Spectacular. Iconic. Historic. These are the kind of friendly adjectives often deployed to describe ‘hallmark’ or ‘mega’ events – perhaps best exemplified by the likes of the Olympic, Commonwealth and Asian Games, the FIFA World Cup, Expos, Biennales and other grand-scale sporting and cultural experiences, festivals, celebrations and commemorations.
Because of their scale and complexity, these events tend to draw on the assets of an entire city or region in order for them to be delivered effectively. The rewards for stakeholders here can be extraordinary – positively impacting the economy, tourism industry, and the physical infrastructure of the host city.
In addition, recurring hallmark events can serve to regularly reaffirm the status and cultural cachet of places and people.
So, in terms of their scale, sophistication, visitor pull, audience reach and potentially transformative impact, these events – the ultimate in multi-platform, live, broadcast and online extravaganzas – are as about immersive and experiential as you can get.
Or at least they were.
Because, right now there are no events – hallmark, mega or minor; global, national or local.
Naturally, we are fretting over when and how we will all meet again.
Every day, online forums are loaded with fresh-baked predictions and hopes for the short to medium-term recovery of the events industry; so many voices, all urgently attempting to fathom the situation; bravely prescribing the actions we could or should take in order to be able to return to the mega-events business.
Some forecasts may indeed become reality. However, some perspectives are perhaps built on foundations of misplaced optimism while others are too bleakly pessimistic to be helpful. Many solutions appear to offer only pyrrhic victories over COVID-19, losing sight of what makes a mega event ‘mega’ in the first place, including the notion of them being collective, shared and emotive experiences, with the audience playing a critical role simply by being present.
There is widespread uncertainty and fear. And there’s perhaps also a real danger of pundit fatigue.
The truth is, so much of the outcome of this ghastly COVID-19 experience remains out of our control. Whatever we in the industry think, feel or do, we’re still going to have to wait patiently for permission to step back on stage or take our seats in auditoriums and stadiums. And even then, there’ll likely be a gap between what we are told we can do, and the precise terms under which performers, technicians and audiences will be inclined to actually do it.
Until we can all sit or stand shoulder to shoulder, the respected work we do in the name of sport, culture and entertainment will understandably be deemed a high risk, low priority. It’s nothing personal. Everyone gets the potential value of these kind of events for body and soul and the economy. It will ‘simply’ come down to science, politics and activism.
But right here and now, why don’t we be kind to ourselves and agree that eventually, and hopefully in the not too distant future, we shall indeed meet again – for the festivals and celebrations and commemorations and great sporting moments that make us feel gloriously human.
More than ever, we’ll need to sing, cheer, cry and laugh together; to be in close proximity to thousands of strangers, yet as one. We’ll want to surrender ourselves to a sublime ‘mass’ moment, and in so doing, find, or maybe just as appealing, forget ourselves, just for a little while.
So, we are at least well motivated to come together.
But while we standby to do so, given that even pre-COVID-19, many believed that some hallmark and mega events were already on the wane – in terms of sustainability, relevance, cost, geopolitics, security and yes, the threat of a global pandemic – perhaps now is a great time to take stock and to re-imagine what the view from the top might look like when we eventually get back to doing what we do.
How do we begin to tackle the greatest challenges – from the economic to the existential – our industry has ever encountered?
Some conversation starters…
Embrace the change
The sooner we can get through denial, anger, bargaining and depression to arrive at the fifth stage of our understandable grief – acceptance – the sooner we can then move forward. There IS opportunity in whatever comes next.
Rekindle our purpose
Will our mission be to offer escapism, like the great Hollywood entertainments born of the Great Depression, and/or will audiences crave more in the way of reflection, catharsis and connection?
Perhaps now is the time to further explore the essential relationship between the obvious value of these events and their fundamental purpose. Perhaps now is the time to move away from the jingoistic, nationalistic, chest-beating, cultural displays sometimes associated with mega and hallmark events. Perhaps cities can become more generous hosts – celebrating our wonderful differences for sure, but also placing emphasis on what we have in common – the universal human experience – rather than what sets us apart; to focus on the notion of ‘sister and brother’ rather than ‘other’. Can we sustain the deeper compassionate connection that has emerged across the world in recent weeks, even after we ‘recover’?
Perhaps we might also see mega events delivering increased tangible social impacts over and above their immediate remit – generating donations for social causes for example, in the way that the Opening Ceremony of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games pioneered, when it raised more than £6m with UNICEF to help disadvantaged children across the Commonwealth – all through the direct, real-time, digital participation and contribution of the live and broadcast audience.
