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Sustainability Perspectives

Episode 54: The Future Of Events: Sustainability & Data Will Drive The Recovery

The events industry is estimated at 1.1 trillion dollars, but what can we expect to happen in the post-COVID world? Sustainability, a greater focus on social equality, and a data-driven approach will make up the new normal for this sector.

Guest speaker: Robyn Duda, CEO at RDC

  • Keesa Schreane [00:00:00] Welcome to the Refinitiv Sustainability Perspectives podcast, where our goal is to engage and inform our audience - from investors to asset managers and portfolio managers to sustainability leaders and those involved in ESG and sustainable finance. This is Keesa Schreane

    Keesa Schreane [00:00:20] Today, we're going to talk about an industry that has seen significant changes and has been dramatically impacted by the pandemic. And it will need to transform to reflect the new reality and meet sustainability goals. That industry is the events industry. Here with this is Robyn Duda, CEO at RBC, a bespoke agency specializing in creating and activating transformative change across the industry. Now, the industry is estimated at about one point one trillion dollars, but what can we expect to happen in a post-COVID world? 

    Keesa Schreane [00:00:59] Robyn, let's start with talking about the future of events. At the moment, I'm assuming everything has completely come to a halt due to the pandemic when it comes to in-person, large scale events. But what do you see happening and unfolding as we enter into the first and second quarters of twenty twenty one? And what can we expect in terms of the recovery? What will be the new norm? 

    Robyn Duda [00:01:21] Yeah, thank you, Keesa, for being here. Events- you kind of set the stage and mentioned a one point one trillion dollar industry - that encompasses a lot. That is basically any type of large gathering and the things that I work on are a lot of the conferences and trade shows in the business and consumer world. And all events, though, were queen this time last year. The Global Expo industry, for example, was really sizable. It was eighty one billion in global GDP, one point three million jobs. And that's just directly, indirectly, it's closer to two hundred billion dollars in global GDP. So it's a pretty sizable industry. And what's even more interesting, and I'm bringing these up for a reason from kind of shaping the future, what's even more interesting is that I've done a lot of inside DPNL work and the margins on most of these events are really high. They throw seventy percent to the bottom line. 

    And obviously COVID has completely rocked our world and we've been forced to rethink and and reinvent. So, the projection that was kind of predicted until at least 2026 is upside down. And it's been super heartbreaking. Many live events have pivoted really quickly to hosting virtual, but it's an already and already was a hugely crowded space. So it's definitely harder for events to stand out right now. The good news is that what we do now from an organizer standpoint, I do want to explain what an organizer is, because I'm going to probably mention it a few times, they're the holding companies that own a lot of the large events that we as business folks attend all the time. They own a lot of the events and private equity, actually, community owns a lot of the events that I'm kind of referring to. And right now, everything is virtual. Everyone has had to go to a new place and what I believe, and my job is to plan the future, what I believe has happened is people really scrambled. In March of last year, we had to shut everything down and everyone just started throwing things, virtual events up on screens. And, you know, replicating an event that was live, that has emotion and connection is not is easily done. You can't do it the same way as you do when it comes to a virtual event. The medium is different, people's attention spans are different. They can easily click away and not feel guilty. And so we've had to completely think about and we still need to think about, where do we want to be and what do we want to serve people in a few years? And how do we lay the groundwork now? 

    Keesa Schreane [00:04:14] And what do you think growth looks like? Is this more about the current Zoom environment and virtual events, or how do you see the growth strategy playing out? 

    Robyn Duda [00:04:24] Yeah, you know, what I'm telling everyone is that it's integrated experiences. Events were, some of these events that I've worked on are fifty million dollars over the course of three days, and they're throwing huge margins, like I mentioned, to the bottom line. And it's not as easy as doing that again. Experience is not linear. We do not buy, we do not live life in three day sections. And it's become really apparent that we need to create what I call integrated experience, which are the event is one major moment, that is a part of an entire journey that someone interacts with your brand.

    It’s not just about pumping everything into those three days, it's how five months before the event is there something really interesting that leads me to another piece of content? And what we're really working on is breaking down everything that happened at these big events and building them back up in mediums that best serve the consumer. To me, the strategy right now for the future is all about understanding the customer and the consumer. It always has been, but it is detrimental right now. What worked in 2018, for all of that explosive growth I mentioned, will not work in 2022 and beyond. The audience is changing the way they look and the way they purchase is going to be completely different when we come back. And that's because millennials make up 50 percent of the workforce. And a lot of this industry has been designing for an older and more mature audience. And Millennials are a huge part of that, which obviously, of course, if the workforce is made up of that much, millennials are the audience base for these events that are moving forward. And there are three major things to growing this audience in the event industry, and that's smart data and insights. 

    I don't need to preach to you, Keesa and the investment community that data is super important, intelligent design created from those data insights, and most importantly to this conversation, sustainable business practices. The industry has been pretty soft on pushing sustainable business practices. And when I say that, I mean pretty acutely environmental and DNI initiatives. I know it because I lived it and I see it with my clients now. Change and innovation tend to be sacrificed for short term profit versus the long term growth. And right now we've had this opportunity to pause as an industry and we really need to get back to this core foundation. And the premise of everything from a strategy standpoint really needs to be based on data insights. It's not just good for the world and we know the ESG side of this,  we know it's not just good for the world. 

    Keesa Schreane [00:07:18] Let's talk about ESG. In light of all this, I'd love to know more about RDC and what the firm specifically does in terms of its sustainability play in the event space. I know many investors could possibly look at ESG and events, but what is your take on that? 

