The Ninja Future of the Second Stage COVID-19 World

By Gary Shapiro

The coronavirus outbreak created – and continues to cause – economic disruption and cancellation of many events. As events slowly return, they will be different. Organizers and participants willing to innovate can emerge from this downturn stronger than before. 

“Innovate or die!” That’s the simple but powerful mantra I use to present the philosophy behind ninja innovation. Ninja innovators work with – rather than against – disruptive industry trends to build stronger, more resilient and more efficient businesses. On an organizational level, it’s often easier to stick to business as usual than it is to take the risks that spark innovative change. But the coronavirus is a powerful enemy of business as usual. Now as we return to live events, we must innovate to survive.

Change is hard, especially so during uncertainty. But successful ninja innovators aren’t the ones who know the most and make the safest plays. Rather, ninja innovators are the ones who adapt the best to the unknown. If business leaders adopt a ninja mindset and lean into the disruption and uncertainty brought by this pandemic, they have an opportunity to break free of the past and build future-forward businesses like never before. But what sort of future can ninja innovators expect? 

We have to start with the assumption that we will live in a lengthy transition period before a vaccine is fully available or herd immunity can be reached. Either or both of these occurrences can take years, and neither is a certainty. Before the “new normal” of a post-pandemic world we have to deal with and survive a lengthy transition.  

We must adopt social distancing and other pandemic protocols, and confront real tradeoffs between privacy and security, just as the flying public did after 9/11. If you ignore the extremists on both sides, we may see a more nuanced view on use of private information to increase public safety as the pandemic continues. Indeed, participating in public events may be like driving a car where you must accept certain conditions to be a participant in what is clearly a situation with some risks to others.

Many of us love and thrive on events. Even the best technology cannot replace their face-to-face human contact, serendipity, exchange of ideas and five sense experiences. They fuel a better society, drive innovation, create business and fuel the economy. Governments around the world are recognizing that they are an economic priority and not optional entertainment.  

But to my fellow event ninjas, we have to be realistic and recognize that with the introduction of COVID-19 all public gatherings present health risks. Our job is to recognize and mitigate these risks as much as practicable.

In his recent CEIR article on “The Exhibition Industry’s New Normal,” industry veteran and former CEIR head Doug Ducate advises us to look to professional sports, Disney and large tourist cities including Las Vegas as we contemplate the future of large gatherings. The decisions and innovations these “giants” make in the coming months can serve as guides for other organizers and event planners. Sharing ideas about elements such as floor plan design, crowd dispersion and food services will be key to hosting safe exhibitions. We need an ongoing dialogue about safe and best practices.

Once we get past today’s cancellations and delays, we must move forward. As we plan for CES® 2021, we will continue to expand the show’s digital reach, with more livestreamed content and opportunities to participate virtually. For those coming on-site to Las Vegas, we are committed to honest communication beforehand and sharing information about what to expect.

On-site we are making physical changes. We must screen as best we can for those that are sick, have fevers or present health and safety risks. We are looking at thermal scanning at key entry points and reducing touch points at registration. We are widening aisles. We will suggest protocols to exhibitors. We are trying to minimize the touching of doors and keep handrails clean. We are studying best practices and working with the facilities and asking about air circulation, density control and looking at best practices as they emerge from China, Europe and prior shows in the U.S. We also plan to highlight technologies that help provide solutions for some of the day-to-day challenges created by the pandemic. 

As organizers, we must empathize with our exhibitors, sponsors and attendees. They want to get back to business as usual and want to see their colleagues and get more business. But they want to minimize their financial risk and ensure their employees are in the safest environment possible. They may give their employees leeway in participating and younger employees may soon dominate our events. 

We all need to give a little to get through this phase. For CES 2021, we extended the date for full refund cancellations, allowed downgrades at no charge and eased the payment timetables. This cost us but we understand our customers need for flexibility and the difficult economy we face. We are hopeful hotels and other venues will recognize that during this transition period events are precarious and will give cancellation flexibility to companies trying to make decisions. If we all show some flexibility then we all have a better chance of events coming off successfully. 

No one can say what the future holds. But as ninja innovators, we must adapt to overcome uncertainty. Only then can we emerge from this crisis more strategically positioned – and more resilient – than before.  

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2000 consumer technology companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. He is the author of Ninja Future: Secrets to Success in the New World of Innovation. His views are his own.

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