How to bring people together (when they have to stay apart)

After 6 months of lockdown, and an uncertain 6 ahead, getting a venue the size of Tobacco Dock ready to host events in a COVID world was no mean feat, so, our Director of Venues Louise Goalen chatted to Sian Beechener, Senior Account Manager at the venue to find out how they went about it…

Sian so good to chat to you, obviously this has been a really difficult time but what have been the main challenges you’ve seen both as a venue and personally as an event professional?

We’ve faced a lot you’re right, but now we’re looking at our larger spaces not in terms of how many we can fit in, but in terms of how much space can we safely offer each of our visitors – the challenge has been changing our mindset to how can we help our clients reach their audience in compelling ways while keeping everyone secure.

As an event prof, I miss creating moments and bringing people together. The energy and atmosphere of a bustling conference, or the excitement of seeing attendees interact is something I have missed so much. Those things will return I’m sure but, for now, we’re having to focus more on ways we can keep people apart whilst also bringing them together.

Tobacco Dock is somewhere we’ve held numerous events, it’s one of those incredibly adaptable event spaces with heaps of creative potential, what have you done as a venue to maintain that creativity and adaptability?

Like you say, one of the core characteristics of the Tobacco Dock team is innovation and adaptability. Zoom fatigue emphasised to us how important it is to be able to incorporate a live element into virtual events. I think we’ve all realised how hybrid events are actually something much more than just a compromise until we get back to the ‘real’ business of live events. So, we got to work and created two hybrid studios and launched Live From Tobacco Dock.

The challenge is understanding how to stimulate as much engagement with your online audience as with a completely live experience. Without live interaction it is just a broadcast and you might as well just host a YouTube channel. It’s why working with super-creative communications experts like Top Banana is so important!

Hybrid is something we’ve moved towards so it’s really interesting you’ve mentioned that – it’s definitely the next step in normality – what do you think it’s going to take to really get people back into trusting live events?

You’re right, at the moment the biggest obstacle to a return to events is confidence. From a venue point of view, it’s our responsibility to make ours as safe as possible and that people feel comfortable to be here. We’re fortunate at Tobacco Dock to have the infrastructure to allow for one-way systems, outdoor spaces, and access via quiet routes on public transport. We also have COVID officers to hand rather than having to outsource and we’re really proud to have achieved both the Visit Britain ‘Good to Go’ mark and AIM Secure accreditation as endorsements of our COVID protocols.

Plus we’ve already put our COVID-secure measures through their paces with the opening of our co-working space and rooftop bar, Skylight, which is open to the public. By having this space open, we could see which measures needed to be emphasised, and which needed altering to make being on site both enjoyable and secure.

So for Tobacco Dock, what does the road ahead look like?

There’s no denying the events industry has been hit hard. Things aren’t suddenly going to go back to the way they were, and it really saddens me to say that it is likely to be a while until everyone is comfortable attending events and before organisers have the confidence to host them. For the time being, we anticipate events existing predominantly in hybrid form and perhaps this format is something we’ll see develop and persist beyond these tricky times to increase the reach of events to an audience that does not have the time or budget to attend in person.

We completely understand how difficult it is to make concrete plans at the moment and for the future, which is why we’re constantly brainstorming for new concepts and solutions, so watch this space….

One thing’s for sure – the UK events industry is filled with incredible people and world-leading talent. Adaptability and creativity have always been pillars of the sector and COVID, as tragic as it is for so many, will, at some point, be viewed as another hiatus all the other challenges we have faced over the decades. The need to communicate in a direct, live manner has not diminished and, if anything, is more vital than it has ever been. We’re ready when you are.

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