The events and hospitality industry has been blindsided by government-mandated social-distancing measures enforced across the world as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Here are five examples of how businesses have pivoted their services to provide safe ways for people to connect, eat and be entertained
Taking conferences online: SaaStock
At the start of the year, SaaStock had four conferences in the pipeline, including its first event in Singapore. Then the coronavirus hit and super-spreader events such as business conferences were suddenly off the cards.
Founder Alex Theuma knew SaaStock would need to pivot to online. But how could it continue to provide value for sponsors and attendees who were looking to network?
For its first virtual event in June, SaaStock Remote, Theuma decided to reduce pricing for both sponsors and attendees, with an average ticket price of $299 compared to the $599 starting price for its previously scheduled in-person event in Dublin. Revenues are currently down by about 50 per cent year on year, but Theuma is hoping he can boost the prices of future virtual conferences by leveraging the data he’s been able to collect.
Using conferencing platform Hopin, SaaStock can see how long attendees are tuning in for, which talks they’re watching and how many people they’re networking with via the platform’s chat roulette-style function. One team of four attendees at June’s virtual event managed to rack up 196 meetings between them across two days, while Theuma says the average sponsor left with up to 200 sales-qualified leads.
“We’re able to provide debriefs saying here’s the data on who watched your CEO speak,” he adds. “We can’t do that with in-person [events].”
Forging digital connections: Ethel’s Club
In November 2019, Naj Austin opened the doors to Ethel’s Club, a social and wellness club for people of colour, in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. By March 12, she was closing the doors again.
The events and social working space had been wildly popular from the get-go, with 275 members and a waiting list of more than 4,000. Not wanting to lose momentum, and realising members were likely to be desiring human connection more than ever during lockdown, Austin decided to take the community online.
Ethel’s digital membership features a programme of live-streamed workout sessions, guided meditations and professional skills workshops, broadcast three times a day.
At $17 a month, the price point is significantly lower than the physical membership of $195 a month, but Austin says that because she’s no longer restricted to the physical confines of her 4,570sq-ft Brooklyn space, Ethel’s now has the opportunity to go international. Since launching four months ago, there are now more than 1,000 digital members, stretching as far as Germany and the Netherlands.
“The biggest thing I’ve learnt is to think bigger,” she says. “How can we make space for the most people?”
Taking takeaway seriously: D&D London
Unable to invite customers into their venues, restaurants across the world have pivoted to takeaway. For D&D London, the challenge was to make sure this experience was on par with what customers of hip haunt Bluebird were used to.
Based in Chelsea, the restaurant has continued to benefit from decent levels of residential footfall compared to D&D’s more centrally located venues. In June, the team decided to make the most of this and set up a rotisserie outside the restaurant, creating a sense of theatre and letting the smell waft down the King’s Road.
In the three weeks to July 4, Bluebird generated an average of £20,000 a week from takeaways. Michael Farquhar, D&D’s operations director, says: “We needed to start generating revenue, but it was also about understanding the appetite.”
Of the 17 D&D restaurants to reopen on July 4, he says Bluebird has been the most successful. The takeaway service “created an awareness”. Farquhar adds: “It meant we could talk to our guests face to face and tell them we were going to reopen.”
D&D plans to continue experimenting with at-home dining. “Takeaway has been transformed,” says Angela Malik, consultant with Think Hospitality. “It’s now ‘out-of-home eating’. People are going to want to continue staying in their communities and not travel far.”
Leveraging live-streaming: MelodyVR
It would be easy to assume those in the business of live-streaming would be insulated from the impact of COVID-19. But even MelodyVR, a US company that creates virtual reality music experiences, has had to rethink how it does business.
Indeed, all of its content is based on real-life gigs. As the live music industry shuttered, the team had to reconsider how and where to create original content and deliver value to clients in the interim.
On May 16, MelodyVR launched its newly kitted-out, COVID-secure studio and an events series, dubbed Live From LA, featuring artists such as John Legend, Cypress Hill and Nelly.
Designed with the help of third-party health and safety experts, the studio features an isolated space for artists to perform where they won’t come into contact with onsite crew, who handle tech and production needs from a separate space, communicating with the artists via a public-address system as needed. Fans, who haven’t had many options for watching live music during lockdown, can tune in via the MelodyVR app.
