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Last year we sat down with Toby Lewis, CEO of The Live Group, as part of our ‘Over Lunch with …’ series of blogs.

A lot has happened since then and, in an effort to look beyond the present Covid-19 crisis, we have been engaging with many of our agency customers to try and get an idea of what the industry looks like from their perspective, and how we can help in the months to come. 

Equally, we’re learning a lot about how they are dealing with the situation. 

With this in mind, this is a special interview we did with Toby. We genuinely believe that some of the things he has to say will be incredibly important in how this industry looks post Covid-19. 

We started by asking Toby what his broader views on the future of the industry is right now; “I think the first thing to say is that this is going to change the industry. Permanently,” he commented. “Anyone that thinks that the industry is just going to reset is hopeful to the point of being naive. Unfortunately, this won’t be the last pandemic, it will happen again, and we need to be ready for the next time, and the time after that, and the time after that.”

It’s an ominous prediction, but one that The Live Group has been looking at with its clients since the very start of this pandemic. The Live Group organises over 1000 meetings and events per year, from major conferences to smaller roadshows. Their clients consist of everything from major corporates in the financial sector to government agencies and departments. The majority of his customers feel the same; things have just changed, and they aren’t going back.

“What we can’t do, is accept that every time something major like this happens, the industry is just going to shut down for three to six months,” continues Toby. “It’s not sustainable for businesses, we’ll lose venues, and the quality of our marketplace will be shot through. We have to find a different way that allows everyone concerned with business to flourish.” Toby believes strongly that the answer is a mixture between multi-location satellite live event sites, and hybrid events using high spec technology and exceptionally high production standards. 

“What we’ll also see is the continuation of a new breed of event organisers with the agility to pivot based on seismic global events, of which there is a growing increase,” continues Toby. “We’re talking a lot at the Live Group about ‘multi-faceted strategies that anticipate the unknown.’”

He explains; “While so many meetings were being cancelled and postponed, we started getting hundred (literally!) of new business enquiries. Venues were shutting doors, businesses being closed, people being put into isolation. But here’s the thing, these meetings still needed to happen. Government departments needed to talk more than ever, shareholder concerns needed to be addressed, markets pacified. For these meetings, cancellation or postponement was not an issue.”

Over the years, The Live Group has developed well-deserved recognition for hybrid meetings, mixing physical ‘in-the-room’ experience with a digital element that either shares central content around multiple locations, or replicates it, with a regional context, across different geographies.  

But if you’re imagining a telecast, think again, the market has moved on way beyond that. Toby again; “Webex, Zoom, Skype and the like were developed for a specific purpose, small one to one, or at most four or five people meeting on line. There is no way this is transsferrable for a major conference event. At the Live Group we’re developing technology specifically for larger audiences, in multiple locations, and with a much stronger need for engagement.”

“Equally, this isn’t about putting a speaker in front of a mic, and just telecasting it to lots of rooms around the world for people to watch. We’re looking at bringing the whole thing to life through fil; from the keynote, to the panel discussions. To do this takes depth of thinking and creativity. 

“First of all is production quality. These programmes need to be produced, directed, and shot to TV / film standard. They can’t just be a really poor digital version of what they were already doing. So, don’t be surprised if major events start hiring Hollywood directors to do this for them. Danny Boyle directed the opening of the 2012 Olympics, and in an industry that will pay £100K+ for a keynote, why not spend the same for a creative mastermind,” continued Toby. “This will change the level of creativity and engagement beyond what our, already very creative, industry is doing.”

The other key area the Live Group is addressing is the importance of audience and content, as the backbone to a hybrid meeting. “In the old days we got into the habit of looking at location before content, now many are doing the same for a hybrid meeting, and looking at technology ahead of content,” continues Toby. “The first question we’re asking is ‘who is the audience and where are they’, we can then direct the experience for them and use whatever box of technological tricks we have to create genuine engagement.”

“Then let’s think about interaction and performance. Panel discussions are dire to watch when broadcasted in a linear way, so how can we bring in voices from the audience? Can we encourage them to ask questions way in advance, have a pre-Q&A with the panellists, or a post event interview or feed? Like with a radio phone in, we can create real interaction, and if directed well, and using technology, audiences can digitally ‘sit next to’ the panellists and ask questions of their own.”

“We’re already training and choosing panellists and speakers who have the skills to be able to do this; to moderate and contribute to modern day panels and deliver engaging keynotes.”

After that the meetings go local, and again The Live Group is as keen to control the depth of the experience, be it a person sitting in their home self-isolating, to a group of 20 people in a different venue, to those at the main event. Again, the breadth of technology being used by Toby and his team is extraordinary. 

“We’re using in room AI technology to ‘listen-in’ to double digit numbers of multiple room discussions that take place over an event,” continues Toby. “We’re using algorithms that notice trigger words so that the central speaker can go directly to that room and ask them to share their thoughts and findings with the rest of the groups. It means that even if they aren’t in the room, the central location is constantly bringing them in.”  

Lime Venue Portfolio have listened to Toby and his team in the past, and there is much to learn from this level of leadership. In the past we spoke to him about the rise in roadshows. A lot of the conversation was around the ability to create a central theme to an event, but then to regionalise and localise the content to make it more relevant to each individual group. This advanced hybrid approach to meetings and events continues this trend, but also demonstrates what a meeting post-Covid-19 could look like. Surprisingly similar. 

As part of this, Toby had some advice for venues, much of which we’re passing to our own 80+ strong portfolio. The advice was around how venues can support this new style of meeting without it passing them by. 

“First and foremost, every venue needs to really look at its wi-fi capacities, because this level of broadcast takes bandwidth. Venues need to be transparent and understand fully their capabilities; they need to be answering a different level of question from the event organiser,” he continues. “I’d also look at how they can work as a network of satellite rooms or even venues with other venues around the country or the world. Are the venues able to open late at night or early in the morning for global announcements from the other side of the world, and still provide the same quality of service.”

“If I was a venue, I’d also create a ‘clean’ broadcast room. One that a senior speaker can walk into, fit their own mic, and speak when the red light turns on and the camera (or cameras) are recording. The room needs to be ‘clean’, no AV technician to get up close and personal in a Covid-19 world, no busy reception area. Just a walk in, present and walk out.”

“Finally, one of the things I feel all venues should quickly and easily do is to introduce ‘social distancing capacities’ for every meeting room they have,” continues Toby. “How many people can fit into that room if we adhere to government advice. How many people can be in a meeting room safely?”

“This may sound glib, but it’s actually really important as it shows the industry having measures to protect its delegates. If these measures can be executed, meetings will be able to continue and not postpone so quickly. In short, we can stem the curve,” continues Toby.  

This is all food for thought, but also excellent advice. Meetings and events have been changing for some time, and the industry has shown itself capable of adapting itself well in the past. But this change is unprecedented and will take a new style approach. It looks like Toby and the Live Group have one, can the rest of us follow suit?