    Robyn Duda [00:07:36] Yeah, I mean, to me, the biggest, environmental and DNI. Environmental, of course, events have a really large footprint. We're flying people all over the world. When you think about events that have twenty five to thirty thousand people, the environmental side is certainly a factor. And not just carbon footprint alone, shipping of materials, the stuff that's used on site to build some of these trade shows in the event. It's been on the radar and it's been something the industry's been working on for a really long time and there are some great organizations that can help build it. But sometimes building it is a little bit more expensive, but in the long run, we know millennial audience that we did research ourselves with in RDC, but we also know according to the work that you all have done, millennials want to align with brands that are based on their values and their values for for many of them are protecting the world and climate. So making sure that as we rebuild, we rebuild in a really sound environmental way as possible,. 

    Keesa Schreane [00:08:48] Talking about rebuilding it. One aspect is the environmental piece. Let's get to the social piece as it relates to who is on the stage at events. 

    Robyn Duda [00:09:00] Yeah, for a really long time, I was focused on women. For many, many years it was a male dominated, and it still is honestly a painfully male dominated stage. Doesn't matter the industry that we're in. Some are better than others, but it's few and far between and when we talk about diversity at its fullest, including not just gender, race, we talk about sexual orientation and ability, it's I mean, it's pretty astounding. And when in June, Black Lives Matter really, I lived in Brooklyn at the time and I was out and I hear the chanting from my window and a part of that movement, I couldn't help but think the event industry has so much responsibility and who we put on stages and screens across the world really influences who has a voice and we have to do better. We have to make it a point to be more inclusive across the board. 

    I truly believe that also the newer faces and newer voices that you put also, you know, I hate to break it down to this, but they're also a growth strategy. These are new audiences that you're attracting. These are new people. You're elevating a new level of inclusion that is long overdue. So what I did was a bit of a call to the industry and we launched a pledge this year in 2021 for organizers, associations, agencies who work and are responsible for putting people on stages to do better. At least over the course of the next five years, commit to progress and that progress has to be measured, that which is measured matters. And we're really trying to move the industry forward together, though, because there is no system of measurement. We have no idea where at but if we can come together as an industry to create some benchmarks, every individual show, and use census data, ESG data for the industries that we serve, for all of the markets that we produce events in, we can at least see and benchmark ourselves against there and where we need to go. 

    Keesa Schreane [00:11:29] So I know Robyn that right now, the event organizers, the people that you mentioned that are in the private equity space, are now seeing a decrease in the amount of money they've been attracting. Yet, as you mentioned, with the Black Lives Matter movement, there is talent in the black, Latino, Asian American, women, speakers and the entire element across the spectrum. They're being invited to speak at these events, but we see that in many times they are not being paid what their counterparts have been paid. And as someone who is engaging with these private equity firms, or their organizers, how do you expect this narrative to change in 2021? Are there creative, innovative solutions for that? 

    Robyn Duda [00:12:13] They have to. There is no choice. There is no moving forward, in my opinion. One, because the world in your audience is going to demand it. Two some of the research that we did, people are going to be going to less events, at least in the face to face, when we come back. They used to go to six or seven business conferences and trade shows a year, they're going to between one and three moving forward is what their prediction is. And like I said, it's an audience who is going to demand more on their stages and the events that don't invest in putting the best content out there, and the best content has to come from a diverse set of voices, aren't going to exist moving forward. They may make it a few more years, but they will slowly die off and their margins and their profit and their revenue will start to go down. And I hate to say that, it's not that simple, they have to make the investment. You have to hit your mark, like I said, there were huge, margins, I think there are ways that you can cut and move and you have to pay your speakers well. And in order to get, and to be fair, you need to pay people equally. And I think there's going to be a huge push, I believe, as well, from big brands. And I think we're going to start to see, and I'm making a prediction, that a lot of big brands out there who have traditionally been anchor sponsors to some of these really large events, are going to put out statements that say specifically, we are not participating if you do not commit and have a commitment to inclusion and diversity on your stages. And we're not going to speak on your stages either because we don't want to be on a panel that is full of the same white males that we saw before covid. We want to be a part of a movement and I think they're going to be forced into it. I really do. 

    Keesa Schreane [00:14:08] So in terms of the key takeaways, Robyn, what is the key takeaway for the investment community when it comes to the future of the events industry? Can we be looking for some positive investment opportunities, or is it more of a continuation of 2020 just in the near term? 

    Robyn Duda [00:14:27] The events industry is not dead. I believe, though, as I mentioned, the connection is still there. The need to meet people still exists, but it needs to change. Every event will not survive. But the organizations to bet on from an investment standpoint, are the ones that are thinking about data and sustainability in their organizational process and their event design. I truly, truly believe that. If it isn't something that they're implementing now, though, because it takes time to get it working and show cycles tend to be 12 to 18 months, so if they're not implementing these things now, they're going to have a difficult time in three to five years when their audiences demand it. So from an investment community, I think events are still a great bet. I think that they have to have an integrated experience offering where there's a mix of virtual and live on the horizon. And in both of those, they really need to be acutely focused on data and sustainability. 

    Keesa Schreane [00:15:32] Great information to Robyn Duda, thank you so much for joining us. So the events industry is not dead, but for it to continue to thrive, growth means smart data and insights, intelligent design, as well as sustainable practices. Those firms really need to think about data and sustainability and designing events and very importantly, being mindful of today's audience. Being inclusive and compensating speakers equally. Thank you, Robyn, for joining us and thank you for your time. 

    Robyn Duda [00:16:06] Thank you so much. It is great to be here. 

    Keesa Schreane [00:16:10] We invite you to subscribe to the Refinitiv Sustainability Perspectives podcast on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you stream your content. What did you think about the podcast? Leave us a review on iTunes or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter for updates on our show. You can even check us out on YouTube now. Thank you for joining us. See you next time.