Labor Shortages Add to Challenges During Comeback
Maybe it’s because Soundings Founder Tracy Judge makes it her mission to match companies with relevant freelance event professionals that she could see the early signs of a talent crisis. Now that the pandemic is receding, Judge is no longer ahead of her time in raising the alarms about how short-staffed teams are going to operate events.
Across all aspects of the industry, labor shortages will cause anything from headaches to cancellations for the foreseeable future. American Airlines has warned that it will be forced to cancel more than 100 flights weekly into July because it can’t provide full crews. For months, hotels have been relying on employees to work multiple jobs and shifts, stretching them thin at a time when they should be making a second first impression for returning travelers.
Planning and marketing teams are also feeling the effects of trimmed payrolls, resulting, in some cases, in strategies that don’t necessarily fit the platform they are working with. Likewise, global companies that event organizers are dependent on like Freeman and GES, which were already planning to streamline processes before the pandemic, have dramatically lowered their staff at a faster rate than they expected.
Experts agree that what we will see in the evolution of event planning is a slew of opportunities for those able to adapt to the digital age of conferences and meetings. And organizations like Judge’s company that are able to procure experienced freelancers will become valuable partners. Two important issues will play out: How will workers adapt to meet different demands and how will planners execute ROI-worthy events with fewer resources than they had previously.
“We're going to be in a situation over the next year or maybe two years, where we're going to suffer some labor shortages,” said Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of PCMA. “This is not going to be a domestic problem or a North America problem. It’s going to be a big global problem.”
While every sector has been adversely affected by the pandemic, none has fared worse than the collective of hospitality, travel and events. The U.S. Travel Association reports that prior to the pandemic, direct travel jobs accounted for 6% of the workforce and total travel-supported jobs accounted for 11%. But in 2020, direct travel jobs accounted for a disproportionate 35% of jobs lost and total travel-supported jobs accounted for a staggering 65%.
The delayed reawakening of travel not only forced employees to be let go or furloughed — and many venues to shutter — but it also created an air of uncertainty that is only now showing its full impact. Many of the workers who hotels would like to bring back have found other jobs in other industries. The loss of any one job not only adversely affected the organization but the industry as a whole.
For better or worse, the gig economy we are used to embracing for transportation like Uber could very well be the norm in events. A Harvard Business Review study found that 90% of C-suite and frontline leaders believe high-skilled freelance platforms will be core to their ability to compete in the future.
As a result, Judge and Karamat both said a certain amount of patience and enmity will be required to maintain necessary partnerships so that attendees have the best experience possible.
“We need to give our hotel and production partners the same amount of grace we gave the meetings industry when we had to pivot to virtual,” said Judge. “The reality is, we lost a lot of talent from the industry that will never return.”
It’s little wonder that the Virtual Events Institute has centered its next round of content around talent and skills. The institute’s CEO and founder is Sophie Ahmed, a longtime event planner, primarily at Informa Markets, who lost her job in 2020. She understands both sides of the issue and has dedicated VEI toward bridging the gap to a better future.
There is already evidence that some workers will prefer remote working, to the point of refusing to accept jobs where office time is required. Not being tied to one organization and its rules will be appealing, as well. For others, though, it will be a return to the pre-pandemic normal.
“Some people are going to want permanence and stability after a really rocky 18 months,” Ahmed said.
A Long Way to Go
Regardless of what path — freelance or full-time — is preferred, event and hospitality professionals will need to be familiar with the digital side. The first step is for employers to move beyond what many consider to be outdated beliefs.
When PCMA first launched its Virtual Edge Institute in 2010, when the organization first livestreamed events, “people saw digital as a threat, not as an enhancer,” Karamat said.
The opposite is true, he added. Kamarat’s favorite example is how the NFL used to block out certain football games to encourage more fans to attend in person. What the league learned, though, was that airing all the action built its base to the point that selling out stadiums is a regular occurrence. He said associations are finally starting to come around to that model.
“Associations are waking up to how they can actually build their brands even better in a digital environment that would drive their face-to-face attendance,” he said.
The message seems to be sinking in. The number of event professionals securing their Digital Event Strategist (DES) certification skyrocketed from hundreds to thousands last year, reported Karamat.
Soundings specializes in filling a need of taking professionals experienced with events and teaching them the new technical side, drawing rave reviews from organizations like tech-based groups VEI and Intrado.
Soundings Thrive Platform Playground provides two avenues to becoming accustomed to the new world. It allows its users to work as a team on mock events on a virtual event platform. Its sandbox gives freelancers a chance to hone their skills on key tasks. For example, freelancers have had the chance to learn how to be webcast producers on Intrado's Studio products, Judge noted.
VEI Content Director Emma Hilditch, a freelance worker herself, said companies need to be adapting with new jobs to go along with these advanced skills. Event producer is a new title for the planner taking the lead on the virtual side. “People have been running virtual events for 15 years, but there's hardly anybody that's got those skills,” she said.
The pandemic has changed us as people and the industry in ways we don’t fully understand yet. But, Judge said, we know we haven’t reached our final destination.
“Someone said to me 'You need to take some time to rest and celebrate making it through this – then we need to land this rocketship,’” Judge said. “I think I laughed and cried when he said this. But it's true: As an industry, we still have a long way to go."