Managing in a time of uncertainty

Let me start by admitting that I have no magic formulae to share here. But, I’ve been struck in recent weeks as the Great Reset has been rocked by a number of setbacks around the world by just how debilitating uncertainty is to all those trying to run their businesses.

First, those setbacks: financial analysts have told us through much of this year that, if the US and China stayed on track for relaunching fairs, then we’d be okay. It would be a rough year for much of the world, but the giant Chinese and US markets are so important that all eyes were on them, hoping that business would continue to move forward.

We have now seen China put on hold event activity in many major cities as the Delta variant has picked up to levels not seen there for well over a year. August is off and there’s a big question mark over September, possibly October. To keep things in perspective, the numbers there are in the low hundreds against daily incidence levels in the US topping 100,000 cases and the UK and India reporting several 10,000s each day. But, a lot was riding on China showing the way forward, not backward.

The picture in the US is more mixed with some events pressing ahead as planned while others, most notably the New York International Auto Show has been postponed by six months. Loud sighs of “a fourth wave? Surely not!” are clear for all to hear. Everyone is hoping that this time is different and that much higher levels of vaccination mean that we can get back to business more quickly. Meanwhile Israel, the great vaccine success story, is once again contemplating lockdowns.

Interestingly, at the same time, tolerance levels for mandatory vaccination certificates as a requirement for entry seem to be spiking along with the incidence of delta variant cases.

Time and again, as I have been speaking to senior executives over the past few months for Exhibition World, they have talked of how unsettling has been the level of uncertainty among their teams. Of course, normal daily life is full of uncertainties: will company x sign up for a booth? Will the weather spoil a planned outdoor event?  Will the new marketing campaign be as successful as we hope? But, underpinning all these uncertainties is a foundation of things we do know (or we thought we did): when the event is scheduled to take place, where it is expected to happen, what the basic formats will be.

Many have done a remarkable job at adapting on the fly. They have shifted dates. They have shifted formats. They have developed entirely new ways of doing business. But, this has all taken a toll.

Marty Glynn of MAD Event Management posted about his concerns on LinkedIn this week after visiting a show at the newly expanded Javits Center in New York. “One glaring observation was how many of our industry's strongest and brightest seemed like they were quietly struggling,” he worried. He went on “I’m not sure the industry is giving enough emotional support to those who are doing the front line battle day in and day out. It’s easy to watch and be critical of what is not working but are we thankful for the efforts nonetheless?”

In the same post, Glynn also spoke of the impact of this level of strain on recruitment and retention. One leading recruiter recently told me “I never expected at this stage in the recovery that a shortage of candidates would be my biggest problem”. Plenty of companies are looking to build back their teams after the swingeing cuts of 2020. All are reporting that the pool has shrunk as experienced people at many levels have found work in what they believe are more stable industries.

Exhibition World’s own Stephanie Selesnick was clear in her views on this issue. “I think we expect too much from people in our industry and should re-evaluate those expectations and workloads,” she said. She also highlighted the work being done by EventWell providing support to the mental well-being of those in the industry in the UK and North America.

Recent news makes it clear that we are likely to be living with very high levels of uncertainty for quite some time. The road to the Great Reset will not be without its bumps and twists. We can’t expect every manager, every frontline member of the team, to be Superman or Wonder Woman every day.