Conferences, events and awards dinners are a hugely important part of the property calendar, bringing the great and the good of the industry together to network, discuss, debate, exhibit, celebrate and share ideas.
However, for obvious reasons, they have been a virtual write-off since March due to Covid-19, while the future remains uncertain about when they might return. There has so far been little to no guidance from the government on this sector of the market, although Boris Johnson did say in his big speech yesterday that, from October, the government intends to allow conferences and other business events to recommence.
Signs of change are already in the air. High-level events such as political conferences are all heading online for 2020, with the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats all going virtual because of the pandemic.
But what about the world of property?
I spoke with Mark Westcott, director of Relocation Agent Network (RAN) - a national network of specially selected estate agents founded in 1994, which carries out regular events and meet-ups - for his thoughts on the impact of coronavirus.
"I would definitely say that it has brought our Network members even closer together. They instantly adopted new ways of supporting each other, and in a world with virtual meetings, webinars and WhatsApp groups, etc, they have been incredible," Mark says.
"In many ways, it hasn’t affected what we do as a Network - RAN members have continued to offer assistance to customers relocating from one area to another, whether 5 miles or 500 miles away, by passing them to a fellow selected member in the new area. But like everyone, this has affected the way we conduct business."
Can he envisage any meet-ups, events or awards nights happening for the rest of 2020? "It’s hard to look too far forward in an ever-changing world, but right now we would say everything we need to do can be done virtually. Members are still meeting up and always finding it useful to hear what others are seeing/doing in their marketplace. We’ve all simply learned to do that sitting at our desk, instead of travelling to a central point to meet in a room."
He adds: "We believe there is definitely still a place for physical meetings/awards, but there is no need right now to rush into arranging these when we can gain almost all of what we need with virtual meetings. It’s fair to say most of us have now got the hang of video calls, blurring the background and the etiquette involved so we aren’t all talking over each other!"
RAN, though, is all about bringing the industry together - is that really possible via Zoom? Or is something lost when doing things virtually?
"We have seen you can do so much with virtual calls, but it’s not 100% the same as a face-to-face meeting. So like most agents out there now, we see the future as a blend of both. By that, I refer to the efficiencies of virtual meetings and the true power of face-to-face – something many of us may well start to appreciate more in the future, having been through the lockdown."
Would more clarity from government about the rules regarding people meeting inside help? "Many are looking for more clarity, but the approach from on high seems to be more, ‘here are the principles and you sort the detail’," Mark explains. "I dare say between us and the venues, we can make sensible decisions on how and when meetings can be possible."
But would RAN be able to function well with social distancing and greater hygiene protocols in place, I asked Mark.
"Like the rest of the industry, these things don’t affect what we do, just how we do it. Right now, the pandemic hasn’t dampened people’s appetite to want to move to a new home and often a completely new area. Our members will continue to provide the same help and assistance and we will continue to work to help our members grow as businesses."
He says certain reassurances would be needed for RAN to be happy to hold in-person meet-ups, events and conferences again. "In general terms, we would need two things: firstly, that government advice authorises such gatherings, and secondly, that our members wanted such forums to take place as physical events. In the meantime, we can continue delivering benefit to every member virtually, as we are doing now."
Iain McKenzie, CEO of the Guild of Property Professionals, which usually holds an excellent annual conference each year, says social distancing with the number of people who typically attend the event is not feasible.
"The Guild Conference attracts over 600 attendees coming from all around the UK, where people network, exchange tips and ideas, and catch up after not seeing each other for a whole year. Plus the after party. Social distancing with this amount of people would not be possible, and the health and safety of our staff and our members come first."
The conference also takes over six months to prepare. "It is difficult to know what will happen tomorrow, let alone in six months. Once we can be sure that everybody’s health is not at risk, we will of course organise a conference. In the meantime, we are organising smaller regional Zoom meetings to support our members and encourage networking," Iain says.
A virtual conference is on the cards, but will need to have a 'different format to the physical one' to encourage participation and engagement. Nothing has been decided yet, with the Guild's well-attended monthly regional Zoom meetings more beneficial to agents for now.
Iain doesn't think greater government guidance would help at the moment. "Whilst we always look forward to our conference every year and being able to see all our members and celebrate with them, we have many other safer ways to communicate and network with our agents. Organising a conference at the moment could put the health of our members and staff at risk, so even if the government was to issue more guidance, it is very unlikely that we would organise a physical one. We would rather the government focus on supporting the industry as a whole."
But will coronavirus lead to a step-change in how we view conferences? Will people now be more selective?
"There is a lot of factors at play here," Iain replies. "If a vaccine is found and people know that they are safe, then they may feel more inclined to go out and resume life as normal. There is a sense of screen fatigue and people wanting to meet again. We just need to make sure that it is done in a safe way. Until then, local and virtual seems to be the way and works well for our network."
The Guild is still looking to honour its members with a virtual award ceremony. "Whilst the conference may not happen, it is important to celebrate the successes and keep this sense of togetherness," Iain says. "We may not be able to meet in person, but we will make sure that our agents have a great time."
A sign of what’s to come?
Some have already experienced, while others are about to experience, holding major events in the virtual world because of Covid-19 putting paid to the planned physical versions.
