What will happen to the property industry – and its conference spaces – without conferences?

By Tali Robinson, Partner, Property

Like most people who work in the property industry, or have anything to do with it, I remember vividly the days and weeks leading up to (what would have been) MIPIM 2020. As gripping as any Netflix series, the drama unfolded apace: the first big agent to pull out, others quickly following suit and saying they too felt it would be risky and irresponsible, the gossip and the speculation and thousands of internal meetings and hand-wringing as property firms across the globe waited with baited breath. The postponement and then the inevitable cancellation by the organisers, with promises of events to come in its place: “We are rescheduling for Paris in September”; “We will be back in Cannes in March 2021”.

The industry clung collectively to the notion that this was simply a postponement, not a cancellation, and that normal service would resume soon. ‘Normal service’ for the property sector being marketing and business development plans that centred around key annual conferences like MIPIM, RESI and EXPO, not to mention countless awards ceremonies, networking events, panel discussions and development launches. From investors to developers to advisors, and everyone in between, winning business, doing deals and making new contacts and connections in a world without these events was unfathomable.

And yet here we are, six months after we were supposed to be rushing to events along the Croisette, with the prospect of future events for the property sector of the magnitude of MIPIM (or even anything far smaller) looking increasingly impossible.

Propel by MIPIM (MIPIM’s proptech event) and MIPIM Urban Forum are taking place next week as part of Paris Real Estate Week. With quarantine restrictions in place for the UK and many other countries, it’s hard to imagine any kind of truly international audience – much less to fathom how networking and awards ceremonies and large panel discussions will take place under new social distancing regimes.

But the industry is desperate to get back to what it does best: building relationships. Six months of online meetings and events have led most of my clients and industry contacts to the same conclusion: online relationship-building is certainly possible, and it might be here to stay, but it has its limits. Of course, many networks have flourished and grown exponentially into thriving versions online (or on LinkedIn and WhatsApp) during the pandemic, but as one of my clients lamented recently, “deals are only really done when you’ve been able to look people in the eye”. The decision over whether to book for MIPIM 2021, currently scheduled for March, is soon going to be a minefield once again.

Just as desperate are the event venues and conference organisers, many of whom have already run the full gamut of furloughing staff, trying to reinvent themselves, making redundancies – and are now seriously at risk. Visit Britain forecast that the UK events industry would lose up to £58 billion in 2020. Many event organisers and venues acted quickly and were fortunate enough to create successful virtual models or diversify almost overnight, but there is a limit to the amount attendees are willing to pay for virtual events, and organisers won’t be able to gain their usual additional revenue through food and beverage. As Zoom Fatigue truly sets in, much of the initial appetite for online events appears to be waning. Not to mention the financial and logistical pain for organisers of putting socially distanced events together in the future: from insurance costs to mobile-ordering, hygiene scores and temperature checks.

Another big question is what will happen to big event and conference spaces if mass events are off the table long term. It’s not easy or straightforward to repurpose a purpose-built event space or to reinvent grand ballrooms designed for awards ceremonies. Even the most infamous repurposing success stories – for example ExCel London which was famously turned into the Nightingale Hospital in under a fortnight – have been short-lived. ExCel is due to reopen as a conference centre in October.

If the conference industry does find itself needing to repurpose much of its (often vast and very specific) real estate, there are some obvious candidates in mind. Demand for logistics space has surged this year with the meteoric rise of e-commerce brought on by lockdown, and has led to the likes of Blackstone, the world’s largest private property owner, describing logistics as its ‘highest conviction’ sector. The healthcare sector is another which has seen demand for a specific type of real estate grow rapidly, from vaccine development facilities to care facilities.

The property industry, for one, is holding its breath and hoping that the need to reimagine event spaces doesn’t become a reality – and we are just one of many sectors. The healthcare sector itself needs conferences and mass gathering of medical minds to develop cures and vaccines for illness like the one that is (somewhat ironically) tearing this industry apart. Let’s hope we can keep this vital element for so many sectors afloat in the short-term, so it can return to giving us the platform we so desperately need – from doing business to saving lives – in the future.