How the congress market evolved post-Covid

In a changing world, the congress market will never be the same again. Reece Webb discovers how the sector has adapted to meet the evolving needs of customers in the post-Covid era.

The world of congress has experienced profound changes since 2020. Faced with the challenge of rapidly adapting to the barriers posed by Covid-19 and, more recently, by the effects of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In 2020, parliaments around the world turned to virtual and hybrid systems to continue to function while restrictions were still in place. At the height of the pandemic, the UK parliament held its first virtual parliament session that allowed members of parliament to pose questions via video link.

 Similarly, the European Parliament turned to videoconferencing which allowed members to attend committee meetings remotely through a link provided by the parliament itself for added security.

"Covid forced congress organisers to be more flexible in their setups than ever before." - Christoph Neumeyer, Shure

Today, the European Parliament and European Commission continue to use these systems as another tool in the toolbox. Others, such as the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, turned to Microsoft Teams for internal staff meetings and Kudo language interpretation for formal meetings of its member parliaments.

“Due to the restrictions on large gatherings and travel, many conferences and events were either postponed, cancelled or transitioned to virtual or hybrid formats,” said Haitao Chen, vice president, Taiden. “This has led to a significant increase of the use of technology in the conference market. Event organisers had to quickly adapt to virtual and hybrid formats, which required more capable technology products on the conference market. Solutions need to adapt to the hybrid application of offline and online systems, and there is a need for a digital platform that supports hybrid meetings that are easy to use.”

While an almost entirely virtual setup worked well to allow parliamentary business to continue during a time of restricted movement, what is the state of play in the market today? Were hybrid proceedings merely a means to an end at a time of great disruption, or have they become an invaluable alternative that congress users cannot do without?

Fardad Zabetian, CEO, Kudo, says having a balance is key: “People are longing for face-to-face interactions but are now used to the benefits guaranteed by virtual events – not to mention the expanded reach that remote and hybrid setting have guaranteed to congress organisers. Hybrid events have become more prevalent, and organisers will need to strike a balance between the two formats and explore new ways to engage audiences and deliver value to their sponsors and exhibitors.”

One such example of this continued longevity is the ongoing war in Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelensky broadcasted video addresses to parliaments around the world as his country was under siege. In exceptional circumstances, the existence of these systems within existing congress structures allowed the president to get his message out directly to world leaders and decision makers.

Peter-Jan Van Damme, customer service manager, Televic, says: “We saw that, during Covid, 80% of conference participants were online, and today that has been reversed with 80% of participants in room. Congress users still need setups for hybrid meetings, even if it’s for one or two external participants. Customers were already looking into [hybrid setups] before Covid hit and everybody needed a solution just to make meetings happen.

“Today, people are revaluating that: ‘Do we have the best audio quality? Is this the right system? Can we improve the workflow?’, this phase is ongoing with customers to do better.”

Creativity has been the name of the game, and this is certainly true on the audio side: some congress users have adapted their audio systems to meet new requirements they were not initially designed for. With supply chain issues and global lockdowns, these temporary solutions found themselves becoming permanent down the line.

Christoph Neumeyer, sales director, integrated systems, Shure, adds: “Covid forced congress organisers to be more flexible in their setups than ever before: they had to adjust rooms that weren’t originally built for congresses and use equipment that had other applications traditionally. During the pandemic, some clients used our Microflex ceiling array microphones - normally used in conferencing, for broadcast recording.

Additionally, Microflex complete wireless systems were applied for supporting press conferences or board meeting rooms, where participants needed to remain socially distanced.

“What we have seen is that some of these new applications remain after the pandemic and are being fully adopted by congress organisers. In particular for those events that follow hybrid formats where participants join both remote and in person.”

Lock and key

Security in the congress market has always firmly been in the spotlight, however pre-Covid security for AV systems found itself at a disadvantage when the sudden shift to hybrid working occurred. Many organisations have kept hybrid workflows as a cornerstone of daily business, and thus, the security needs and the potential for critical data breaches is at an all-time high.

Jurgen Van Muylder, sales & marketing director EMEA, Televic, explains: “When you look at pre-Covid, security was extremely important, but [congress setups] were closed systems run into a room with very few connections to the outside world. Today, we have closed systems that have opened up as the transition towards hybrid working continues. This means that you need to put different elements in place in order to make a system secure.