The company has since replicated the concept elsewhere, working with Live Nation in the UK to broadcast Wireless Festival virtually from Alexandra Palace. More than 132,000 fans in 34 countries tuned in to the festival, which took place in the first week of July. “More than you’d have in Finsbury Park,” the event’s original location, MelodyVR’s founder Anthony Matchett notes.
Self-isolation stations: 25hours Hotels
In mid-March, European hospitality brand 25hours Hotels saw occupancy crash from 95 per cent to zero. But in Germany, where the company is based and most of its 13 hotels are located, it was able to find a workaround.
Rather than being instructed to close, hotels in Germany were simply told to cut overnight stays. Having people in the building during the day wasn’t a problem, so 25hotels started marketing its rooms as COVID-secure “home offices”. For €50 a day, or €200 for the week, workers could book into a room with high-speed wifi, a work station and complimentary Nespresso coffee.
With more than 700 bookings across April and May, business was still at a fraction of pre-COVID levels. But the media attention generated, with TV stations in Munich and Cologne featuring the initiative, paid dividends. Bruno Marti, 25hours Hotels’ chief brand officer, says forward occupancy in June was at 40 per cent across the group, outpacing the wider industry; according to data from Forward Star, forward occupancy in most European capitals was at roughly 20 per cent during June.
Marti says the office offering will stay until business is back to normal levels. “We have always offered day-use rooms,” he adds. “What’s new is that people come to the hotel for the day not with their lover, but for their work.”
For better or worse
Coronavirus has had a damaging effect on revenues and customer numbers for nearly every part of the events industry. For wedding companies, the impact has been catastrophic, forcing organisations to shake up their offerings
This summer will be a quiet one for Opulence Events, a London-based event planner that focuses on Asian weddings. In 2019, founder Deep Bajwa hosted 10,000 people across 37 events between June and August. This year, the numbers are pretty much zero.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, 64 per cent of weddings across 2020 are expected to be cancelled or postponed to next year, according to planning startup Bridebook. Current restrictions allow weddings with up to 30 people in the UK, so long as social distancing is maintained, but Bajwa says not all couples are willing to make the concessions required. “The very nature of weddings is they’re full of love, laughter, hugging and dancing,” she says.
Bajwa is now working with couples to manage their expectations, encouraging them to consider unconventional formats for their 2021 events. “We’re suggesting multiple, smaller events with different guest lists,” she says. “For the registry ceremony or rehearsal dinner you’d just invite your inner circle, but you might have pre-parties where you invite different crowds.”
For the rest of the year, wedding businesses will need to find ways to keep busy. Planners are letting couples partly postpone payments due for postponed weddings and seeing who else they can offer their services to. Bajwa is now advising other entrepreneurs through her new company, The Well Heeled Coach, while digital registry startup Zola is creating content discussing the logistics of postponing a wedding, to assist its customers. It’s also offering free “change the date” cards to anyone who bought wedding invitations via the platform.
Others are pushing on with normal services. Wedding cake suppliers such as Serendipity Cake Company, based in Hertfordshire, have launched online consultations, posting tasting boxes out to clients. Mumbai-based matchmaking platform Shaadi.com, meanwhile, is helping couples host weddings at home by connecting them to make-up artists and Hindu priests via video. After the ceremony, meals and favours are delivered to the homes of would-be guests. On April 14, it hosted a virtual wedding with 200 attendees for a couple based in Ghaziabad in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Going forward, vendors will need to implement COVID-secure practices. Bajwa says venues will need to consider offering virtual reality tours to cut down on visits. For guests who aren’t able, or don’t feel comfortable, to attend, couples may choose to live-stream their vows. Wherever a wedding takes place, venues will need to carry out risk assessments to ensure their spaces are pandemic-proofed.
Insurance will also be a necessity, not an option. According to insurance firm WeddingPlan’s 2020 survey, just 54 per cent of couples currently buy wedding insurance within one to two years of their date. For suppliers, working with professionals to ensure contracts are watertight will also be essential. “Many people are rewriting their contracts not just to protect themselves better, but also their clients,” says Bajwa.
I have to make sure we’re up to date with the guidelines and on top of the legislation, which is quite foggy
With regulations changing rapidly, it’s not easy to know what is the safest way to operate. Bajwa has logged on to legal webinars to improve her understanding of the specific risks COVID-19 presents in her industry. “As a wedding planner, I have to make sure my team all have protection, that we’re up to date with the guidelines and on top of the legislation, which is quite foggy,” she says. “We've been begging for clearer guidelines.”