Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of the global Professional Convention Management Association, speaks to the Long Beach City Council. Photo courtesy of the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.

It’s no secret that conventions are big business in Long Beach. Hotels, restaurants and local shops all benefit from the influx of tourists that conventions bring to the city; the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that overnight visitors bring in $300 million annually.

COVID-19, of course, brought the convention industry to a halt. But it seemed to me the Long Beach CVB was quick to pivot, offering virtual—and later, hybrid—events in lieu of the traditional face-to-face meetings.

I’ve been curious about putting the CVB’s response to the pandemic in context. So when Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of the global Professional Convention Management Association, stopped by Long Beach late last year, I took the opportunity to sit down with him and get his perspective on how COVID-19 has changed the convention business overall and how Long Beach is seen in the industry.

This interview has been edited for space considerations.

HAYLEY MUNGUIA: This is obviously an interesting time in a lot of industries, but events specifically. So can you speak about what types of pivots have had to happen during COVID and if you have a sense of what things will look like moving forward?

SHERRIF KARAMAT: To say our industry was upended is an understatement.

What we were focused on was one channel, and that channel was face-to-face, and we were not focused on any other channel. So if you want to use the “P word,” pivot, the reality is that we had to do things digitally. But why shouldn’t we do things digitally? We’re living in 2021. There’s no reason why we can’t communicate in different modes.

So let’s think back about the sporting industry. It used to be, in the sporting industry, for home games, there would be a blackout on television. They would black them out because they were trying to force you to go to the game. Well, it was having the reverse impact because people weren’t actually seeing the excitement and the pandemonium and all the stuff from the tailgate parties—they weren’t seeing it, and it wasn’t conjuring up the emotions. Instead, what used to happen is that attendance started to drift, and then they realized, “Oh, we’ve got this all backwards. We need to open this up, let people see what’s happening in the stadium and get them excited.”

We need to do that in our business. We need to stop being afraid of digital, and we need to use digital as a platform to drive face-to-face, because they will see what’s going on at these events and what good comes out of these events and that they want to be part of it. So embracing a different thinking and a different logic—we’ve got to realize, delivering an event, we’ve got to deliver it based on human beings and human business. We’ve got to base it on their needs, not on what we want to deliver.

HM: And I know that Long Beach specifically made a pivot to doing virtual and hybrid events, so I also wanted to get your sense of how common that’s becoming, and where Long Beach stands in the bigger picture of making that transition?

SK: There are a couple of things happening: Long Beach was certainly one of the pioneers. They led some of the thinking. They were trailblazers, I would say. What is good about Long Beach is that they are adaptable. They realized that there was going to be a massive shift towards digital, but there was going to be a leveling off as the pandemic is receding and becoming a little bit more endemic, if you will, so there’s a face-to-face reality that’s coming back on board. But what Long Beach has done is position itself towards what we talked about, the sporting analogy, making the options here where you can participate both physically and digitally, or what we call “phygitally,” so that will allow for greater interest in Long Beach as it shows off its assets. So I see that’s how they have positioned themselves, where they are very adaptive to what is going to bring greatest value to the customer, and that’s No. 1.

No. 2, I think what Long Beach has done, which is really different as a city, is understand that performance is not best in four square walls. If you’ve ever gone over to [the Long Beach Convention Center], it’s an inspiration in itself, right? It’s eclectic. It’s interesting. It’s about humans. It’s not about, “Let’s put four square walls and put some desks in and have somebody stand in front of you and talk to you.” It’s anything but. And what it does—it induces a feeling of immersiveness, roll up your sleeves, come together, solving issues. When I go there, I’m inspired.

HM: So do you think the Long Beach model will become more of a standard moving forward?

SK: I think that what the Long Beach model says to me is that it’s never going to be a standard. It’s going to always evolve, because what Long Beach has done—they listened to their customers and evolved, and I think that’s what they continue to do. I think they’re going to stay a step ahead of the competition if they keep doing what they say they’re going to do, which it seems that they are. So I think there will be many copycats, but I do believe it’s going to be hard to copy because you have to have that embedded in your DNA, and the boutique-ness of this wonderful city is only going to be replicated in boutique cities, not in grandiose, big, 25-million-people cities. So I think you’ve got something fairly unique, but I also believe the thinking is very—it’s an ongoing thing. It’s not a point in time. So that’s where I say you will have a competitive advantage.

HM: So how are you feeling about the state of the events industry over the next year or two? Are you optimistic?

SK: I am optimistic for a number of reasons. I think there are plenty of challenges in our world, and I think when we bring people face-to-face, we get to solve a lot of complex problems, human-to-human. So I’m optimistic.

I do feel that there are some challenges and strong headwinds, though. We have an issue with talent. We have an issue with people coming into our industry and finding meaningful employment, and certain sectors of our industry have not been known to pay the highest wages. We have to change that, of course, but you know, if our suppliers in the industry like hotels and convention centers and restaurants are not finding people for work, it’s making it very difficult to keep up service levels, and we’re seeing that as a challenge. So I’m concerned about talent in our industry and attracting talent.

Also, there’s the climate crisis. We’ve got to think about, fundamentally, the types of fuels we are using, the things that are big polluters, how we build buildings, the materials we use to build aircraft. What we’re trying to do is massively change human behavior instead of thinking, “How do we innovate and use our creativity?” If we can send people to the moon, we can start building products that you and I can use and not feel guilty about using. We’ve got to be more inventive in our thinking, so I feel that’s a headwind that reflects poorly in our industry when we get together. You know, [the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference] in Glasgow—as much as that’s addressing climate change, some people view just the gathering as an affront to climate change. I personally think that’s over the top, but until we start doing the things that are making meaningful change around climate change and be serious about addressing major pollutants, that’s a challenge our industry will face.

The thing that I’m really bullish and optimistic on, though, is the fact that the very thing that we fear, which is digital, is going to be actually our biggest, biggest friend. It actually will allow us to grow our business. I remember a gentleman, and I think it was in one of the Midwestern states, and he called his senators and said, “You have to get rid of this thing called the internet. It’s ruining my business.” And I think some of us put our head in the sand in the business events industry and are fearful of digital instead of, “This is your biggest friend you’ve ever, ever known. It’s your brand and marketing arm.” So I’m really bullish about that.

So, there are headwinds, but I’m really optimistic about the future.

Hayley Munguia is editor of the Long Beach Business Journal.