June 12, 2020
Welcome to the hybrid future of meetings and events

The meetings, incentives, conferences and events sector – MICE – has been hit hard by the global crisis set off by the Covid-19 pandemic. Professional conference interpreters know this too well.

Since early 2020, as more and more events were cancelled and the world went into lockdown, interpreters watched helplessly as their bookings were cancelled.

Pass the remote control

A six-month Netflix binge? Not likely when you have bills to pay!

Once it became clear that leaving home was not an option in the near future, interpreters around the world put down their TV remotes and started to pick up another remote – looking towards remote interpreting as a way to keep working while locked in confinement.

The MICE sector – those organising the events and conferences – also began making the most of the situation: bringing people together virtually as physical meetings were no longer possible.

A sweet treat

AIIC’s Private Market Sector (PRIMS), always an innovator, also embraced this trend. Facing the reality that corona had kiboshed its planned mid-2020 meeting in Bonn, Germany, the Standing Committee invented a sweet new PRIMS concept: the Donut.

The PRIMS Donut is an appeal for optimism and fortitude: “Donut give up!”. Frequent virtual sessions for all interpreters and their guests, these online presentations open up discussion on hot topics, specially chosen for interpreters pondering their situation in today’s lockdown and tomorrow’s post-Covid world. Only virtual refreshment is provided, but attendees are encouraged to keep things sweet by providing their own beignet, ciambella, Krapfen or rosquilla.

The first PRIMS Donut, on 5 May 2020, was a chance for AIIC members to join a discussion with the PRIMS Standing Committee, with a focus on the challenges of the pandemic, and the opportunities and threats from remote interpreting.

Meet the MICE

For the second Donut, on 2 June 2020, PRIMS invited an expert panel of MICE professionals to join the conversation. It was an opening for dialogue: The audience of interpreters were keen to find out more about where the world of meetings and events is headed, and how they might fit in. The MICE panelists, for their part, were eager to learn more about the interpreters’ perspectives.

Introducing the panel discussion, PRIMS Coordinator Raffaella Marchese reminded the audience that MICE professionals and interpreters are in the same boat, considering their present and future at a moment when the world is re-examining how people can continue to meet and talk in these uncharted and stormy waters.

“We rarely have  an opportunity to sit down at the same table to discuss our common problems, common issues, and maybe even to forge common strategies – to design the industry the way we want it,” she said.

Raffaella shares her impressions and reflections on the event in an article on LinkedIn in which she compares the interwoven worlds of interpreters and MICE professionals with a skein of wool. This event, she says, gave a chance for both sides to unravel the skein, for us to get to know each other better and enrich our understanding of our shared world.More than 600 members and colleagues tuned in to the session, live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube (where you can catch it now): the impressive turnout is testimony to professional interpreters’ concern about where the sector is headed, and interest in connecting with their MICE colleagues.

Danielle Ward, of re/ward Events, examined environmental sustainability and social responsibility, considering whether the disruption of the pandemic may prompt a cleaner, greener approach to meetings. Journalist Martin Fullard of Mash Media, editor of Conference News, gave his assessment of the current state of play and likely developments. Jessie States, of MPI Academy, discussed how long the sector would take to recover, and what that recovery might look like.

No return to “normal” – the future is sustainable

For Danielle Ward, founder of sustainable events company re/ward Events, the current crisis is an opportunity to rethink the sector. 

While the first half of 2020 has been devastating in so many ways, there are glimmers of hope: the air is cleaner, less fossil fuel is being burned, and a sense of community and togetherness has emerged.  The world of events, Ward believes, could re-emerge with reduced negative environmental impact and greater positive social contribution.

The PRIMS audience shared her optimism: around 60% responded to her Slido poll thinking that sustainability will be prioritised – rather than side-lined – post-covid-19.

Ward identified five areas in which to build a more sustainable future for the sector:

  1. A move towards hybrid events, with a mix of in-person and virtual environments.
  2. Less is more: fewer events, but a greater focus on high quality.
  3. Global diversity: a hybrid model will open up events to a greater mix of perspectives: gender, cultural, and (of course!) linguistic. This call resonated with AIIC – in the Q&A session PRIMS reiterated that multilingualism is a key component of cultural diversity, and that the MICE industry should work more closely with interpreters to make it possible for people to participate equally.
  4. Lockdowns and supply chain disruptions have given new urgency to a “buy seasonal, buy local” ethos, stimulating local producers and reducing environmental footprints. The sector should continue these good habits, adopting more responsible practices. The audience – in their live commentary – applauded the idea, calling for event organisers to also source interpreters locally
  5. Prioritising wellbeing: there will be greater focus on health and safety standards, and organisers will need to reassure participants and protect their personnel. Interpreters certainly support a duty of care to all involved, including the interpreters.

The MICE sector will have to restart post lockdown, and this is a perfect opportunity to change for good – ensuring better, more sustainable, and future-proof events. 

“Nothing should go back to normal,” says Ward, “Normal wasn’t working.”

Opening up… s l o w l y

Martin Fullard noted that with the lockdown easing, we are already beginning to see a cautious  return to physical meetings in a few locations. As we have all learned from week after week of Zoom and Skype sessions, virtual can achieve a lot, but nothing compares to face-to-face. Online events do have some advantages – the potential for engagement is global, with numbers of attendees not limited by physical space or travel considerations. In many ways, Fullard said, the lockdown has created captive audiences, with people stuck at home and needing little incentive to join an event that is a mouse-click away.  

But to realise this potential, event organisers need to plan online events carefully. There has been a steep learning curve, as organisers realise that the virtual format can’t be just an afterthought. Increasingly these meetings are being designed to make the most of what technology can offer.

There is a demand for increased quality, and video production companies are beginning to set up studio environments for event broadcasts, allowing events to have the production value of TV shows, enriching the online experience. 

Physical meetings will come back, but perhaps with many of the participants joining from a distance. The MICE sector will adapt, offering high-quality hybrid meetings combining an online and in-person presence, optimising the experience for both groups. 

This will require the involvement of high-quality interpreting, to enable the participation of everyone, however they participate.

“Every event exists to fulfil an objective, and that will never change,” Fullard said. “What will change is that the expectation of quality will increase.

The long road to recovery

Jessie States, of MPI Academy (Meeting Professionals International), looked at trends in how the meeting and events sector is responding to the current global crisis.

The MPI Academy has developed a Recovery Index, based on surveys of event organisers and destinations. In April, 26% of respondents thought that recovery would begin in September 2020, with 45% believing in a full recovery during the first half of 2021.

The PRIMS Donut audience was less optimistic (or perhaps more realistic) – a Slido poll showed around half of the audience believing recovery would only begin in 2021.

Many event organisers are choosing virtual alternatives, realising that the lockdown is long-haul and opportunities need to be seized.

In preparation for the return to physical meetings, event professionals are looking at some fundamental changes to the conference environment. To enable health and safety considerations, like social distancing, attendance will be limited, and greater attention paid to issues like crisis planning, sanitation and meal distribution. The demand is driven largely by participants and organisers.

Interpreters are part of the future

The MICE sector is the lifeblood of conference interpreting – especially for interpreters working in the private market– and participants were eager to know how they could better engage with the sector.

The panellists urged interpreters to participate in events and shows that target the MICE sector, and to more actively promote the profession to event organisers.

Rob Davidson (a long-time friend of AIIC PRIMS, this time commenting from the audience) appealed to the MICE industry to invite interpreters to speak at their events.

PRIMS, for its part, will continue to find occasions for dialogue with the MICE sector in its activities, whether these be upcoming Donuts or hybrid events in a sustainable, post-Covid future.