A few weeks ago, Facebook announced they’re canceling any large physical events with 50 or more people through June 2021. (Some they’ll hold as virtual events.) Microsoft announced something similar. Many organizations are allowing no business travel through at least June of this year.

It looks like many organizations are going to be “virtual only” for at least another year.

And if businesses are being cautious, consumer gatherings are likely to be limited as well. What does that mean for sports, concerts, museums, theaters, theme parks and cruise ships? Industries most hard hit by the ban on large live gatherings include education, conferences, entertainment (sports, theater, concerts, amusement parks, museums, zoos) and travel.

We’re seeing examples of how they are responding in the immediate and short term. First, organizations canceled and closed everything. Some, not all, gave refunds. Refunds are tricky–you can go with the contract terms, but in nearly all cases, neither the organization nor the customer ever thought about this particular situation when signing the agreement. So then you’re left with ethics as a tool for making decisions, and different organizations

After immediate cancellations were handled, organizations thought about whether to cancel for the long term. Musician Ben Folds said “just leaving shows on the books, going with wait-and-see until the last minute, is not in the best interest of ticket buyers, promoters, crew and even businesses near venues. It just adds to our endless list of uncertainties. what is needed in a time of such uncertainty, when a historic pandemic is killing people, erasing jobs and disrupting life as we know it, is to shed as much of that uncertainty as possible and to take stock of that which is certain.”

Organizations made a range of decisions about what was “fair” and who should bear the burden of the cancellations, postponements and forced pauses due to government rules. We have seen a range of behaviors, from “letter of the law” to hugely generous, to sneaky and opportunistic.

I’m thinking about live events so much because for many of my clients they are a core piece of how they deliver on their forever promise with the people they serve.

Industry conferences are a way to deliver on the promise of professional growth, inspiration and networking. Theme parks deliver on family fun, celebration, and play. And universities have a forever promise that goes way beyond coursework, to include exposure to new ideas, inspiration, formation of deep relationships and access to a powerful network.

Every industry that has large gatherings is racing to figure out how to incorporate testing, tracing and isolation into their offerings. They want to test participants before granting access. They want to trace the movement of anyone later found to have the virus so they can warn anyone who might have been affected. And, especially in the case of any organization dealing with housing of large numbers of people (hotels, universities, cruise ships) they want to be able to isolate anyone who tests positive, immediately.

No one is able to test/trace/isolate effectively yet. The technology isn’t here, and there are ethical concerns as well. Will people be willing to give up their privacy for freedom to gather? What will governments permit? What rules will organizations need to obey to be allowed to access and store this type of data? These questions remain to be answered.

In the meantime, organizations are going to need to take a step back and think about WHY they hold live events and have major gatherings in the first place, and whether they can develop new ways to package that same value.

We’re seeing tremendous innovation in the packaging of value. Organizations are experimenting with live streaming, recordings, an increase in email communication and even requests for donations to subsidize these businesses while the “new normal” is determined. Universities are making leaps forward with their distance learning techniques. I’ve seen several terrific “virtual keynote” demos by my colleagues at the National Speakers Association. One of my favorites is Drew Davis–I included his video, just to give a sense of the creativity and innovation happening in the presentation space.

I’m also enjoying the content aimed to maintain and even deepen relationships with members at theme parks, family entertainment centers and museums.

Universities are looking into a more spread out fall semester, with fewer students on campus, and isolation units for students in quarantine, something they weren’t ready for this spring when the first campus cases of Covid were reported. The higher ed sector employs 3M people and pumped $600B spending into GDP last year, so there’s a lot riding on universities being open for business in the fall, and students (and faculty) showing up.

Maybe we’ll see museums offering access to distributed assets? A few years ago, my family was staying at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, and went to see their Faberge exhibit. It was $25/person to see fewer than 100 objects, a very different experience than at the huge museums in NY or DC. I could imagine more traveling shows like this, with a focused show, actually being enjoyed by a wider audience. Also, attractions of all kinds are rapidly improving their digital capabilities to share their content remotely, which could have an additional impact of reaching new audiences.

These limitations on large gatherings are likely to last for a while.

This means organizations are going to need to find new ways to provide connection, entertainment, and education and the other things these events usually provide.

It means we have to innovate.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

I’d love to hear what you’re doing as well (Virtual Reality anyone?)

1. Take a step back. Ask yourself “what is the forever promise we make to our fans (customers, members, subscribers…). I’m sure it’s bigger than just “live events” and probably is about being part of something bigger than one’s self, being entertained, enjoying music with other fans in community, feeling like an insider etc.

2. Look at what new ways you can use right now to package that value, since packaging it as a huge live gathering is not currently an option. Could be insider tours, intimate livestream events, intimate conversations, high quality video recordings etc. Something I have done with clients is prerecorded a speech, which they show, and then I participate in the last 15 minutes for the Q&A, either live or via chat. That allows me to be much more leveraged, because the video can be shown multiple times but the “live bit” is more condensed

3. Share ideas beyond your industry. I’m sure all the entertainers are talking to other entertainers, and museum directors are talking to other museum directors. But there’s potential in thinking more broadly. I’d love to see a major initiative across all industries that regularly organize large gatherings of people in confined spaces. My work in the Membership Economy has taught me that some of the best inspiration comes from NOT the usual suspects.

4. This is a time for building lists, especially if it takes awhile to find new ways of packaging value that your customers will pay for. Even if you’re giving away content for free, having lists of people who value what you create will help you with tomorrow’s business model.

Remember, people (representing their organizations and acting on their own behalf) are much more receptive to new ways of interacting with their favorite brands right now (i.e. your current fans might be open to digital channels in ways they weren’t before) and also, consumers generally are looking for new solutions to solve their problem (in other words, people who weren’t fans before might become fans b/c you have a better way of providing that forever promise (connection, entertainment, insider status) than other options.

Innovation is happening all around us. Some businesses are still reeling, but the more ambitious are starting to plan for the medium term. They are identifying ways to maintain and deepen the value that they provide to members, even as they work to attract tomorrow’s members. It may be awhile before we see huge gatherings, but the savvy organizations are finding new ways to provide the inspiration, connection and education that don’t risk the health of members.