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September 22, 2020

Let’s put our minds back a year. The date is 26 September 2019 and a record-breaking 11,500 delegates and more than 300 exhibitors have converged on London’s ExCeL centre for Sibos – SWIFT’s premier financial services event. Flash forward to today, and instead of hosting business leaders, decision makers and topic experts from across payments, trade, securities and cash management, the ExCeL centre is home to the Nightingale hospital – a specially constructed facility on standby to support NHS London hospitals dealing with Covid-19. What a difference a year makes.

In 2020, Sibos was readying itself for a return to the shores of the United States, with the city of Boston set to play host to SWIFT’s annual conference for the first time since 2014. But before delegates could begin dreaming of a cold pint of Samuel Adams, a warm bowl of clam chowder or an enthralling game at the historic Fenway Park, the event was cancelled due to the pandemic. But fear not. Like Lazarus, Sibos has been revived – and is set to take place as a digital event for the first time.

Embracing digital

The advent of the virtual conference, though born of necessity, is an important, and perhaps even enduring, trend. Almost every industry has a flagship conference and, like Sibos, many have turned to the virtual world in lieu of a physical event.

The success of these events has, for the most part, been staggering – though not entirely surprising. It makes sense that by opening an event to all (without costly tickets, international travel, hotels and expenses) you are going to see a marked increase and diversity in attendance. Great news for all. So are physical events a thing of the past? I think not.

We have, of course, begun to normalise the idea of our home as an office, our families as work colleagues and Zoom as our transport to anywhere in the world. But banking, like PR, thrives on traditional, face-to-face interactions to build existing relationships and foster new. We may have successfully adapted to the current environment, but that is not to say we must accept it as the “new normal”.

Finding the middle ground

It is an interesting twist in the history of Sibos. Digital transformation and technology have long been prominent features on the event’s agenda. Now, therefore, is the perfect opportunity to stop talking and start doing – putting these much talked about technological developments to the test.

Perhaps though, it does seem inevitable that in a year’s time events will return to their lavish venues with, in the case of Sibos, exhibitors and attendees flocking to Singapore to make up for lost time (and cocktail parties). But a reversion to the norm does not mean the “new norm” has to be completely ignored. If the digital experience meets expectations, what’s to say the industry can’t embrace the best parts of a physical and a digital event?

Talk of hybrid events – a blend of on-the-ground networking and in-person initiatives combined with a dynamic, interactive virtual experience – is certainly on the rise. The financial services industry has to remain reactive to these trends: as at home on a virtual webinar as they are on a stand in the vast exhibition centres of London, Boston and Singapore.

As the financial services industry adapts, we as PRs must be nimble enough to follow suit. If hybrid events do become a feature of the new world order, our strategies must reflect this. One of the fundamental aims of PR at an event is to build media relationships and secure coverage. Right? But what will this look like with some journalists on-the-ground at the event, some at the office and some in their homes?

One consideration is whether the lack of face-to-face meetings could hinder coverage. Then again, if done correctly, could it in fact bolster it? Preparation will be everything, and those looking to stay ahead of the curve would, for example, be wise to consider investing in media training tailored for virtual briefings.

As we all navigate this somewhat familiar and occasionally novel environment, the key is to embrace change and avoid being caught off guard. Whatever happens I, for one, am excited to be part of the journey – though perhaps just from my sofa for the time being.

 

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