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How Events are Pivoting to Survive the Pandemic

June 10, 2020

A man wearing headphones in a sound booth is seen from behind, with text overlay that reads "How events are pivoting to survive the pandemic".

It’s hard to imagine an industry more affected by the pandemic than tourism. Travel restrictions forced countless flight cancellations, hotels and restaurants sit empty, and large-scale gatherings have been banned everywhere.

As a supplier of temporary fence for the events industry, we are experiencing the impact second-hand. Modu-Loc is surviving the pandemic in large part thanks to our construction fence business, and an ability to adapt our product to new verticals. But COVID-19 and related restrictions have hit our events customers hard. Some have had no choice but to cancel this year’s activities.

However, other events are pivoting to survive the pandemic. They’re fighting back with virtual formats, new ideas, and a sheer determination that is crucial to the success of anyone who works in the events industry. The creativity we have seen these last few months is nothing short of inspiring.

So how exactly are events adapting their models in response to current circumstances? We’ll explore some real examples from organizers who are setting the stage for a new era of events.

Events Are Going Virtual

It’s no shock that many events have decided to shift from a live, in-person format to an online experience. Some have maintained the element of live interactivity, while others have relied on recorded content. Of course, it’s easier for some events to pivot to a digital format than others. Some event content is simply better-suited to online delivery. So while it’s no surprise that conferences like Salesforce’s World Tour Sydney and Adobe Summit were able to go virtual, we wanted to share some more surprising success stories.

Gravenhurst Car Show

We present Exhibit A: the 27th Annual Gravenhurst Car Show. The Gravenhurst Car Show is a staple event in Gravenhurst, Ontario, and one of the biggest classic car shows in the province. Typically, the show takes place in beautiful Gull Lake Park, and features as many as 600 vintage cars. The event draws thousands of attendees annually – a strict no-no in the face of current bans on mass social gatherings.

Organizers of the Gravenhurst Car Show decided to take the event online this year. Owners of rare, vintage, and classic cars can register their vehicle at the official show website. The cars will then be displayed on the car show site, and visitors will be able to vote for their favourite classic ride. Participants can win prizes, and fans can still purchase show merchandise through the website.

Beer & BBQ Show

Another great example of a traditionally in-person event going virtual is London’s Beer & BBQ Show. Beer festivals are popular throughout Canada, with some cities (like Vancouver and Toronto) boasting several editions each year. Normally held at the Western Fair District Agriplex in London, the Beer & BBQ Show made the tough decision to pivot to an online format due to COVID-19 restrictions.

So how do you hold a beer festival online? The Beer & BBQ show has lined up some great content to provide guests with a unique festival experience from home. They plan to offer virtual tours of participating breweries, a “cooking with beer and BBQ” seminar hosted by Burlington-based celebrity Chef Mike, and a philosophy discussion about – what else? – beer! There will even be a reimagined, virtual version of classic pub trivia, complete with prizes.

Registered guests will gain access to all of this via an event link, and tickets cost only $5.

SOM @ HOME

One final example comes to us from a long-time client of ours, Sound of Music Festival. Sound of Music Festival, or SOM, has a rich history as the largest music festival in the region. It offers a mix of free and ticketed shows over the course of 9 days, drawing hundreds of thousands of attendees to Burlington’s waterfront every year. Consisting of 120 acts on 10 different stages, this is a large-scale event that touches countless employees, volunteers, performers, attendees, and area residents.

An event of this size takes careful logistical planning to pull off, but the pandemic introduced an entirely new set of challenges. Lucky for fans of the festival, event organizers did not let this deter them. As Myles Rusak, Executive Director of Sound of Music Festival, stated in an announcement on their website:

“As a lot of you know, we’ve had to cancel our festival this year. But we’re not about to let that stand in the way of 40 years of history.”

In mid-May, organizers announced SOM @ HOME – a three-part online program to “keep the music playing”. The three components include an Artist Summit, Streaming Series, and Music Education Series.

The Artist Summit is a remote learning series spanning multiple sessions and subjects. Targeting new and less-experienced musicians, the summit aims to teach attendees the fundamentals of navigating the music industry.

