Commentary

Publishers Shouldn't Write Off Events Business Completely

The Atlanticmagazine's publisher last week surprised me with its plans to cut 17% of its workers, a few weeks after boasting of a surge in subscriptions as homebound readers flocked to websites during pandemic lockdowns. What has been good for subscription revenue has been terrible for its lucrative live events business, which evaporated overnight.
The cuts are understandable amid pandemic uncertainties and fears, but publishers shouldn't write off the events business completely. Instead, the business needs to evolve as a combination of virtual events and smaller, more regional gatherings.
People have shown they are either unwilling or not required to fly, with the average domestic flight now carrying 17 passengers, according to the industry group Airlines for America. Air travel last week reached the highest level since the pandemic began in mid-March, though it's one-tenth of last year's levels.
There is a general sentiment that people won't want to attend live events until there's a vaccine for the coronavirus. There is also a countervailing sentiment: We can't wait for something that may never happen; COVID-19 isn't necessarily a death sentence. People need to make a living, and they can handle risks.
I’m optimistic about the events business, because human nature is such that people want to meet others in person and digital events aren't an adequate substitute. Until human beings are being farmed for battery power while hooked up to a virtual reality network as in "The Matrix," they will seek ways to meet in person.
Looking ahead, there will be several key tests of people's willingness to gather in larger groups as lockdowns are lifted. While many summer concerts and music festivals are canceled, the start of the National Football League's regular season in four and a half months could be a watershed moment.
Right now, I see plenty of events scheduled for the fall, when there typically is a burst of activity after the summer lull. The events business is highly seasonal, with almost no activity during the holidays, followed by a surge from January through May.
In COVID-19 time, that seems like a long way away, but a lot has happened in the past two months of lockdowns and a lot more is about to happen in the next few months as those heavy-handed restrictions end.

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For publishers, it's not too early to plan ahead for the recovery.

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