This has its advantages – no need to dress up (although many still do), no need to travel and potentially stay overnight somewhere, more targeted networking, and no endless clapping (the downside of awards nights).
But something is lost virtually. That engagement with your fellow professionals, the chance to network, to attend lectures, seminars and roundtables, the opportunity to let your hair down and a have a few drinks and a dance as the night wears on.
Virtual conferences, with all their gizmos and innovations, can be brilliant and highly interactive, but also a tad hollow. There are also only so many webinars and Zoom meetups you can attend before fatigue kicks in.
As someone who was regularly out and about attending events, conferences and awards nights, it’s been a strange experience not to don my tux for well over a year now. But, with the Covid situation calming in Britain and the vaccine rollout going well, will we have a live, in-person conference and event season this year? Or will it be a second year of virtual-only?
What is the government saying?
Under Boris Johnson’s proposed roadmap out of lockdown, which reaches stage two on Monday with the reopening of non-essential retail and outdoor hospitality for the first time in months and the end of the ‘stay local’ messaging, all legal limits on social contact could be lifted by June 21, if strict conditions are met.
This, along with the success of the vaccine rollout, would make the idea of events and conferences happening this year more likely. But it’s dependent on a number of factors, and the success of each stage of the four-step plan. Each stage requires four tests on vaccines, infection rates and new coronavirus variants being met.
From May 17, the plan is for indoor hospitality and hotels – the places that events and conferences are typically held at – to reopen to the public. From June 21, the aim is for all legal limits on social contact to be removed and the reopening of the final closed sectors of the economy, including events.
The idea of domestic ‘Covid passports’ has been heavily speculated on, with Johnson backing the plans ‘to provide a way for people to prove their virus status and reassure business’. But the PM is facing a backlash from his own party, who have called the move un-British, while Labour is set to vote against the idea of vaccine passports or certification if brought before Parliament.
According to the Evening Standard, ministers have ruled out bringing in certification for either the April 12 or May 17 stages of the roadmap, but the documents – either in paper form or on an NHS app – could be introduced later this year. The certificate would be expected to include a record of vaccinations, test results and immunity based on whether a person has suffered from the virus.
The hope is that they, along with a rollout of mass testing – which includes everyone in England being given access to two rapid coronavirus tests a week – will allow mass-event audiences to return safely, both inside and out. The lateral flow kits can provide results in around 30 minutes and will be available for free at testing sites, pharmacies and through the post from this Friday. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it would help squash any outbreaks as lockdown eases.
A review into Covid-19 certificates, currently being carried out by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, is continuing to look at ‘equity and ethical concerns’, but the interim report released earlier this week confirmed that businesses could ask for Covid-status proof, if they observed equalities laws.
The review argued that certificates could help reopen sports events, theatres and nightclubs, with trial events, including the League Cup final this month and the FA Cup final next month, to see how well things work out.
The success of these trials, following other trials last year before further lockdowns came in, will go a long way to determining the immediate future of live events and conferences.
Will we see live property events this year?
While the signs are promising, with the vaccine rollout going well and the roadmap well on its way, obvious risks remain. I checked in with Simon Brown, founder of the ESTAS, the biggest annual property awards show in town, to see if he’s confident the event will go ahead as planned on October 22.
Last year’s event, like so many others, moved online, but the team is determined for the event to return in its live form, if allowed. It’s set to be a bigger event than ever, too - in an industry first, the UK’s top agents, brokers, conveyancers and suppliers will all gather together under one roof.
A morning ‘Forum’ is set to see 300 owners and directors discuss the relationship between agents and conveyancers, with the theme of 'WORKING BETTER TOGETHER'. Later, the much-loved ESTAS Customer Service Awards are set to be attended by 1,000-plus guests as the UK’s favourite TV property personality and EAT’s very own columnist - Phil Spencer - announces the winning firms for 2021.
But is this realistically going to happen? “We are more confident than ever that The ESTAS will go ahead. Even taking into account social distancing restrictions, we know we can host over 500 guests,” Simon tells me.
Would more guidance, clarity and support from the government be useful right now, though? “At ESTAS, we are fortunate not to rely on our live events for our main source of revenue as our customer review platform is going from strength to strength,” he says.
