CEO Geert Vanoverschelde: ‘Thank you, corona’.
The corona virus has outsmarted us for the third time now. We are all fed up, but there may be no other solution than to go into lockdown yet again.
But however unexpected and contrarian this feels, the drum is still beating towards reopening life, and as far as Sylvester is concerned: towards physical live events. We yearn for hugs, cuddles, partying, dancing and singing together. A roaring twenties-like upsurge of physical events is in the air. Everything back to normal in the autumn?
That boom of physical events is guaranteed to come, but otherwise it is clear that the world of events will never be what it was.
The fact that it’s like this, began a year ago with the first lockdown, which then hit like a bomb. I suspect everyone remembers that mid-March 2020 weekend vividly and in detail. I had then received the first cancellations of events; the denial phase was already over. That everything was indefinitely locked up with no idea of for how long suggested the worst.
Even though telecommuting was immediately mandatory, I had asked our Sylvesterians to meet that particular Monday morning so that I could explain to them the corona impact and the measures to be taken. Technical unemployment and immediate savings (you know: cash is king), but also keep looking ahead and come out positive – don’t moan and complain – were the mottos.
“THANKS FROM MY QUARTERS”
It was during this meeting that the idea arose to set up the white sheets campaign #mercivanuitmijnkot (#thanksfrommyquarters). When our network of famous Flemish people wanted to support this with motivating videos, the action took off. The following Friday, half of Flanders was applauding with white sheets out the window.
It was a bizarre week in which, on the one hand, our support campaign for healthcare providers enjoyed an unexpected massive success, and in the meantime I had to swallow a cancellation of an event or video project every day. Our turnover forecast for the coming year was visibly melting away.
But hey, no more physical events. So how should we connect people? Because, after all, that is our mission as a company. So can we do it digitally and audiovisually, with livestreams? And look, actually then, in a totally unexpected way, the puzzle fell together like never before. For years, we had kept on pounding the nails of our TV expertise, our video skills, and our event know-how. And precisely these three factors proved crucial in creating successful online events.
We were able to win over initial clients and became more adept at strong online formats by the day, actually all mini television programmes.
Even though the turnovers and margins of livestreams were low, it kept us sharp, creative and resilient. By trial and error. Because at the end of May, when we very proudly wanted to present our own high-end event online, exactly then our provider’s network failed and our Studio Sylvester reached viewers with multiple interruptions.
● Lesson 1: check your internet connection just before broadcast.
● Lesson 2: In the online world, you can still send the recording afterwards.
● Lesson 3: Never give up, losing a battle is not losing the war.
Livestreams were getting better and better, and with our own in-house video cell, we were also able to quickly and competently produce the mass of audiovisual content required for digital events.
But aspects such as networking, interaction and experience were not yet tough enough. In the meantime, we had tested event platforms, but none could quite charm us. Our perception: too much made by engineers and IT people. Nothing against them personally, of course, but they are simply not event experts. Make your own then?
And so began a very bold move: create an event venue platform ourselves. The motivation? To create business, of course, but with a service that is future-proof and at the same time extremely sustainable. Moreover, I had some doctors in my family who told me all along that there would definitely be a second wave in the autumn.
We found a good developer for our platform and by the end of June we were ready for testing and demos. Testing, testing, testing: that’s what we did over the summer. We can only agree with what virologists say: testing is crucial and the way to success. The same for MEEPLE, as our platform had in the meantime acquired a name. The connection between meeting and people. Again, our mission, you know.
In September, our first virtual MEEPLE event took place. Meanwhile, we did crash and load tests and later penetration and other security tests. Everything held up, everything worked, customers were excited. Then in October came the second lockdown and suddenly everyone wanted an online or virtual event. We actually couldn’t keep up with the demand. A demand which had to be treated in a selective way as some thought that livestreams and MEEPLE, just like Teams and Zoom, were virtually free.
“THANK YOU SYLVESTERIANS”
Meanwhile, we crossed the line of 60 digital events and there are quite a few more in the pipeline. The switch we made a year ago with the courage of despair – but with the strength of a close-knit team – has largely saved our year. Catastrophe avoided, there is plenty of perspective again. For me, even more impressive than the innovative switch, is the fact that in the meantime the expertise of our team has also had a complete update, and moreover our extended organisation has been fully adapted to our new activities.
I cannot thank the Sylvesterians enough for their resilience, commitment, team spirit and perseverance. At times it was pump or sink, stress and clammy hands. But also moments of eureka and euphoria, of adrenaline and ring the bell. Because traditionally, the ship’s bell rings through our Haacht offices when a new assignment comes in.
And now, a year later… we may actually start again. We are not starting from a catastrophic situation this time, but the possible options are now much greater in number. When can we organise physical events again? And will everything be physical again? To what extent are digital events stayers? Is hybrid breaking through in full force? And by the way, what is a hybrid event anyway? Is every event becoming hybrid, or is the event world becoming hybrid?
Since early January, we have devoted a strategic thought process and a qualitative survey of event managers to these questions. Particularly enriching. We now have a very good view on them. The event world is becoming hybrid, in a mix of physical (live) events, digital and hybrid events. We have evaluated all forms of hybrid events and developed them into feasible concepts, always starting from the participants.
The first requests for hybrid events have now arrived. Very exciting. Now we still have to name the concepts and present them recognisably to the market. And in the meantime, digest the new lockdown, endure the telecommuting for a while longer. With the Sylvester team, we crave a team day enormously, with sports and laughter, with hugs and handshakes. And something like that should not be digital, not hybrid. Totally live: that’s what it should be.