Naturally there is always so much talk of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of hallmark and mega events. Let’s now also get back in touch with the ‘why’ of it all. And let’s be sure it’s a ‘why’ our audiences will come out to be a part of.
There will be an inevitable and logical shift towards economic and cultural nationalism as, short-term at least, international ‘destination’ events will be less sustainable and accessible. Global events will become national and national events will become local.
Thinking ‘global’ too
We’ll also need to be mindful not to let the short-term emphasis on the ‘domestic’ result in us shrinking away from each other. Many mega and hallmark events are actually predicated on the facilitation of international connection and exchange. How can we continue to nurture links from afar in order to avoid ‘over localisation’?
There’ll be even greater emphasis on the ‘amplification’ power of broadcast and digital to take events into the home and onto devices rather than assuming audiences will be able to attend in person. Broadcast has always been an essential ingredient of hallmark and mega events, so this shouldn’t be too much of a leap. But it’s likely that we will see an acceleration in the deployment of interactive and AR technology, and that could be very exciting.
Staying in touch…keeping relevant
Mega and hallmark events need to stay connected to their audiences and the extended industry diaspora. They may not be able to ‘perform’ in the conventional way – particularly this year – but they can certainly lessen the void by sharing and connecting in other ways. If they matter, then they will be working now, with empathy, to mitigate the impact of their temporary ‘physical’ absence.
These are some of the things I think we need to do.
And how do we do it?
Leadership & Responsibility
Those events, talents, agencies and organisations that think of themselves as leaders need to…well…lead! In this time of crisis, they need to show the way. They need to prove their indispensability; their relevance; their resilience; the value of their contribution to community and to the cultural and economic landscape; their contribution to growth; and now, their contribution to the recovery process.
We’re going to have to find creative and innovative solutions for the future. If we can keep our egos in check and accept that we might not know the answer to every question – we’re likely to be more open to new conversations and to listening to the ideas of others.
Despite the short-term fix it offers, blind optimism doesn’t really serve our cause. We need to find positive energy within and amongst ourselves for sure, and a belief that we will indeed find a way forward. But we also need to keep our feet on the ground; to get and stay ‘real’. If we are to get on with the recovery task at hand, we might well need to give ourselves a little bit of tough-love along the way by recognising and accepting some harsh realities in order to save us from further disappointment down the line.
Think for yourself
Many are understandably in ‘fight or flight’ mode and that could impair our ability to think clearly. As warm and fuzzy as it sounds, we might all benefit from taking a breath and simply sitting quietly with our thoughts, and to listen. Perhaps, if we can press pause on our compulsive multi-tasking and the incessant ambient ‘noise’, our minds might become less polluted; to clear like some of our city skylines have, to help yield new clarity.
Creativity vs. Curation
It’s always hard to find our own original thoughts and ideas. We are constantly bombarded and challenged to field, curate and appropriate the views and ideas and products of others.
Leaning on what’s already out there in terms of existing opinions, advice, solutions and technologies in order to bridge the gap makes sense in the short-term of course. But long-lasting, meaningful change is likely to require some deep and original thinking.
Think of your team as a dynamic entity. Surround yourself with excellence, not just in terms of people with the obvious industry talents and skillsets, but who are also open-minded, supportive, compassionate, brave, challenging, energised and bright; people with extraordinary mindsets.
And perhaps we need to be more polymathic in our search for solutions – looking for input from outside of our own industry to expand and diversify our knowledge and expertise – to introduce new ways of seeing and solving.
The events industry is awesome. It is adept at delivering excellence under pressure and scrutiny. It is agile. It is skilled. It is progressive. It is dedicated.
Together we can find a new way of being and doing and contributing that could feel even better than anything we’re being forced to leave behind. Perhaps the new normal might not have to feel abnormal.
Spectacular. Iconic. Historic. These are indeed appropriate words by which to describe the best of hallmark and mega events. But perhaps in the ‘new normal’ light of tomorrow it might serve the cause to add a few more words into the mix, words like invaluable, purposeful and transforming.
David Zolkwer is an award-winning corporate and public events Creative Director & Producer.
Major event highlights include the ceremonies for the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Olympic Games; the Manchester 2002, Melbourne 2006, Glasgow 2014 and Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games; the FIFA World Cup and Confederations Cup in South Africa, the Arabian Gulf Cup in Doha and a decade of London’s annual New Year’s Eve Celebrations.