Meetings In A Post-Pandemic World: Planners Look To The Future

May 18, 2020


COVID-19 will likely dominate thoughts for months to come. Even as our industry gains forward momentum, questions remain. We asked four planners for their take on meetings going forward.

Top-of-mind issues

Derrick M. Johnson II, CMP, DES, Philadelphia-based independent planner and PCMA board member, puts questions — and possible solutions — in perspective. He says, “Every day presents new obstacles for planners, much different than anything we’ve ever seen, which creates unprecedented uncertainty. What will events look like once social distancing eases? Will people immediately go back to meeting face-to-face? Will travel budgets exist?”

Uncertainty makes the future difficult to assess. Johnson also sees the evolution of virtual meetings as a top issue. “Much of our community still sees events as black or white instead of in color, i.e. ‘This meeting should go online’ instead of ‘What elements of this event can be virtually executed?’ The learning outcomes are very different online vs. virtual and, just as face-to-face meetings and events have various structures and ways of executing, so do virtual meetings and events,” he says.

Another issue for Johnson is “unplanning” a meeting. “A lot of focus goes into putting together an annual meeting for 2,000 people; however, even more effort goes into canceling it,” he says. “Everything from the negotiations, communication plan and community engagement needs to be executed at high levels and, in most cases, very quickly. Many planners haven’t stepped into the unknown when it relates to unplanning their financially sustainable events.”

Alisa Walsh, CIS, president of EventWorks in Los Angeles and 2020 president of the SITE SoCal board of directors, also sees significant uncertainty as an issue, especially related to re-booking dates. “While we know our programs need to move dates, it’s exceedingly difficult to determine when those dates will be, or when it will be ‘safe’ to meet again. And, even when we re-book, how will attendees feel about travel, person-to-person interaction, etc.? Gauging our attendance and, therefore, the financial commitment we’re willing to enter into with hotels/venues will be difficult to determine.”

Event-related challenges remain largely the same, says Katie Smith, CMP, CMM, event director at Meister Media Worldwide in Willoughby, Ohio. “But we now face areas of impediment outside our ability to control, including a COVID-19 vaccine, corporate-mandated travel restrictions, domestic and international travel restrictions, and VISA and passport restrictions. Most importantly, how do we authentically market future in-person shows to potential attendees and sponsors, respectful of their legitimate health concerns should social distancing become the norm?”

Florida-based Benoit Sauvage, CMP, DMCP, CIS, founder and CEO of Connect DMC and director for the SITE International board of directors, looks squarely ahead to a non-pandemic world. His top-of-mind issues include how best to add sustainability components to programs, how to incorporate corporate social responsibility (CSR) without sacrificing program budgets/time, how to present the destination in a more authentic and experiential way, and how to sell luxury to millennials and Gen Xers.

Responding to a new “normal”

One key to working through current realities is nimbleness, along with the ability to adapt as things change. And, for some, the approach should be cautious.

“Ultimately, it will be a bit of trial and error,” Walsh says. “As planners, we’ll be forecasting very conservatively and asking for hotels’ flexibility in regard to attrition and room-block commitments. While I do believe live events will return, it will be a slow progress back to the point where people feel comfortable in large audiences. We’ll need to acclimate to the use of technology and hold smaller programs in various areas, perhaps with a central ‘hub’ being broadcast to each location simultaneously.”

Johnson says it’s important to seek information, adding, “I believe in lifelong learning and the power it has to enable us to better prepare for unthinkable experiences. I read, listen to futuristic podcasts and even watch science fiction movies — not just for entertainment purposes but to see the world in a different light with hopes of obtaining some concept or idea that might be useful today. Seeing how drones are used in recent sci-fi movies, for example, directly correlates to how we can potentially deploy them in reality, to achieve mundane tasks such as sanitizing streets.”

He also calls it “vital” to learn to be comfortable in uncertainty. “Unfortunately, I cannot control everything; however, the one thing I can control is myself and my actions. When I’m able to give 100% of me to any situation, I know that’s when the best results are produced. We’re also stronger together. Our profession is built around connecting people. Learning from others, connecting with people in this time of social distancing is the most important thing we can do,” he says.

Sauvage says solution-oriented teamwork is key at his company. “We have a vibrant and ambitious team that’s noticing all these potential issues,” he says. “We’re proposing solutions that fit our clients’ requirements without destroying their budgets, and creative solutions and suggestions that can be implemented in their agendas. You’d be surprised,” he says, “how simple it is at times to supply these needs from a younger perspective. It’s not all that difficult as long as you’re willing to change.”

What the pandemic has taught us

Sauvage says he and his company “will definitely learn from this moment and adjust. We always do. This is not our first crisis and will surely not be the last. If companies aren’t willing to adapt, they may not endure these crises. Our team is well trained in how to cut back effectively as necessary and to survive with the vital elements year after year.” Yet, he adds, every employee understands the drastic measures possible when facing a global crisis such as the pandemic.

He says the most important lesson, however, is to take a step back and regroup. “We noticed how important it was to actually take the time to slow down and make sure we were on the right path with our clients’ needs but also with our company’s needs in mind. Sometimes, with our busy lives, we forget how to take a moment to adjust and find fresh solutions to the same challenges,” he adds.

Johnson echoes the importance of “taking time,” saying,“The biggest lesson I’ll take away from the pandemic is not taking for granted the physical time I have with people and, as a meeting professional, looking at how I can help make that time for attendees even more valuable.”

There are other lessons, too. “If COVID-19 has personally taught me anything,” Johnson says, “it’s that the world isn’t ready for what global warming will do to humanity. This pandemic is a dress rehearsal for the effects of global warming and we’re beyond the simple acknowledgment of the science. This industry must look at every aspect of our community and ensure we’re creating sustainable events, and reducing our carbon footprint. If not, then a critical takeaway from this experience is lost.” He adds, “Finally, we must look at all meetings in a physical and virtual sense. Just as there are many forms of physical events — theaters, classrooms, etc. — the same is true for virtual events. These technology investments, while previously not a priority, may see a boost in production given today’s need.”

Smith points to amplified appreciation of partners — hotel sales people, DMCs, decorators, CVBs and vendors — as an important lesson. “We couldn’t have achieved what we have without them and it’s heartbreaking to see how many of my partners have been adversely affected by the pandemic,” she says. “This is also an ideal time to evaluate how we’re conducting our internal business — what efficiencies we can bring to bear and how to better collaborate with other departments to optimize all the intelligence within our company. We also plan to evaluate current in-person events with an eye toward making them more interactive, experiential and relevant.”

Will 2020 change the planning process?

The answer is yes. Walsh sees drilling down on contracts as ever more important given issues created by COVID-19, and she’s already working on changes. “My team and I have already undergone various contract revisions to ensure we’re protected through disasters such as this. Our industry is very relationally focused, though, and nothing is guaranteed.”

Smith is on a similar path. “We’re working with our hotel partners to update the force majeure clause in contracts. We’re also revisiting event insurance, contingency and risk-assessment plans. We’re revising attendee registration cancellation policies in response to this as well. And virtual event offerings will become an important aspect of our event portfolio, even when in-person events resume,” she says.

Sauvage is also taking a closer look at contracts and agreements in place. He says, “We’ve started thinking on a good middle ground where both clients and ourselves can protect our interests.”

Of course, it’s not just about contracts. “There’s no doubt this will change the approach to face-to-face meetings,” Walsh says. “I believe human interaction is a necessity and there’s no replacement for the feeling of earning that incentive trip — that once-in-a-lifetime personal experience. That said, how we prepare and communicate prior to the event is going to be even more crucial than ever.”

Sauvage doesn’t believe in-person interaction will necessarily decrease, “and the proof is the feeling we all get after being under quarantine for a few days — we need that person-to-person time. While some incentive programs’ lower-tier rewards may be supplied online,” he says, “the ultimate prizes remain to be experienced in person.”

Johnson sees changes occurring in phases as the world slowly returns to normal. “I believe how we plan and prepare for meetings will change based on the phases we’re in. Currently, we’re in phase one of social distancing. Planners are unplanning meetings and looking at ways to move to virtual formats. In phase two, as social distancing eases, I believe groups will be hesitant to make financial commitments to future events because of fear of the unknown. Planners will be looking for more flexible cancelation clauses in contracts to limit financial exposure of their organizations.” He adds, “The collaboration between the partners and planners in this stage becomes the most crucial. The destinations that demonstrate their value in addition to commitment to health and safety will be prioritized over others. How the pandemic has changed many destination and venue policies and regulations will be important for planners to hear to decide where to place events.”

Further, he says, “Every event should be examined during ideation to determine not which one method of production works best, but what combination of methods works best. Planners can no longer expect to plan events one way and leverage simple tools in executing them. They must be prepared to reach various audiences in different capacities. Whatever the reason, our new normal is customization — and not in the way of customizing the F&B or registration experience. We’ll need to provide stakeholders options to engage with us in person or virtually.”

Opportunities even in crisis

Many planners are taking the extra time created by the pandemic to catch up on back-burner projects and facilitate change with an eye toward moving forward better and stronger. Walsh says she’s fortunate that working from home is the norm for her team, although she admits there was an adjustment to “our loved ones also working alongside us for better or worse.” She says her team has developed great habits in virtual communication, “and while we’ve pressed pause on the planning process for many programs, we’ve been presented with the unique opportunity to complete our ‘finally’ projects — the projects we’ve had on deck for years and have been too busy to complete. We’ve ‘finally’ been able to take the time to better our brand, our processes and, therefore, our team.”

For Sauvage, this time is an opportunity to act with intention. “We’ve invested time in remodeling our website and marketing collateral, enhancing education and we’ve emphasized a sensitive approach to our clients. We know it’s not time to buy and sell, but it is time to remain present and be willing to help each other. We will remember the suppliers that supported us during these difficult times just as we know our clients will remember us if we do so in turn.”

Workplace changes are inevitable whether planners are independent or on staff, and Johnson says this time is an opportunity to embrace diversification, particularly into the virtual world. “The mindset and ability to diversify an event’s platform is key to production. Being knowledgeable of the various options and tools will be vital to the success of the industry. For planners on staff, this transition into diversifying meetings may come a little easier,” Johnson says. “While some people may not have the skills, background or even desire to strategize in the virtual world, ensuring your team has a thought leader in this environment becomes vital. This person will need to look at all aspects of the meeting and understand what translates and what doesn’t. It will be this person from the team to understand that and recommend accordingly.”

Smith’s organization is also looking in that direction. “At our B2B media organization, we’ve been advancing the business of agriculture though digital, print, in-person and custom offerings,” she says. “Since learning of COVID-19, our plan is to double down on the importance and variety of digital engagement offerings for our audience and commercial supporters. Virtual event offerings will be an important aspect of our event portfolio, even when in-person events return.”

Where will we be a year or two from now?

“This is very exciting to think about,” Johnson says. “As an industry and world, I don’t think we recover, but rather, evolve from this pandemic.”  First, he says, “I see the event planner role evolving into more production. With all the new pieces needed to execute the collaborative efforts of virtual and face-to-face, there will be a need for a control officer managing the experience. Next, I hope sustainability will become a focus of the industry and that not only will planners produce more sustainable events, but corporations will also adopt many of the regulations the events industry puts into place. The road map we create will demonstrate to the world what’s possible in executing in a more sustainable environment. Finally, groups will be more global. With expansion into virtual, the reach and scope change for many. At the end of the day, we’re all humans and I think we begin seeing more of that every day.”

Walsh thinks one year from now will look very different than two years from now. “One year from now, I think corporate events will slowly be coming back into the picture as virtual begins to tire and businesses feel safe sending employees traveling again. However, we’ll still be very cautious and may even limit the number of large gatherings allowed. Two years from now, I do believe the events and meetings industry will be back up and running, with a new appreciation for the value of in-person opportunities.”

Smith, too, sees in-person meetings continuing along with virtual-meeting technologies. “For the in-person aspect, specifically, the answer is more difficult. The two biggest factors, in my mind, are a vaccine for COVID-19 and people’s willingness to travel. When it comes to dealing with people’s emotions and fears, we’re entering new terrain that, as event organizers, we may not be able to adequately address for some. That said, I’ve heard from many of our attendees and commercial supporters who are anxious to return to in-person events. I think the self-quarantine has reminded us that we’re social animals and crave face-to-face communication.”

On a different note, Sauvage says that if another pandemic arises, they’ll be more prepared. He adds, “Policies may be put in place to ensure company survival. I believe the industry will come back strong. The amount of business may change but we’ll all have renewed strength to make the most of it.”

As Walsh says, nothing is guaranteed. Yet, by all accounts here, there’s every reason for optimism that the meetings industry will emerge from 2020 better and stronger. C&IT

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