“However, for those whose core business is face-to-face gatherings, there does need to be more clarity in terms of the roadmap. Personally, I think the restrictions on corporate events will be relaxed quicker than larger public gatherings.”
Could it be the case, however, that everyone would need to be tested before the event, or will this only become clearer closer to the time, depending on the current state of play then?
“In reality, I think testing pre-event is going to be tricky – however, proof of vaccination on the NHS app seems to me to be a workable solution,” Simon adds.
One major conference has already taken place this year – virtually – with over 400 members of The Guild attending a conference with a difference.
During the Eurovision-style presentation of the awards, 95 bronze, silver and gold awards for sales and lettings - as well as several special awards - were presented by The Guild’s Regional Managers, ‘who all went out of their way to ensure the virtual presentation was as engaging and entertaining as possible’.
Next year, The Guild hopes to return to normal. “It is fully our intention to hold the conference in person next year 2022 if we can,” Iain McKenzie, the organisation’s CEO, says. “The Guild Conference and awards is hugely popular with our members and was missed this year when we held the virtual event in February.”
“We will, of course, organise it following government guidance at the time, as safety of our members and staff comes first, so a hybrid between physical and digital is an option,” he adds.
Another major event of recent years has been Future PropTech, founded by Gary Chimwa in 2015. Last year’s event was held virtually, with some success, but what of this year?
Well, for one thing, Future PropTech is now no longer, with a name change to CREtech – the commercial real estate conference company which acquired the events firm in December 2019.
On the CREtech website, all its upcoming events are virtual until planned live events in New York and London in October. On the blurb page for the London event, it says: “We will be back LIVE this fall [autumn] for our flagship event in London (formerly FUTURE PropTech)!”
The planned event is set to take place across two days (October 27 and 28) at Magazine London, but the fact that you can’t yet register for the event suggests they are keeping their cards close to their chest until closer to the time.
Meanwhile, the popular event held by the industry’s main charity each year – the Agents Giving Ball – is set to be held at the historic Epsom Downs racecourse on Friday September 24. Tickets, tables and sponsorship opportunities are available now, with Agents Giving Patron Mr Spencer in charge of presenting once again. You can see full details for the planned event here.
Elsewhere, the ARLA Propertymark Conference & Exhibition – the UK’s biggest lettings forum – was postponed from its original proposed date of April until December 7 2021 because of the ongoing uncertainty in respect of large, publicly attended events taking place.
Nathan Emerson, interim chief executive of Propertymark, told me: “The last year has shown us that we need to be absolutely flexible and ensure safety is the primary driver of all the decisions taken in relation to events. As we exit lockdown and the vaccination rollout continues, we are hopeful that ARLA Propertymark Conference, which is due to take place in December, will go ahead.”
He adds: “Should government guidance change closer to the time, then of course we will adapt our approach as needed. We are aware of growing appetite from within the membership for in-person events again and are currently updating our schedule with a dynamic three-month rolling programme for regional events later in the year to allow for a mix of both virtual and live events to meet this demand.”
Sanjfest, a smaller-scale but increasingly popular event for agents nationwide, run by Moss Mentors’ Sanjay Gandhi, had to suspend Sanjfest 4 last year and the event is still described as coming soon on the website. The team behind the event tell me there are no set dates for Sanjfest 4 and it will most likely take place next year now.
Meanwhile, RICS’ annual Residential Property Conference was held digitally last year and there are currently no signs of a date for this year’s event. All their events and training sessions are being carried out online for the foreseeable future, which suggests digital will remain the way forward for a while yet.
It’s impossible to predict anything with any certainty at the moment, but September/October looks likely to be a crucial period in the property event calendar this year, with three major property events planned to go ahead then.
This will, however, depend on a very fast-moving situation, worries over a fresh winter wave, the continued success of the vaccine rollout, mass testing, and how well the trial and test events go in the next few months.
It’s certainly going to be a while before the live property event and conference sector is back to normal, but there are increasing glimmers of hope that there could be some in-person events to look forward to this year. I’ll drink to that!
Until next time…
*Nat Daniels is CEO of Angels Media, publishers of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today. Follow him on Twitter @NatDaniels.