Natasha Russell is a freelance events producer based in Cheltenham. Collaborative, fearless, and super-friendly, her clients include the London Evening Standard Film Awards, Amnesty Media Awards, Nike and Adidas. We worked together on the GCVA Conference in March just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I asked her how it has affected her business and what companies can do to future-proof their events.
What do you do?
I am an events producer, working on corporate events as well as festivals and mass participation. I have been self-employed since 2012 but last year moved to operate as a limited company, as most agencies and clients prefer this. I live and breathe events. For the past 15 years, I’ve worked first-hand at every level of event management and production.
How has your business been affected by COVID-19?
I had two big jobs before the pandemic hit. Initially, it was just extra insurance precautions and additional sanitation measures. Since then, most events have been cancelled. A few have been postponed, and budgets will likely be cut. For those from August onwards, ticket sales have slumped or stopped, despite ongoing marketing in some cases.
So, the reality is that the pandemic has stopped all imminent work, and I suspect this will be ongoing for some time. The last thing we should sensibly be doing is joining thousands of people in a festival environment, for example, where let’s be honest, hygiene levels are much harder to maintain, and any communicable illness is a risk.
Have you had any financial and emotional support?
At the moment, it seems that I am one of many who fall through the cracks as a sole director. Although I am patient to see what might change and get worked out, I have six years of accounts as a sole trader with a reasonable income and would have been properly supported until I changed the status of my business.
I have looked into universal credit and am trying to explore the furlough rules. The irony of the situation is that most events professionals were happy as sole traders and would have been covered, however various schemes such as IR35, have meant more and more ‘freelancers’ have had to form limited companies to continue working.
I have been proactive in contacting my MP and sharing online petitions. I work with Hoxby, a freelance collective and there’s much informal support there, either passively on the vast Slack platform the organisation uses, or actively in individual chats with people in the network, including the founders Alex and Lizzie. They have just launched Remote Work Mates which aims to support people who are new to working remotely. It’s great to have a network of people, who are not emotionally involved with you or your business, to reflect and discuss things. Hoxby values output, not ‘time at your desk’, which helps with mental wellbeing at this time.
Otherwise, I’ve been turning to the event/business groups on Facebook for information and advice from my peers, (as well as many skill-sharing webinars), ultimately there are thousands of us in the same boat, so this is good for industry-specific things. I’m a big fan of Twitter – you need to take things with a pinch of salt sometimes, but if you follow the right people there are some excellent nuggets of advice and information. I have been watching Martin Lewis (along with the whole nation).
How are you adapting your business?
Initially, there were many knee jerk reactions – people quickly taking things online – shares in Zoom are going through the roof. I have played a slower game, learning about the different platforms, and how to create the best experience for speakers, delegates, sponsors, and exhibitors; how to generate networking spaces for 1-2-1’s and how to maximise income without a physical experience. I have spent time attending my online events to see how I get distracted, what holds my attention and how people are subtly able to get their brand out there. I am now confident to support my clients to move forward with their events in this strange time.
I am also looking at my skill set, developing new skills for when the events world re-awakens and looking at other projects that can use my expertise. I do hope that I can keep my business going, and I am lucky to have some loyal clients who will come back to me, even if they don’t go digital. I also hope to be able to continue to support new clients whatever their needs might be. The whole events industry is one that pulls together and works collaboratively so whatever the need of the client, there will be an approach I can deliver.
Can you give an example of how the industry has pulled together?
Skill swap days started; people are sharing knowledge. There is no competition, just a general desire to keep busy and share information. Look at how the most prominent event venues have turned into hospitals. People were amazed at how quickly it happened – that’s events – if you want to build something fast and efficiently, call us in and we will do it, and well. One of the next projects I was due to work on would have been at ExCel London, so we would have turned that same space into a fantastic party venue, unrecognisable from an empty hall and the hospital ward it is today.
What does all this mean for the future of events?
We are already an industry under scrutiny for our sustainability credentials, the travel, the waste – the world of work has changed. Remote working is the new norm. We are now in an era where people are proving they can work just as effectively remotely as in an office, they can even hold down their job and home school their kids!
I think we will see a shift in the industry. I work in the mass participation sports market, and we are seeing massive changes in people’s habits during this time so not only will live events see a boost but also a desire for virtual challenges. There will always be a desire for experiences, and I think social events, festivals and the like will continue to have real meaning and people will have the desire to connect, with friends, family, their favourite band and even their favourite brands. With everyone getting fit during the lockdown, maybe mass participation events like 5k runs will come back with force, bigger and better.
Where I see a long-term change is in corporate events. Businesses will have to be much more open to having a digital offering in the future regardless of whether we get back to ‘normal’. Corporate events are sometimes a bit of a ‘jolly’. If we can effectively deliver the same meaningful content, networking and opportunities for brands to reach their customers online, then will we need to take time away from our families to attend that big conference? Why travel overseas to hear a keynote speaker when realistically you can be in your home office and have a similar experience? We can ask questions, share ideas, run polls, and showcase brands online. We can even go into the side ‘room’ and network with a potential client or collaborator.
Suddenly there are opportunities to attend events that weren’t viable financially or otherwise, as we can participate in our own homes, with no time off work and no travel costs. It’s a world of content ‘on-demand’. In the future, I see virtual or hybrid events becoming mainstream and complementing in-person events. I see them blending, and most brands having a virtual presence. I see opportunities. I see real changes in the vision for and expectations of events.
Photos by Natasha Russell