For die-hard music festival fans, SOM @ HOME’s Streaming Series provides a great fix via Facebook Live. Featuring live performances from some of Canada’s biggest names, the Streaming Series takes place every Tuesday most weeks, and every night during the original festival dates. To build some interactivity into the virtual events, planners are offering prizes and giveaways during the shows.

Finally, the Music Education Series offers virtual classes in various instruments, from guitar to beatboxing. Class times will be announced on the website.

Drive-In Concerts

As restrictions in many parts of the country have started to loosen, festival planners are looking for non-virtual alternatives that still allow social distancing. One idea that has seen some success in Europe is the drive-in concert – and it’s taking off in Canada, too.

Several artists have already committed to hosting drive-in concerts this summer. Alberta-born country music star Brett Kissel is one. He is set to put on a drive-in concert on June 13th to raise money for Food Banks Alberta.

The concert will be staged in the parking lot of the River Cree Resort and Casino, complete with big screens. Attendees will be required to remain in their cars, and there will be no food or drinks served. They will be able to roll down their windows to listen to the music live, or tune in via a FM transmitter.

Another musical act planning to perform at a drive-in concert is Canadian band July Talk. They’ve announced a pair of performances to take place in August at a drive-in movie theatre near Toronto. Though few details have been shared to date, the event promises to allow attendees to enjoy the performance “live from the comfort + safety of your car”.

Perhaps the most ambitious example comes to us courtesy of Summerset Music and Arts Festival. Usually hosted at Fort Langley in British Columbia, organizers planned to pivot to a drive-in format for their August event. The layout for the venue would involve stalls for cars and designated physically distanced areas where people can stand or sit. The event will raise money for local musicians who are struggling due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the festival was dealt another blow on May 22nd, when the provincial public health office announced an order restricting attendance at drive-in events to 50 vehicles. According to the festival website, organizers are working closely with the public health office to appeal the restriction and gain approval for the event. It is currently slated to take place from August 28th through the 30th.

Digital Canada Day Events

Will events pivoting to an online experience be a viable answer to the limitations of this pandemic? The real litmus test for virtual events is likely to come on July 1st. Recent history has provided no precedent for how Canada Day should be celebrated during a pandemic. Municipalities everywhere have outright cancelled their Canada Day festivities. However, a significant number are programming online activities instead.

On the west coast, Penticton, Coquitlam, Surrey, and Mission have all announced virtual Canada Day events. In Ontario, Markham, Bradford, and Toronto are planning digital celebrations, as well.

Even the nation’s capital will take their much-loved Canada Day festivities online. Heritage Canada, which oversees celebrations for the big day in Ottawa, has announced plans for a virtual Canada Day this year. The ministry is encouraging Canadians to RSVP to the event on Facebook, and promises to offer downloadable “celebration kits” online as of June 15th.

Surviving or Thriving?

With many of these planned events still in the conceptual phase, Canadians have very few examples of events that have successfully pivoted to survive the pandemic. We are seeing event planners around the world adapt to these new and challenging circumstances, but only time will tell if we can replicate this success at home.

The other question on everyone’s minds is: are these new norms here to stay? Will drive-in concerts survive beyond the pandemic, and perhaps even become the model that helps its organizers thrive in a new world? After all, it’s difficult to predict how long Canadians will be affected by the threat of COVID-19. The fear brought about by the pandemic is likely to far outlast public health restrictions. So even when mass gatherings and events are allowed to return, attendance levels may be impacted for years to come.

One thing is for certain: there are few groups as resourceful and determined as event organizers. In this line of work, you find yourself adapting and reacting to unforeseen challenges on every event. Though this may be the largest hurdle yet, and not every event will survive, the Canadian festival industry is here to stay…in one format or another.

Author: Joanna Bieda

Joanna Bieda is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Modu-Loc Fence Rentals, and has been with the company since 2014. She loves writing and is a self-professed data nerd. She thoroughly enjoys teaching customers about all things fence via Modu-Loc's blog.
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