As the North East England Chamber of Commerce refreshes its events calendar for the post-COVID-19 world, Daniel Marsden-Knight, events programme and development manager, looks at what the changes will mean for future connections

When I began working in events management in 2007, the buzz was, that in five years’ time, most events would be held virtually. While we have seen remote engagement increase at events over time, no technical development has come near replacing physical interaction – when that option was available.

People do business with people, and while everyone appears to have adapted well to engaging remotely since March, this will never replace the interaction and chemistry of meeting in person.

Despite this, meeting virtually will no doubt continue to play a large part in our ‘new normal’, not just in business but in our personal lives.

I think this is to be embraced.

The flexibility allows more effective working, removes travel time and is therefore more environmentally friendly.

Since March, I have seen how organisations can collaborate much more quickly.

How many times have we waited months to meet someone or attempted to co-ordinate several diaries, only to find the earliest time that works is in six months’ time?

Since lockdown, we have successfully delivered webinars with Chambers across Europe and Asia; the current situation has opened opportunities like this for our members.

The world is now an even smaller place. Even though this ‘new normal’ will support those connections, we still look forward to the time our trainlines and airports are busy with Chamber members.

Like every other business, the Chamber has adapted. Events are a core membership service and our largest point of direct member engagement.

Last year, 52 per cent of members attended at least one of our 200 events.

Furthermore, 131 webinars with 4,350 participants since lockdown has shown me, regardless of whatever our future holds, that there is an appetite for online engagement.

We are still hearing some great stories of businesses connecting online – one member told us our webinars have been a lifeline to them, not just to their business but in terms of interacting with others during lockdown too. There is no going back.

Speaking openly, diversifying our programme and moving some events and engagement online has been part of our internal planning for some time.

The scale and popularity of our programme has always restricted us getting on with it.

Virtual events, a hybrid programme and indeed hybrid events, are absolutely at the core of what we will deliver in the future.

Whatever the future holds, we are committed to a face-to- face and online programme of events. This will increase our capacity and reach, offering an even more varied and flexible programme for members.

When we return to physical events, the experience will be very different.

Initially, we will only look to deliver physically what we cannot deliver online, which will be small groups of face-to-face networking.

The Association of Event Organisers (who are working with government on industry guidance) has released two COVID-19 risk assessments; a basic, and an ‘All Secure Standard’ – the latter of which your Chamber will be working to – which I would encourage anyone to look up online.

New practices will include not being able to accept un- registered attendees, staggering arrival times and limiting the use of microphones and public speaking.

Many presentations will need to be pre-recorded as speaking loudly, shouting and projecting your voice – similar to the situation around singing in places of worship – can contribute to the risk of spread.

No one knows how long we are going to live with COVID-19. As I write, Aberdeen and Preston have just imposed stricter lockdown restrictions following a spike in virus cases.

Every aspect of our lives need to remain flexible.

It looks like, for a while at the very least, that our plans could and probably will change, with hard work lost in the process.

Indeed, our Annual Dinner – due to take place in September – was previously cancelled due to COVID-19.

The postponement of such an event – which is the result of a full year of work – is a great example of how plans can change and how hard work can be lost.

Events and plans may continue to be disrupted, but to add a positive spin, I think we, certainly I, have realised we can be more flexible and resilient than we thought.

Our president Lesley Moody is championing flexible working as a theme of her presidency.

While this is a wider discussion for business, society and government, my team and I have had to consider how changing outlooks and working practices will affect our programme.

Put simply, we will continue to adapt.

During lockdown, I also considered how the situation humanised our business community.

We saw colleagues and contacts as husbands, wives and parents; we managed work alongside changing personal circumstances, home schooling and my two main disturbances – doorbells and dogs.

Without being too philosophical, we have seen there is more to life than work.

The pandemic has allowed us to realise our true priorities.

As a result, we do not intend on returning to many breakfast events.

Will you miss the driving rain on a dark January morning heading to an early meeting?

I can confidently say many of my colleagues will not. Logging onto a webinar for an hour at 9.30am from wherever you are working is much more flexible.

We are currently finalising a vast programme until the end of the year and quietly preparing for a flexible return to some face-to-face events.

Regardless of however you are engaging with your membership, I can assure you my colleagues and I can’t wait to see you in person, or in a small box on a screen, and yes, you’ll probably still be on mute!

Daniel Marsden-Knight
Events programme and development manager