Life’s been a rollercoaster for the past year, and despite not one ticket being sold, nobody has been able to escape this particular ride. There have been challenges left, right and centre as we all try and manage the professional and personal issues the big ‘C-19’ has thrown at us.
Events and exhibitions shutting-up shop for over a year, so many businesses struggling and unemployment rising, lockdown after lockdown of personal freedoms and then the question of whether to have the jab or not (luckily, the answer to the last one is simple: have the jab, always have the jab).
Coming from a family with a medical background and being the founder of a technology company that sits squarely at the heart of global events and exhibitions, I have been keeping myself abreast of as many of the changes, opinions, and data from around the world as I possibly can.
Like so many others during 2020 I have been pivoting, I have been searching for the green shoots, I have been looking for the light at the end of the tunnel and I have been wishing for the ‘bounce-back’.
So, when Reed Exhibitions in the USA, who Konduko has been working with for several years, confirmed that the specialist jewellery show, JIS, was going ahead in March 2021 at Miami Beach Convention Centre I was flooded with so many feelings all at once. I was excited and relieved, it felt like things were starting to get back to normal – those green shoots were starting to show, just as we are so used to seeing in nature in Spring. But I also had feelings that were totally out of place for an event confirmation; there was trepidation and almost anxiety about what this would mean and how it would work.
Don’t get me wrong, I have worked closely with the JIS and Reed Exhibition teams for so many years that I knew they would have thought of everything – and twice over. But for me and my Konduko team this was the ‘return to normal’ that we have all been talking about for so long, and I wasn’t quite sure how it would pan-out and how I would feel about it when I was there.
Spoiler alert: it turned out pretty amazing.
Let’s just be clear, it wasn’t a simple process to get to the show in the US from my base in Geneva, Switzerland. I mean global travel is at its lowest level since, well the aeroplane was first invented, I think and there was COVID-19 test after COVID-19 test that had to be taken and negatively passed before I could even think about leaving Europe. I also had a day-long trip to the American Embassy in Switzerland as I provided a forest of documentation and waited patiently to find out if my very James Bond-sounding ‘National Interest Exemption’ visa was going to be granted for me to even enter the USA. Fortunately, it was, and I seriously considered a vodka Martini – shaken not stirred – to celebrate.
I had both of my vaccination jabs before leaving on the business trip, and I honestly think I would have thought twice if I hadn’t had the relative safety that the vaccine offered – after all I’m not aware of anyone dying or becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 after being vaccinated. Even so, there was still an air of trepidation around my journey, and no amount of German efficiency around COVID-safety at Frankfurt Airport could allay my underlying concerns as I readied for my transatlantic flight.
Finally touching down at Dulles Airport in Washington DC, I felt relieved to have at least made it to the USA and one-step closer to the JIS show and a return to some level of normality. But my first stop after an unnervingly jam-packed domestic flight to Fort Lauderdale, was to my quarantine base for the next seven days. After a week more testing confirmed I was still disease-free and able to get on with the exciting business of, well, doing business.
Getting to Miami Beach Convention Centre for the first time in over a year brought back a flood of memories and excitement. This was it. This was the return to in-person events that I – and so many others – had been waiting for: and my racing heart and increasing adrenalin were testament to the fact that this event meant a lot to me, and a lot to Konduko, too.
But again, there were those little niggles that were creeping into my mind about what it was actually going to be like. How would attendees, exhibitors and venue staff all react to the new way of being at an event? Would it have the buzz of an event of old, would I miss being able to see the smiles of people behind their masks? More to the point, how would I react? This was the biggest hurdle for me –returning to an event space for a large event, still in the shadow of a global pandemic that has taken and ruined far too many lives. I took a deep breath and made my way into the venue – I was just about to find out.
The organising team, unsurprisingly, had thought of everything. Wider aisles, one-way routes, sanitiser-galore, temperature checks, plexiglass-screens, additional signage, safety wardens, and they had even been in discussions with the US government and the tourism authorities to make sure all is at it should be, nothing had been left to chance. Of course, they had also included Konduko’s contactless event technology to enable the safe, digital collection of exhibitor materials by attendees, entrance contact tracing, and contactless digital collection of all the usual show materials. I breathed a small sigh of relief.
So, I felt more than assured that things were as safe as they could be. But on the first open day of the event, I still found it hard to make my way on to the main show floor. It was exceptionally busy. I floated around the edges of the halls watching as hundreds of people came to do what they had been wanting to do for so long. They wanted to do business at an in-person event where they could talk, laugh, discuss, and buy and sell their products. They wanted to meet up with old friends and contacts, they wanted to make new friends and contacts. Real people were at the heart and soul of the show, and it was positively booming. The fact that business levels were up 15% at the show compared to pre-COVID times speaks volumes.
What I also started to understand and appreciate was that everyone who came along to the event did so because they really wanted to. They knew what the event entailed, they knew the restrictions and changes that were being made and they knew that it would be their own individual choice to be there. And there, they certainly were.
At this point, like many of the other attendees at the event, I was just about over my big post-COVID-19 event hurdle. I started to relax, calm down and I could feel my blood pressure lowering. My guard came down slightly and I started to feel the old feelings of events before COVID, we call it B.C.
It was exhilarating to have face-to-face conversations with people again – albeit at a distance. Things that we had taken for granted for every single second, day, or year of our lives up until last year were now allowed again: it was an extraordinary feeling. Exhibitors at the event were keen to point out that whilst they appreciated that some of the actions put in place were clearly there because of the risk from COVID-19, they felt that event technology like Konduko, should absolutely be part of events moving forward, pandemic or no pandemic. The technology was not only helping to make the event safer, but it was also helping business to happen easier.
As soon as those event doors were open, you could see and feel people anxieties and trepidation dissipate. They wanted to get back to doing what they love so badly, and with the right planning and mitigations, they were able to do that safely and effectively.
Almost 90% of exhibitors and 100% of attendees used our tech to exchange their information. It was one of the proudest moments of our journey. It works!
So, as I reflect on my first in-person event experience in many, many months, I remember why it is I do what I do. Yes, it’s the adrenalin, the networking and meeting old friends and new ones, too. Yes, it’s also the freneticism of an actual event being pulled together from ideas in people’s heads, to plans on paper, to actual people meeting and doing actual business.But for me, it’s most definitely about the experience. It’s the culmination of all of the above points and all of the excitement that goes with bringing together people who are passionate about what they do; and for me I am passionate about helping people do better business at events. I got to do that once again at JIS in Miami – and for that, I am hugely grateful.