There’s a bit of tunnel vision in many of the articles we write about the freelance revolution. Too often, when we describe the talent economy, the focus is on two large professional groups: technologists and independent (business) professionals; for example, independent management consultants, finance and accounting freelancers, or “creatives” in fields like advertising, PR and marketing communications. If you are a fan of that wonderful Broadway show, West Side Story, you might think of it as a tale of two gangs: the techs and the corps. In fact, HoneyBook, a well-known firm providing both software and advisory support to small businesses and freelancers, recently reminded me that the freelance revolution is far broader.
Honeybook completed a study that describes the challenges facing a population of freelancers that we often don’t write about: event professionals. This crowd includes event planners, photographers, videographers and florists. These individuals are the people who, in normal times, create the weddings and other family or fraternal events that celebrate and commemorate important events, organize and manage the conferences that bring together professional colleagues, or welcome corporate or governmental meetings cities and nations around the world such as the World Economic Forum meetings in Switzerland, or the UN General Assembly events in NYC. Consider, for a moment, the revenue generated by something as ubiquitous as a wedding. Flowers alone for US weddings in typical years would average $2.5 billion dollars. The wedding party industry in the US overall generated $53 billion dollars as of 2013! And, freelancers in the events industry can be found in Upwork, Fiverr, Freelancer and FlexJobs, and many smaller more specialized platforms like The Event Work and Event Pro Finder.
How have events professionals fared during COVID 19? According to Honeybook, Covid-19 rapidly and severely impacted the freelance economy. By the end of March 2020, service providers in the events industry were only transacting at only 50% of February 2020 levels. Then it stopped all together.
Events freelancers have been particularly hard hit in an environment where face to face events have been shut down or delayed, and remains the case for most of the US, as other parts of the world begin to reopen.
Scheduling remains uncertain for events professionals. The initially positive news was that 58% of events scheduled through April were postponed for up to six months, and only 10% were outright cancelled. But, by early July, the percentage of rescheduled events had dwindled to 21%. And according to Honeybook, almost half the projects that were rescheduled for or in July were again postponed for more than 6 months.
Matching the uncertainty of when the physical events business will return, there is beginning to be more and more insight on what event management and the freelance role will look like in the post Covid 19 environment. Here’s what the experts say freelancers and other events professionals will face as they return to business:
Convene predicts that, while Covid 19 stopped meetings and events in their tracks, there is strong confidence that the physical events business will eventually recover. But, expect a “new normal” to borrow that phrase. According to Convene, the new normal will include
- Enhanced virtual participation: “Smart event organizers realize that budgets are tightening so they’d better offer compelling virtual participation options, like hybrids: live events with the option to participate virtually.”
- Satellite events: Face-to face interaction with less danger: “Expect smaller satellite events complementing larger gatherings. For example, if a main event is in New York, you might have smaller meetups in San Francisco or Seattle.”
Congrex adds a number of additional predictions about the future of physical events. They include:
- New seating arrangements will need to be created to provide for appropriate social distancing while reinforcing engagement and discussion
- Rethink entry, exit and registration: Safe registering requires an alternative to registration lines or registration desks; attendees will expect to self-register in advance, to make greater use of tech, and self-scan attendance
- Meals service: A new approach to serving meals will be needed one that avoids that avoids “stations” for food and drink that attracts crowds and creates potential social distancing problems; many of us will be sad to see the end of buffets, but few will miss long lines to snack during meeting breaks
- Encouraging responsible interaction: Event organizers will be keep busy trying to create new ways to network and reinforce interaction utilizing social activities that respect social distancing
- Sanitation stations: Meetings of all kinds will offer easy access to hand washing and sanitizing booths, and practice frequent decontamination between events or courses
- Access to help as needed: There will need to be more ready access to triage or isolation rooms if guests or staff fall ill, arrangements with local hospitals made in advance, and a plan for taking care of vulnerable populations
Socialtables.com provided a third, more strategic, perspective, focusing on these areas of change:
- Design for value and time efficiency: “From smartphones to tiny homes, people are intent on getting the most purpose and utility out of everything these days … Consider how every aspect of the event can provide additional benefits. Think about every part of the event, from the content to the activities to how you create connections between attendees.”
- Celebrate diverse voices: “Broadly speaking, society has become much more open to diverse opinions and interests. People are interested in hearing ideas that differ from their own. Outside-the-box thinking will always be a hot topic for events. Ensure attendees are being stimulated by bringing in speakers who challenge audiences to think bigger and broader.”
- The importance of mindfulness and wellness: “Leading experts agree that ‘brain breaks’ are crucial to rejuvenating the mind and actually foster elevated levels of creativity. A jam-packed schedule can be quite demanding for conference attendees. Give attendees time and space to breathe, reflect, and regroup.”
- Personalize: “Personalizing an experience is more than just using an attendee’s name in conference communications. Before the event, ask attendees to weigh in on which sessions will be offered. Create a conference app that provides personalized suggestions for activities in real-time using pre-loaded information.”
- Sustainability: “As an event planner, awareness of society’s heightened interest in reusing, repurposing and recycling can help you develop a thoughtful approach that demonstrates your event’s commitment to the environment.”
Honeybook’s outreach reminded me of the large and important role that events freelancers play in the US and global economy, as well as the challenge of reinventing a “new normal” in events. According to the BLS, the US alone has 134,000 event planners, and the field is growing at 7% per year, faster than average. There are 13,200 florists in the US and an estimated 140,000 professional photographers and videographers. Add to this the large total the other freelancers who contribute directly to events or provide essential support: printers, graphic artists, drivers, and travel agents, and the gig workers, the logistics and delivery staff, servers, kitchen support staff, and cleaners that together add up to a very significant freelance population indeed. And, we haven’t even begun to count the international events community, many of whom are beginning to see light as their economies open up for business.
Keeping our events industry strong and our events professionals secure is a must: events make history by bringing history makers together, and plays a crucial role in the lives of businesses, communities and families. It’s a tough time for direct and affiliated freelancers in this industry, as for many other freelancers, but it won’t last forever. We need to ensure continuing economic support while the pandemic continues to spread in the US. And, it is clear that events professionals will need to adapt to the new normal: it requires individual education and strong coordination and teamwork among the many freelancers and small businesses contributing to event success. The CDC recently published a planning guide that will be helpful as the market for events opens slowly but surely, and we await the event industry 2.0, and the opportunities it provides for freelancers.
Viva la revolution!