate, participate, participate. For years. And the great event organizers, the guys that do Dreamforce and the ones that do C2 Montréal, are really good at that. But the trouble is: you're raising the bar so high that they're expecting even more every time you do it. So, you know, our big problem is not the first time. Our big problem is the second time and the third time and the fourth time. And keeping it fresh. And listening to what your attendees want.


David, maybe one last question. I think we're both very optimistic about the future and the chances that will come to us. But we aren't there yet. We need to rebuild the industry. And there will be a lot of collateral damage. How do you see...

Is the US event industry able to rebuild itself? In the next coming months and years?

Well, you know, I...

After 9/11, I was in New York. And I got very active in these groups that were helping the city. And I led a group of 300 people in the event industry. And that became the bedrock of the next generation of things.

So, what I've been advising everybody is to get involved and volunteer for these community things. Because I found that, even twenty years later, the same people that were involved in that group, back in 9/11, in 2001, are still helping each other’s businesses in 2020 or 2019.

So, you know, the idea is to stay connected with other people. Because it is about the serendipity, in fact, of it. And also, I think, it's improving your skills. It's not sitting at home, watching Netflix. But learning how to edit. And taking courses on the new type of things that are going on. So that your skills become more important than ever.

You see, the event industry isn't an industry. It's the people. And the people who are keeping up and staying fresh are going to be the ones that are going to...

I hate to use the word win. But are the ones that are going to be more successful, going forward. And so, even older people like me...

I'm learning every single day. I become great at...

There's a video-editing on this new form, called Descript, for example. Where you can edit the video using word-processing. And audios. And I set up my home-office like a Pinecast Studio. So, I have microphones and things like that. And lights. And so we're learning how to do all of this. And I think it's just staying fresh and taking courses. And reading fiction. Like, I've been reading Madame Bovary and things like that. And I've been learning about events that were happening back in the 1800's.

And you get to refresh your brain. By being active, not in events, in a sense, but the world. That's my advice.

Yes, that's great advice to conclude with, David. Thank you so much for your time and for this interview.

Thank you so much.

And you at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.