Event Horizon is a series of blogs by EWs Stuart Wood. In this latest edition, he ponders the demise of Thomas Cook, the enduring appeal of face-to-face events, and the future of retail.
Earlier this week, travel company Thomas Cook entered compulsory liquidation after 178 years of trading.
Initial investigations into the company's collapse have suggested a few possible causes, including poor management and large debts. But the diagnosis of UK travel secretary Grant Shapps, who explained in Parliament why Thomas Cook were refused a £250m bailout, seems most likely.
He said the company had fundamentally failed to adapt to the internet and the digital age, investing in more physical shops when the rest of the market was moving in the complete opposite direction. The hard truth is that people simply don't book holidays on the high street any more, and Thomas Cook was left behind.
It's hardly a new occurrence. We've seen the stories about Sports Direct, John Lewis and many others who are losing the retail war to Amazon. The way people shop has fundamentally changed in the last 20 years, and Thomas Cook are just the latest in a string of casualties.
Rewind a few weeks. I'm sitting in The Athenee Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. Kai Hattendorf, CEO of UFI (the global association for the exhibition industry) is speaking about the enduring appeal of events, even as the world has changed around them.
"People used to think events would die a thousand slow deaths to digital," he says. "In 2019, this has proven not to be the case at all. In an increasingly digital world, people need face to face connections more than ever. This is the reason for exhibitions continued success, while many other industries suffer heavy losses."
A glimpse at the future of retail
Hattendorf's words got me thinking - are events one of the most future-proof industries on the planet? No new technology could render obsolete the need for humans to make physical connections, to socialise and learn and do business with one another.
The Yellow Pages, CDs, dial-up modems (if you never used one, you’re too young). All these things have been rendered obsolete, but humans have been gathering for events since the first cavemen held competitions to see who had the biggest stick. The only difference is that now they have about ten different apps to geo-locate their fellow stick enthusiasts.
Retailers who are ahead of the curve have been begun to clock on to the power of events, too. I recently dropped in on Samsung KX, a concept store in London’s Kings Cross, which launched on the week of the London Design Festival.
It felt like a glimpse at the future of retail: the focus has moved away from shifting physical units (which can be done online) and instead onto creating brand awareness. The space combines a café, a stage for live events and various art pieces with Samsung products, offered in a relaxed environment. The idea is that people walk around, buy a coffee, watch a show, try on some new headphones – and then when the time comes for them to buy a new £3000 television, they might just think of Samsung first.
It’s a model that works better for some corners of retail than others, granted. Toilet brushes and groceries don’t lend themselves quite so well to a ‘brand experience’, but the only real limit is your imagination. It certainly isn’t hard to imagine a parallel universe where Thomas Cook turned its physical stores into virtual reality showcases of weekends in Ibiza, and did all the actual selling online.
In the words of Richard Branson: “We must understand risk. We cannot fear failure.”