Here, I check in with Simon Brown, founder of the ESTAS, which took place virtually on Friday July 4, and Gary Chimwa, the brains behind the annual FUTURE PropTech conference, which will be holding a global four-day summit virtually from 27-30 July 2020.
First up, my chat with Simon.
You recently held the ESTAS awards, which has networking and bringing the industry together at its heart, on a virtual basis. How easy was that to do logistically?
To be honest, it was a lot more challenging than hosting a physical event. To try and create an atmosphere with your audience online is not easy.
The key for us was to try and have as many live elements as we could and give the audience the option to be interactive.
To do this, we had to broadcast across more than one online platform - which was amazing to do, but we managed to pull off!
How well did it work? Have you received positive feedback?
The feedback we’ve received has been incredible which I think says as much about the loyalty and support the ESTAS receives from the industry than it does about how we put the awards on.
Do you think virtual will have to be the future while social distancing rules remain in place?
I think virtual events will have a place way beyond social distancing measures, but they won’t replace live events.
It makes a lot of sense from a time and cost perspective to host an event online. At an awards event like ours, it’s not always easy to keep people focused on the stage/screen when they have food, drink and other guests distracting them. Having said that, you can’t beat face-to-face interaction for both team building and networking purposes.
Moving forward, I think we will all be a bit choosier when deciding what events to physically attend and the key industry events will benefit.
Would you like more clarity from the government about when mass gatherings, and in particular mass gatherings indoors, might be able to happen again and how?
I would, but I sympathise with the government because it’s so difficult to predict when this will be. Personally, I can’t see any major indoor events happening this year, with the risk of a second wave as we head into winter.
Would an awards ceremony and social distancing/enhanced hygiene protocols ever be compatible? Or would it take away from the experience?
In theory, social distancing is workable for mass gatherings indoors, but there are two major stumbling blocks.
Firstly, financial. Most award ceremonies (unlike events paid for from a corporate budget) rely on ticket sales to pay for the associated costs, which are far higher than most people realise.
Secondly, you have to take into account the effect of alcohol. The fact is we all become more relaxed and less conscious of our own space once we’ve had a drink or two and that is not conducive to social distancing rules.
An awards ceremony without alcohol? Now that would be a first!
Why have the Conveyancing Awards been postponed?
We have decided to postpone The ESTAS Conveyancing Awards because we think the time is right to bring agents and conveyancers together irrespective of the Covid-19 situation.
The next ESTAS event in May 2021 will showcase the best property professionals for customer service, whether they be agents, conveyancers or brokers.
All of them play a crucial role in helping customers realise their ambition of moving home and we want to help consumers make more informed decisions about who they use.
Are you already making contingency plans for next year's ESTAS, which would typically be held in April/May?
I’m certain that by next spring live events will be back. The ESTAS is booked for May 14 at the Grosvenor House next year. It will be the first industry awards since 2019 and no doubt the biggest ever. We can’t wait for it!
In recent years, the FUTURE PropTech conference has become one of the highlights of the property calendar with its own innovative, inimitable style. Its usual two-day April event was cancelled, and now after consulting with its leadership board, sponsors and partners, it has decided it’ll only focus on digital events for the rest of 2020.
The FUTURE PropTech conference is set to return on April 28 and 29 2021, but in the meantime it will be hosting its very first virtual global summit over four days in late July.
‘Reimagining Real Estate Virtual Global Summit’, created by CREtech and FUTURE PropTech, will include four days of global content, 75-plus world-class speakers, 2,500-plus delegates and 30 curated technology solutions. It’s completely FREE to attend and you can register your interest here.
How is the global summit going to work virtually in terms of roundtable discussions, exhibitors and seminars?
We have made a significant investment in a dedicated platform that will host our events. It allows for breakout sessions such as roundtables, workshops, one-to-one networking and more. It’s very interactive so all delegates can network and connect very seamlessly.
Will there be a big focus placed on AR/VR, to make the experience more immersive?
When it comes to VR/AR technology, it’s still a bit gimmicky. Ultimately, you can’t replicate being able to physically connect with other people, so we see this as a completely different experience but still with a lot of benefits such as convenience.
Practically speaking, how you will be able to bring delegates from all over the world together at the same time virtually?
The first two days will be focused on UK and European content, so it will be in our local BST time. The next two days are focused on the USA with EDT time. Delegates can access at any time they choose and the content will also be available on-demand afterwards for all registered delegates, so make sure you are registered!
Could you see things remaining virtual into 2021 and beyond?
Yes, we think virtual events will continue to have a place in 2021 and beyond. Our lives have now changed and there will be no going back. Physical events will still run but in addition to virtual ones.
When do you think it will be safe to hold an in-person conference again?
It does depend on the size. It’s also not just a question of safety, but whether the delegates themselves are prepared to take the risk. Many companies have imposed travel bans to large gatherings. It’s safe to say any events in 2020 will be extremely challenging to run.
Do you think more guidance needs to be provided by the government when it comes to conferences and big gatherings?
Yes, this is sorely needed - not just in events but in so many other industries. Official guidance would make it easier for planning and organising to take place in order to restart the events sector which is a multi-billion-pound industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people.
Great answers, chaps. Fascinating insight.
Until next time…
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.