Covid-19 and Conference Cancellations: Perhaps, it could have been better

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By Harish “The Singapore Futurist” Shah

After SARS and H1N1, the 21 st Century did not need another outbreak, but 2020 saw just that, with Covid-19, emerging out of the Wuhan province of China towards the end of 2019, to encapsulate the globe, before the end of the 1 st Quarter of 2020.

Throughout 2019, the world was already grappling with a myriad of trade wars of varying magnitudes, the most talked about, and spectacular being that between the US and China. Add to that, the disruption to various industries at least through Asia if not around the world, as a direct or indirect result, of the internal strife within Hong Kong, an important Financial and Trading Hub, in the midst of increasing occurrences of upheavals and riots around the world.

2019 also seemed like the year of resurgence for terrorism around the world, culminating into the shock withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan announced in 2020, followed by a resumption of hostilities between the democratic government there and the recalcitrant Taliban, which cannot be without longterm adverse ramifications for the rest of the world, eventually, as anything to do with the Taliban has had a terrible history of global spill overs; such as the September 11 attacks of 2001, thanks to the Taliban’s hospitality and generous sheltering of Al Qaeda.

All the conflicts and politics aside, global trade has been slowing for a number of years, or, stagnating, depending on the product types or industries you look at. Much of it due to gaps and mismatches, between technological evolution driven by the industries collectively, while adoption of and to it, by businesses, being unequal across every industry and geography, leading to disruption, displacement, failed anticipation of consumer behaviours and at least, a deficit of confidence amongst traders.

The Economic Impact
Having less than four paragraphs would not have justly painted the canvas against which the Covid-19 emerged, a virus that spreads far more rapidly, without any signs or symptoms, than did SARS or H1N1, causing panic, and often hoarding or bare essentials by consumers in various countries, while at least skyrocketing the prices of face masks, that do not quite necessarily protect from the virus, as much as relatively highly educated minds continue to perceive.

The travel industry, has suffered a crippling first quarter, in the first year of a new decade, and hoteliers and cutting shifts of their employees as more vacant rooms equate to fewer bed sheets being in need of change. Suddenly the global labour crunch that the Hospitality Industry had been lamenting hard about through the 2010s, is no longer a problem.

Conferences
Starting with Asia, and key MICE capitals in particular, like Singapore, conferences, meetings and other events, saw large-scale widespread cancellations, postponements or indefinite deferments. To a large extent perhaps, for at least some of the events, perhaps the cancellations or postponements were wise decisions. Life, should always take precedence over business. Afterall, business, is to support life, not the other way around.

Yet, to a large extent, it can also be rightly perceived, that many of the cancellations or postponements perhaps, were overkill, or not necessarily the best options to exercise, given the technological options, that prevail today. Afterall, an organisation, that is in the primary business of organising events, is not making revenues, and hence not making profits, if it is not organising events.

Taking the justly moderate view, not all the events were cancelled or postponed, entirely by the choices of their organisers alone. Many of the events did cancel, due to withdrawal of sponsorships, out of concerns, that no one would attend, or that, there would be inadequate attendance to render the sponsorship worthwhile. In other cases, government, did have a role, for good reasons. And yet other cases, it was just down to plain, simple and sheer sense of social responsibility, on the part of the organisers, given that there was no controlling a spread of infection, at the venue, where they’d organise, and it would have been difficult, to prevent.

While there a wide variety, of types of events, conferences in particular, have their own dynamics. In some ways, the particular dynamics of conferences, would have rendered them a little more secure, in the outbreak environment, at least some places, in comparison, to other types or forms of events.

This is where technology comes. University and high school students alike, in several places across Asia, have taken to alternative measures, to execute debate competitions, to get around, bans or discouragement, of mass gatherings of students, to avoid a spread of the virus, amongst the young people. They are doing this, by piloting debate competitions, through video, relayed, over the internet.
Something, that Conference Producers, could have adopted, in the drastic times, as a contingency measure. An online conference sure beats, no conference.
I am a Professional Futurist, engaged in Futures Studies. And I am probably the best person to say, even Virtual Worlds, like the soon to go online Horizon, that Facebook has been working on, will probably never take away the space, or need, for physical, actual, conferences, for a multitude of reasons.

Firstly, there is a matter of trust, that will always remain, despite however far we get, on our trajectory of virtualisation. When you see someone in person, with your eyes, standing before you, the trust dynamics play out very differently, from how video relays across distances, or avatars on virtual platforms would support. Secondly, companies cannot tell, if virtual attendance of meetings or conferences, is actual attendance. When a Keynote Presentation or

Panel Discussion is in progress, an attendee via an online platform or video link could be gaming, napping, helping a child with homework and whatnot. There is a lot of room for deception, evasion and so on. Yet, in drastic situations, chances
need to be taken, and corporate organisations would like have taken those chances.
Yet however, business cannot be halted, in trying times. Money is still necessary and it needs to move.

The need for transaction remains constant. So too, the need for collaboration, if not at least, an
exchange of ideas. Innovation and evolution do not stop. Changes to the business environment do not stop. Corporations and their executives cannot afford to stop. Online conferences, would have been the Plan B, of the Conference Producers. Truth be told, a scattered few did try it. It could have been an option, to have been embraced more widely.

Reasonable sponsors would appreciate that at times such as these, their advertising costs are still running, and if so, it would make logical sense, to continue to sponsor conferences, helping their industries keep up with progress that does not stop even in the midst of such adversity. Organisers could have leveraged upon this logic, to fund their events online.

An online conference would have meant no venue costs, including expensive F&B, including, for the after parties and receptions. It would have also allowed organisers room, to negotiate lower rates with Speakers, not because of the argument, that they’d be earning less in such an environment, despite savings from physical material costs and venue rentals, but because logistically, there’d be a benefit to the Speakers, who do factor movement, travel, location and logistics in their fee structures.

It would have meant compromising on delegate fees, with delegate argument being, “we are not being hosted”, but the practical possibilities were there, to set win-win fee rates. All in all, getting a little creative, pragmatic, and compromising, could have led to profitable efforts for organisers and delegates alike, anyway.

About the Writer
An autodidact and a polymath, Harish is Singapore’s first local born Professional Futurist. The world leading Futurist in the area of Technological Evolution & Foresight, he is endearingly referred to most commonly as “The Singapore Futurist”. A livewire on stage, he has actively been opening major conferences across interest areas of industry as well as business functions, setting the tone for futurecentric visions, since 2015.

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