I’ve always known that I’ve led a lucky life. Some people say that you ‘make your own luck’, and that’s true – to a degree. Certainly, your outlook on life does affect your outcomes, but when you’ve been born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you should at the very least be humble enough to acknowledge it. And, at the same time, I’ve often wondered about how resilient I would really be in a time of crisis. It’s all very well saying you’re strong when things are going well, but what about when things are not?
Even as I sit down to write this piece, I’m aware that many colleagues and friends across the industry have lost jobs, income, a sense of purpose, a sense of safety, or more. Like I said, I know that I – we – are among the lucky ones.
This year certainly started off great. Both IMEX in Frankfurt and IMEX America were each on course to be the largest to date. Our biggest issue for Frankfurt was how to fit every exhibitor in; we’d had a waiting list since the beginning of the year! IMEX America was also due for a record-breaking 10th Anniversary. Coming into mid-February, we were busy with all the usual things: registering hosted buyers, finalizing plans for a new Hall 9 concept, preparing to welcome new staff into the team, talking about when the Asian buyers would be able to start registering.
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The Journey to Cancellation
It started as a trickle at first. A realization that life may not turn out exactly as we’d planned. Mobile World Congress (MWC) cancelled. What? Where did that come from? MWC cancelling because of a virus in Asia? And then ITB and the London Book Show and… well, you know the rest.
At the beginning of March, buyers were still registering in good numbers. Actually, visitor figures were tracking up and hosted buyers (apart from Asia) were on course. Exhibitors were still sending in contracts for everything from stand space to advertising. We looked towards mid-May, still 10 weeks away, and remained hopeful that this would "blow over" by then.
We decided to send a message to the industry to tell everyone that we were holding firm and that we’d look after them if anything happened ‘outside of our control’. Our biggest desire was to be a beacon of hope for the industry. What kind of leadership would it show if we cancelled? No – we would lead from the front and by example. Our show would go on.
By sending out that message, we thought we could buy everyone a bit of time. “Let’s see how things progress in March,” I found myself explaining to staff.
And so we hit the phones. We spoke to our supply chain, hotels, and stand builders. When would they start building? When do costs become unrecoverable for our exhibitors? We looked at buyer registrations flat-line and heard everyone from hotels to tourist boards to corporations bring up their staff travel bans. The dominos were starting to fall…
Just one week later, we had the gut-wrenching realization that we had no choice but to cancel the Frankfurt show. We could not guarantee the attendance of buyers at the show, nor could we – in good conscience – ask our exhibitors to expend money they might have no hope of getting back when we could plainly see it was highly likely the show would be cancelled by the government.
We felt we had to lead by example. When our team was asking me whether to press the button on the production of signage and lanyards, or pay the bill for our staff flights to Frankfurt, and I couldn’t jump to say ‘yes’, I knew instantly I couldn’t ask our exhibitors to do the same. That’s not who we are and not how IMEX operates. And equally important, it was the right thing to do to minimize the risk to everyone’s health and safety.
What It Feels Like to Cancel
Heart-breaking is truly the only word that does justice to the emotions the IMEX team felt that week. Even sitting writing this a month later feels emotional. That in itself was a revelation for me.
My team will tell you that I’m not very emotional. I didn’t cry when I got married – I was just really happy. I didn’t cry when my kids were born – I was just really exhausted. But, stress and emotions ran high in these weeks. Running was a salve to the soul and allowed me to let my emotions out, but even then I couldn’t always keep them from the team. But, that’s ok, right? Our team are close, supportive, and strong, and I don’t mind them knowing exactly how I’m feeling and why. We were all in the same boat.
We have a team of 60 people who are totally dedicated to IMEX in Frankfurt and IMEX America, and the business events industry as a whole. It’s all we do. Around a third of the team have been with the business since the first few years of IMEX in Frankfurt (2001 – 2005) and have given their whole selves – emotionally, physically, and professionally — to the growth and development of the business. Not just our directors, but secretaries, execs and managers across all departments.
Now, it was about leading the team through what, in our world, was the worst possible outcome.
