It's Time to Become Gumby
It’s difficult to believe that only a few months ago we were helping our clients plan for what looked to be a great 2020. Bit by bit, with the first news in February of the Mobile World Congress cancellation to the brick wall of March, our work changed from helping agencies figure out “who should we hire?” to “who can we keep?” From optimism and growth plans, it quickly moved to cash flow analyses, cost reductions, salary cuts, furloughs and certainly, lay-offs. The pivot was fast and intense. No one who owns or runs an agency wants to go through what’s been required this Q1. Yet, in spite of the anxiety and challenges, we worked with agency leaders who were trying to do the right thing for their employees, for their clients and for their businesses. They all had to make fast, gut-wrenching, and sleepless night decisions. And they had to do it while wearing virtual blinders, with zero knowledge of the future, be it 1, 3, 6 months or perhaps even a year from now. But we’re sure this isn’t news to you, as this has been your world too. No matter what role you play, we know you’re creating plans you’ll have to revise again tomorrow, or whenever more information is available. You’re needing to be more adaptive and flexible than at any other time in your career. This is demonstrated by the many agencies we know who are working hard to stay relevant when the reason clients hire them – to create and produce live events – has virtually evaporated. Some are pivoting to become a year-round partner, creating online communities, campaigns, media, presentations, messaging and strategy to reach every important audience. Others are delivering compelling virtual experiences, creating micro-sites and producing impactful video programs. And others are looking outside of their core business altogether. On that note, we can all take inspiration from Upstaging, Inc. (http://www.upstaging.com/), a leader in lighting, trucking and touring services for the live music industry. Seen any concerts lately? Well, neither have they, and as a result, they retooled to becoming a provider of PPE for healthcare workers. From all this, it’s clear that today we’re being called upon to act like Gumby. That resilient, little green character is a great metaphor for now. Bend them one way, bend them another, they’ll take on new shapes and remain the same character regardless. Flexibility and adapting to client needs is something live event agencies have always done, and is something the industry is particularly good at. As professional problem-solvers and folks who know how to make things happen in spite of the odds, it’s in our DNA. So, if we must now be Gumby, what does this mean for the future? What adaptations will be needed as the industry comes back – and it will come back – to live gatherings? Our thinking is that some things will be the same, but many things will (or should) be different. For example, documented and approved health and safety protocols should become SOP for events of a certain size, much like they’ve been in the UK for many years. So, in addition to a Fire Marshall checking your General Session room, a Health Marshall should be checking your safety protocols. Also, virtual is likely here to stay, as both a back-up and an extension to the live event. We think that initially at least, and possibly even in the long term, smaller audience gatherings, hub-and-spoke events, and road shows will take the place of single, large events. The benefits of these smaller gatherings: being more personal, more focused, and more easily tailored to the needs of the audience, may ultimately prove equal to or greater than the impact of a booth at CES or MWC. Additionally, we believe how you run your business will change. You’ll want to analyze what roles are critical on staff and what can be supplemented by contractors and strategic partners. You should look carefully at your fixed costs and possibly go to a smaller (or no) office with more teams working virtually. You may want to consider widening your service delivery and give more thought to solving your client’s problem with a broader pallet rather than simply selling an event. You’ll likely want more cash reserves, pay more attention to positive cash flow, and so need to give a greater focus on the business of the business. And, of course, you’ll want rock-solid cancellation clauses with your clients and your vendors. So, our need for flexibility is paramount, yet our need for planning is critical as well. We must be ready for when the “new normal” returns, but not be afraid to pivot quickly as this week will be different from next. After all, this is show business. We must all be Gumby.