“We worked on creating our own platform that could facilitate these kinds of high security meetings where they can only be accessed by the right credentials, with encryption. These security requirements have evolved rapidly and it’s becoming more important in every discussion that is had today with IT teams within an organisation. This is one of the first things that comes up, and you have to have the right answers to that.”

Bosch, is one of many companies having to adapt to evolving needs, as Murat Keskinkilinc, strategic program conference, Bosch Security Systems, explains: “There is always a high demand for tamper-free, highly secure meetings, no matter how big or small the meeting – from small to complex integrated meeting set-ups as well as local, to national governments and international summits. Some of the requirements remain the same, some needs have significantly increased. Bosch still relies on infrared technology with its Integrus system.

“We are often asked whether infrared technology is still the best performing and most reliable technology for language distribution and we can clearly confirm that. The infrared audio signals are distributed in superior audio quality with a studio-like signal-to-noise ratio of 80 dB and privacy and confidentiality are always guaranteed, as infrared signals cannot pass through walls and ceilings.

“The Dicentis conference system from Bosch is based on IP technology, and uses the highest encryption standards the industry offers. Internationally recognised encryption and open standard security technology assures the best protection against eavesdropping, unauthorised access and data tampering. AV Media serves as a good example as they were in charge of delivering the Bosch conferencing equipment for the 212 events that took place across the Czech Republic during the Czech EU presidency in 2022.

“The EU issues strict guidelines for the equipment used at every meeting it hosts to ensure the same experience is delivered every time. Bosch conferencing equipment is built to meet the strict ISO standards required by the EU, making Dicentis and Integrus a common choice for these kinds of events. Factors such as structured meetings with live simultaneous interpretation and together with seamless integration with PTZ cameras in use were imperative.”

Intelligent solutions  

Looking to the future, what changes are emerging on the horizon for the congress market? Artificial intelligence (AI) is evolving rapidly and is already making headway into other sectors of the pro AV market.

"People are longing for face-to-face interactions but are now used to the benefits guaranteed by virtual events." - Fardad Zabetin, Kudo

“The development of AI is having a significant impact on the congress market, providing new opportunities for innovation and efficiency,” says Zabetian, “One aspect of this transformation is the operational one: AI is being used to improve event logistics, tailor marketing strategies, and analyse attendee behavior. But AI can do much more and is revolutionising the field of language translation, making events more inclusive and accessible.

“Our newest offering, Kudo AI, is an AI-powered speech-tospeech translator. For people attending a congress, it means you can plug a pair of headphones into your smartphone and experience the content live in your preferred language, without relying on subtitles alone. We have created a process to render the flow and intonation of sentences in the most natural way possible for the listener.”

While the heyday for AI is undoubtedly on the horizon, Van Damme believes that there is still work to be done before the technology is commonplace: “I see a lot of advertising of AI for the congress market, but I don’t see it in conference installations. People are looking at it and experimenting with it, but it’s not being used in official meetings yet. If you look at the political world, especially large institutions, they are not relying on AI for interpretation, it’s not there yet. These types of meetings are too critical, and the nuances are so important. AI will come in, it’s just a matter of time, but it will likely be in phases.

“There will always be a need to hear and be heard, so audio quality will continue to be crucial. There will always be people speaking different languages and artificial intelligence will play a role in that. The most important change is the evolution of the congress ecosystem as it becomes part of an overall flow within an organisation where there is an integration of administrative software solutions as well as integration of streaming to make meetings available for the public, as well as providing meta data from microphones to other software applications to retrieve information.”

Chen closes: “The development of AI is having a significant impact on the conference market, as it is with many other industries. AI has the potential to revolutionise conferencing services by providing instant assistance and information to attendees. Taiden has incorporated AI voice recognition and automatic audio processing in its conference products. For example, its intelligent conference minutes system that can realise role separation with a recognition accuracy of 98% and an extremely low latency, and ceiling microphone systems that use AI automatic audio processing technology. In the future, Taiden will continue to increasingly invest in the development of AI-based conferencing technology.”

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