Crisis Management Plans in Action
Over the years, we’ve dealt with lots of crises. Well – we considered them crises at the time. In hindsight, not so much. But, they were good practice runs for this. They helped us to develop a crisis communications plan, including team protocols, roles, and responsibilities.
As soon as we started to think the unthinkable, we put that plan into action. This included first weekly, then daily, then twice daily meetings with the leadership team. Everything was documented and RAID logs (risks, assumptions, issues, dependencies) were set up to help us keep track of all the decisions and actions we needed to take. Within a week, we’d worked 150 items down to 11.
We involved the wider team in every aspect of our communication to the industry. Each person had a role to play, and we made sure that they understood what it was. Once we’d drafted our wider industry communication, we created a crib sheet for the team and a set of Q&As.
We created a timeline for how we’d communicate, which included a couple hours of ‘quiet time’ for our team before we informed the industry. Phones went off. Email ‘out of office’ notices went out. We needed to give ourselves permission to pause. We wanted everyone to be able to process the information, ask their questions, and get comfortable before the questions started pouring in from our clients and partners. We asked them to think about the key contacts they would like to tell personally and prepare those lists and messages.
As a team, we laughed and we cried together. Overall, though, we were proud of how we handled the situation. Our team knew from the outset that we were making decisions based on minimising costs and pain for our exhibitors and our supply chain. They knew we were committed to refunding every cent to our exhibitors and working with our suppliers to find reasonable and mutually agreeable options for payments. We weren’t going to be abandoning anyone – least of all our staff, suppliers, contractors and freelancers. It was this, I think, that gave us an amazing team spirit.
Our team told me, in the middle of this storm, that they had never been prouder to work for IMEX. That, without a doubt, felt like the best gift of all.
And then, the day after our cancellation I had to announce to the team that we needed to start preparing to work from home. It felt like a body-blow when you’re already down. This amazing team spirit had built up and it felt like we were about to break it. And so the leadership lessons kept coming!
But, as always, the team rose to the challenge. Our roll-out of Office365, which was already underway but was supposed to take another three months, was completed in just three days. We celebrated the fact that we’d just introduced soft-phones and laptops for all, and, as of today, we are all pretty successfully working remotely.
Again, I look at how lucky I am and how lucky we are as a team. Before this current crisis, we’d spent the last two years developing our leadership team through training and personality profiling exercises. This helped us to better understand each others strengths and weaknesses, helped us to work more effectively as a team, and crucially, allowed us to communicate honestly and transparently. We’d never been stronger as a top team.
We’d even spent the last 4 to 5 months working on five-year strategic plans and priorities. We know what’s important to us in the long run and what our vision is. The timing of all these decisions and steps has meant we’re more robust, more resilient, more understanding of each other, and more able to adapt than ever.
For the wider team, we’d started an engagement program 18 months ago. Our overall team engagement is 85%, with company confidence, enablement, and culture all getting scores of over 90% in our last survey (January). Our many amazing engagement activities were converted to our new ‘remote’ circumstances. Activities like remote happy hours (last week’s theme was ‘Pets on Parade’), Spread some Sunshine (letterbox flowers), and Spin the Wheel (team members recognize each other and win prizes) keep morale high. Virtual town halls and Q&A sessions keep our staff engaged and informed.
It feels prescient in some ways that all of this was already in place. I guess, the biggest lesson is that we didn’t take the good times for granted. ‘We made hay whilst the sun shone’, as the saying goes. We didn’t know the good times would end quite so abruptly, but we always had our eye on the future. We’ve always strived to be ‘best in class’ for everything from team spirit to IMEX show innovation, and that’s what’s getting us through right now.
So, what are we working on?
As always, our team is busy working on IMEX America, and we’re still hoping it will be a great coming together for the industry and an amazing 10th anniversary celebration. And, of course, we’re working on a fabulous new online experience. That in itself is a whole different article!
Suffice it to say that it has been a massive learning curve so far, but it has been incredible to see our team pivot so fast and bring all their creative efforts to this fantastic new project.
Carina Bauer is the CEO of IMEX Group.