Strategic Imperative or Gig Economy: Where is Event Planning Going in 2020? (After COVID-19)

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In January, the outlook for the events industry appeared bright through 2020. Obviously, that's changed.

Still, it remains true that human beings are driving to connect with each other, to experience things together. The coronavirus outbreak and COVID-19 pandemic have forced the cancellation or postponement of in-person gatherings across the globe, but only temporarily.

The contagion will peak and pass, and at some point sooner or later (hopefully sooner, possibly by summer), governments will permit and people will again feel safe attending face to-face events.

We will resume looking for opportunities to connect and grow through real-world human contact. There will be a pent-up demand for live get-togethers. And more events mean more need for event planning services.

As the industry evolves beyond this current crisis and faces new issues like physical and cyber security, increasing diversity, and changing expectations from attendees, event planning as a profession will need to evolve as well.

The question is how it will evolve. There are (at least) two schools of thought, two differing perspectives on the forces pulling the event planning profession (or at least parts of it) in opposite directions. These opposing paths can be labeled most succinctly as "Uberization" versus "Professionalization."

NOTE: The rest of this post was written before the cononavirus began causing widespread shutdowns. But the questions raised haven't disappeared, they've only been put on hold. When the danger passes and live events resume, these issues will recapture our attention.


The Case for Uberization

As the name implies, this theory suggests that event planning (or at least segments of it) will move away from decisions based on relationships, formal standards, and professional certifications towards a more open model, much like ordering a driver from a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft. Marketers organizing company events will find planners through online listings and evaluate them based on their user / client ratings and comments.

Pauline Kwasniak, CMO at Mbooked, makes this case, contending that "self-made" planners who built their businesses based on experience, industry knowledge, and personal contacts rather than formal education or certification have traditionally struggled to compete with credentialed professionals and big-name event marketing agencies for corporate business.

But, she says, "That will change in our view. With the rise of the sharing economy, anybody can now do tasks that were reserved for a few. You can get a freelance graphic video producer from Fiverr, design a few posters with Canva, find a venue with EVENTup or eVenues, book a unique house in the middle of Sicily with Airbnb , book private taxis with Uber, book flights with Skyscanner or Travelocity, even decide on the best place to meet using TroopTravel.

"You no longer need to have a little black book with industry contacts, connections that take ages to build. Now you can quickly connect to anyone in the world, book anything you want, and start a cooperation. The trust element? The Internet is more transparent than anything else in the world, with reviews and ratings."


The Cast for Professionalization

The opposing view is that event planning will remain relationship-based, adopting even greater professional standards and best practices, resulting in event planning being viewed as a strategic component in organizational operations.

Rather than becoming more like Uber drivers, event professionals will follow the path of human resources (HR) pros before them: once viewed as low-level record-keepers and paper pushers, HR practitioners are now widely seen as human asset development and caretaking professionals "playing an essential role in a business's long-term talent development strategy."

Paula Rowntree, Head of Events & Experience at The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) makes the case for this path, stating, "One of our biggest challenges is standards of service and best practice. Events used to be an industry that people 'fell into.' It’s now recognized as an industry that is paramount to the economic development of cities and countries. This means we’re now seeing more people than ever choosing this as a career or starting their own event management companies.

"However, there are no real global standards of service or benchmarks. What are the standards that we, as an industry, set? How should these be measured? What are the values that we want to cultivate across our industry, to ensure that anyone who engages an event professional knows what to expect? We are a fairly unregulated industry and while we don’t want to become heavily regulated, we do need some form of standard service level."


The Most Likely Path Forward

The future will likely reflect a bit of both paths. Some basic services (e.g., video recording, equipment rental) will fit the Uber model.  Online venue-finding tools are great for creating a short list, though no professional planner would ever actually book a venue for an important event without a live visit or, at the very least, a detailed virtual tour.

But problems with some of the very gig-economy giants cited—such as that Uber has received nearly 6,000 claims of sexual assaults in the past two years, or that Airbnb is rife with scams and risks—illustrate why the "trust economy" model is likely to have limited appeal in core event planning services. Indeed, Uber and Airbnb are introducing more verification (certification?) processes and standards for their drivers and hosts.

Corporate marketing professionals have high standards for the outside event planners they hire. They help establish their companies brand positions in the marketplace. And when costs reach into seven figures for a customer conference, for example, they have no choice but to use trust as a central compass for their decisions.

Tracy Fuller, president of event planner training firm Event Heroes, says that brand marketers should and often do "evaluate event planners based on the questions they ask:

  • Why are we doing this event?
  • What are the objectives?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What are the end results expected?

The planner should ask for—or help you create, if it doesn't already exist—the 'mission statement' for each event."

She adds that "Uber-type planners aren't thinking about these things. For corporate meetings: what do we put on screen that portrays how we want the audience to feel and act? It's very philosophical; it's not a party. Event planners are no longer at the kiddy table. We're now at the corporate table. Or at least we should be."

Mark Granovsky, CEO of event software provider G2Planet, adds that, "When a corporation is evaluating outside planners to help organize an event for thousands of their best customers, the vetting process is going to be very rigorous. Having a degree and one or more event planning certifications doesn't hurt, but will only get you so far. The corporate marketing team is going to ask a lot of questions, such as:

  • Who have you worked with in the past? Is there anyone I know who can vouch for you? Relationships matter.
  • What kinds of events have you worked on? What was your biggest success? What have been your biggest challenges? Experience matters.
  • What new ideas or approaches can you bring to me and my event? Fresh thinking matters.
  • How do you react when something goes wrong? How can I trust you will quickly and calmly handle any glitches at my event? Problem solving matters."

In short, while there is a role for Uber-type commodity vendors in certain basic event-related services, professional event planners are much more like their colleagues in HR than they are like cab drivers. The profession is likely to move in the direction of standards and greater importance placed on established trust, education, and certification.

Given the large investments companies make in live events, as well as the substantial impacts those events can have on brand image and future sales, it's in the best interest of all involved for enterprises to invite event planners to the strategy table—and for planners to step up to those expectations.


A version of this post was previously published on Corporate Event News: