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Tricky decisions in difficult times

The global pandemic has impacted all sectors of the AV industry, perhaps no more so than exhibitions and live events. So it was perhaps no great surprise when Integrated Systems Events finally called time on their attempts to stage a full-fat ISE 2021 in-person show at the Barcelona Gran Vía, Fira de Barcelona. But what did the industry think of the decision?

This year’s ISE was always going to be a tricky event. Scheduled for February as usual, and then moved to June, Covid-19 put the ISE team under serious pressure. Should the event have been pushed back to the autumn? Should it have gone ahead as planned in Barcelona? And what does everyone think of the Live & Online approach, with four in-person events in Barcelona, Munich, Amsterdam and London – plus the Cisco-powered ISE Digital? To gauge opinion we spoke to Mike Beatty (MB), managing director of Pulse Cinemas; Christian Bozeat (CB), director of Macom GmbH UK; Toni Moss (TM), owner and managing director of CDEC; Emma Bigg (EB), AV designer and strategist at Octavius RE; and Hans Vereecken (HV), EMEA sales manager at Bose Professional.

What do you think of ISE’s overall approach to this year’s crisis in what were incredibly difficult circumstances?
MB: Managing your way through this Covid outbreak has been challenging enough for us and most businesses in this sector. The government’s lack of transparency and changeable timetable to exit the lockdown has left Mike Blackman and the team at ISE in an impossible position. I feel nothing but immense sympathy, have the upmost respect and can only applaud the team for doing all they could to give their trade partners and visiting audience as much feedback and notice as possible.

CB: They are clearly doing what they can in order to deal with the current situation as best as they can as we all are doing at the moment, I actually commend them for their optimism and wanting to get things back to normal as quickly as possible they are clearly conscious of the impacts on people’s business including their own.

TM: Given everything, I think they handled the situation pretty well. I feel they’ve tried to keep everyone updated as much as possible; the original rescheduling was announced in a timely manner and at the time a June 2021 event seemed feasible. I also think they listened to the market in that many are very keen to get back to physical events, but they are also well aware of the risks and the uncertainty surrounding how possible this is going to be, and they’ve adapted accordingly. The digital events have also been of a high quality in the meantime.

EB: Personally, I think their decision to pursue a face-to-face event was misguided and lacked emotional intelligence. Whilst I can understand that postponing the inaugural Barcelona event would be hard the decision to press on with the live event put manufacturers in a very difficult position as different parts of the world are having very different experiences of Coronavirus, so not very empathic on the part of ISE. I think they also significantly underestimated visitor caution.

HV: The last year has reminded us all that we need to stay nimble in our planning, building in contingencies in case our situation changes. ISE did exactly that: dealt with the on-going uncertainty by remaining nimble. We’re all eager to reconnect and continue being active in person in our industry.

How surprised were you that the event was ultimately cancelled as a physical event? Should this decision have been made earlier or was ISE correct to wait until it did?
MB: Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I’m sure time will see us applauding or questioning many decisions made. I can only say that I respect the enormity of the decisions that needed to be made and again applaud the team’s clear and concise decisions on the future of the show.

CB: Not surprised at all, but very saddened that they had to do it.

TM: When the announcement was made, I wasn’t surprised as it came at a time when the situation was sadly deteriorating for many once again. When the June date was announced it seemed like a long way off and with declining infection rates and the promise of vaccines it appeared to be a reasonable timeline. The call to cancel could potentially have been made earlier but the ISE team had been clear on when the announcement would be made for some time and stuck to that.

EB: Not surprised at all and think it should have happened much earlier.

HV: Given the uncertainty we’re all working with, ISE’s decision is on target for adapting and serving the industry. Their communication was clear and succinct; we like that they had
a contingency option with the multiple, smaller events across Europe.

Would you have rather ISE had pushed the February event back to the autumn in the first instance, rather than June, or was their approach bang on?
MB: Again, only time will tell if the decisions made were sensible ones. Without a crystal ball predicting further outbreaks, or government decisions, I’m not sure what else the team at ISE could have done.

CB: I think people have already written the year off in regards to international travel and so I am not sure moving it would have helped at all.

TM: I think there are risks associated with either approach and, to be honest, I’m not sure it’s possible for any event organiser to get anything bang on at the moment. We don’t know what the situation will be like in autumn, at least this way we have some clarity.

EB: I think June was an understandable choice as Autumn would create clashes with too many other shows.  If they had been more prescient they could have snagged an Autumn slot much, much earlier but in the circumstances I can see why June made a lot of sense.

Do you think the event should have been pushed back again to the autumn (potentially clashing with or being very close to Infocomm), rather than being cancelled as a physical event?
MB: While it is clearly regrettable that the show has been cancelled, at least there is a certainty in that decision and allows focus to shift to the regional shows and a re-opening in 2022.

TM: No. Again, I think ISE were clear from relatively early on that it would either be June or 2022. Not only would autumn potentially clash with other events but it also brings it much closer to the February 2022 dates which will hopefully be able to take place in a more normal way.

EB: I think cancellation is a better choice than trying to tap into the Infocomm audience and compete.

Had the show gone ahead in June, how likely would you have been to attend / exhibit?
MB: The answer here would depend on the decisions made by Boris and his team in the UK. If my staff would have needed to isolate on arrival or return, the answer is no. If the team would need to socially distance, wear masks and avoid gatherings, we would absolutely have questioned the benefits and expense of our company attending.

CB: I would not have gone in June I don’t think, but not due to Covid – just because it was in June!

TM: I hadn’t ruled out attending, but the decision would have been made much nearer the time.

EB: I had no intention of attending, even though I was cautiously optimistic about the UK opening up; I wasn’t happy about jumping on a plane to go to a trade event.

What are your thoughts on the four regional events and how likely are you to either attend or exhibit?
MB: I understand why ISE have organised these regional events and hope that the virus and government rules allow us to enjoy an event free of the restrictions currently in place. We have a beautiful, currently unused showroom that is being updated and a brand new space within the Minotti showroom in central London. I must say I’m more focused on the completion of this; the thought of the industry seeing our amazing upgrades far out-ways the desire to attend a show full of restrictions.

CB: I hope that the regional events work for the ISE team, [but] I don’t think that it will be that useful as a lot of the event for me is networking with people from many different locations and countries.

TM: I think it’s an interesting idea although I’ll wait to hear more information on the format, particularly of the in-person element, before committing to attend. Having said that, assuming the situation remains stable in the UK, it would be great to get back to some form of physical event and keeping the events local certainly makes them feel much more achievable. As I say, I think ISE have tried to give the market what it’s asking for in incredibly difficult circumstances and I look forward to hearing more detail.

EB: I think it’s a shame that they didn’t propose this idea much sooner as it makes a lot more sense. Regional events minimise the need to travel and visitor numbers can be greatly reduced.  I am still unsure as to whether I will attend the London event but I am going to wait and see how the UK is weathering the Coronavirus before making that decision.

HV: We had made our planning for our marketing activities for this spring inline with the expectation on the ability and willingness to travel in Europe. We don’t think [that] even [for]smaller events, in June, people will be comfortable again to travel. Multiple travel restrictions in Europe will probably still apply. Companies will still be very careful to allow their employees to join physical events.

How important do you think the virtual show will be going forward? And what are your thoughts on virtual shows in general (which have, unsurprisingly, been given a massive boost on the back of Covid)?
MB: There is nothing more powerful than allowing our audience to experience what we offer in one of our many beautiful facilities. Virtual shows leave me cold; even though this may be
a requirement for future events if the world doesn’t learn to live with viruses. I really hope, for the sake of our industry, that we can ‘return to normal’ some time very soon.

CB: The virtual show presents real issues in regards to networking which is the main reason I go to ISE. I can learn everything I need from manufacturers when I want, so not a reason to attend virtual events, to be honest.

TM: Virtual shows have done a good job of trying to fill the gap and I’m always impressed when I attend a RISE event by the sense of community it fosters and the strength of the debates it starts. I’m sure now ISE has done the hard work of developing a format and a platform that seems to offer some benefit to viewers, they’ll carry on with it in some form and if the quality of the content remains high I’d tune in to those that are relevant.

EB: I think hybrid events are here to stay, with good production standards you can create some very engaging virtual content to compliment a live event. It also enables a brand or company to reach a much wider audience as those who would not be able to travel can now participate.

HV: Similar to the hybrid workplace, we expect to see a virtual aspect at most of the large shows to continue. The technology is available and the experience improved since 2020 required it to evolve and respond quickly to virtual attendees’ needs and feedback. While I can’t imagine virtual shows ever fully replacing in-person shows, if the experience is done correctly, it could prove to be an important part of larger shows for those unable to attend.

Given the impact of Covid on all of our businesses, where does the importance of ISE’s annual event sit for you? Can you see it continuing to grow in importance, or will Covid lead to a diminishing in its influence?
MB: If only I could give you an answer that didn’t require a fully equipped Covid protected crystal ball. Of course we all want our shows back; we want to meet, greet, entertain, party and enjoy each other’s company, but without certainty we need to make the best of what we have. ISE is the best and most impressive show our industry has ever produced; why would anyone not want it back to where it was.

TM: ISE 2022 could still be the first major show for many in the European AV market so it will remain important and, done properly, it’s virtual/regional offering could actually make it more relevant year round, rather than for a few days in Feb. As we get back to normal, I think ISE will quickly become the key calendar event once again.

EB: I think it’s impossible to predict right now. My gut feeling
is that next year the industry will be ready for more face-to-face engagement, after all it is an industry built on relationships. This should put ISE in a good position to retain and even grow it’s influence, it depends how much the move to Barcelona affects their visitor and exhibitor profile.

Are you planning or anticipating any sort of business travel this year (including Infocomm)? Or are you and your organisation planning for 2022 or a return to business travel?
MB: Pulse Cinemas has navigated its way through the past 20 years by forward planning, but until business certainty returns, we will need to continue to make our decisions with the limited and changing evidence in front of us. I can’t wait to travel again, meet our friends, hold our much loved parties and build on the foundations laid… But for now, we continue to prosper, do what we can do, with the limited information in front of us.

CB: I certainly see business travel returning as soon as it can, as there are things that cannot be done over video.

TM: Again, we’re keeping an eye on the situation and planning for more last-minute decisions.

EB: Business travel did not stop for me, I travelled several times in 2020 when rules permitted but only when essential for projects to progress. I certainly think I’ll be travelling in 2022 but I will be assessing the reasons and evaluating the costs for such travel more carefully.

HV: Bose’s primary focus is the health and safety of our customers and employees. With this in mind, we regularly assess the situation in each region to ensure it’s safe to return to the office and travel. With the vaccine becoming increasingly available, we’re hopeful as we look to 2022.

What are your thoughts on Infocomm 2021, how the rescheduling was handled in comparison with ISE, and the likelihood that it will ultimately go ahead as a physical event?
MB: The ladies and gents behind the success or failure of both events have needed their much mentioned crystal ball and only time can judge if any one of the decisions was a genius move or a naive pipe dream.

CB: The US seems to have a better approach to getting back to work than much of Europe and so I think it is likely to go ahead.

TM: I think the early announcement was good and some form of physical event will go ahead, although I think it will very much be a North American show.

EB: I think InfoComm handled the situation very well, and anticipated that a significant postponement would ensure the event would be successful. The fact they have committed to providing some online offering to fill the gap left in June also shows they have listened to their stakeholders and are in touch with their audience.