The topic of the long-term effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on industries has been bandied about in all sectors of the world. The meetings and events industry is no exception. From safety and health protocols, innovative hybrid approaches to meetings, and a resurgence of in-person meetings, companies of all sizes are paying attention the post-pandemic recovery trajectory of events.
“The meetings environment and the live events industry, both significantly impacted by the pandemic, are moving ahead full-throttle,” Jacqueline Beaulieu, HMCC, director of strategic marketing & client engagement, at Poretta & Orr | Exhibits & Events, in Doylestown, PA, said.
Beaulieu has worked across all sectors of the trade show, events and association industry, including as a board of directors for Meeting Planners International Medical Meeting Planner Advisory Board, Georgia Chapter of Meeting Planners International, and the Exhibition and Events Workforce Development Federation.
Beaulieu said that it is now no secret that face-to-face meetings, events, conventions and tradeshows are seeing some large numbers with many breaking attendance records. But not all.
“Some meetings and events are realizing some adjustment to their attendance numbers,” Beaulieu said. “What we are learning in many cases is that smaller attendance numbers do not mean less opportunity. It means the right people and decision makers are now likely to attend meetings and events.”
While the recovery of the live events industry may take some time, Beaulieu said that it’s clear that event organizers are adapting to the new normal by adopting innovative event formats, implementing health and safety protocols and leveraging technology when necessary.
“Experiential, out-of-the-box, interactive and memorable events are now almost being demanded by attendees,” Beaulieu said. “Attendees want to feel like they have traveled for a good reason, so make it memorable. We have learned that face-to-face engagement cannot be replaced or replicated.”
Alyssa McArdle, director of events at NeuGroup, in New York, saw last year as a time to rebuild NeuGroup’s in-person audience.
“We ran all of our events, with few exceptions, as concurrent hybrids because it was hard to anticipate whether we would reach critical mass in person,” McArdle said. “We are pushing hard for in-person attendance. We are still offering virtual options to those unable to travel, but we are doing so in a separate environment.”
McArdle believes attendees will continue to expect virtual attendance options. In addition, there is an expectation for on-demand content.
“Many have returned to their offices, even if in a hybrid arrangement, and do not have the ability to set aside large chunks of time to join a virtual conference in real time like they did when everyone was stuck at home,” McArdle said.
David VanderSloot is the director of conference planning and hospitality services, at Grand Valley State University and agrees that meetings and gatherings are steadily coming back, both in-person and hybrid.
“We have experienced a strong increase in meeting and events since early last year and it’s only gaining momentum,” VanderSloot said. “Our market saw a 12.7% increase in the number of meeting attendees to the area in the past year, and other areas of the country are seeing a similar rebound.”
With many events back to full strength, attendees are excited to meet again and to get together with peers for the first time since the pandemic. For others, especially those that include a hybrid option, in-person numbers are down.
“This is sometimes by design for cost savings or convenience,” VanderSloot said. “As we move forward, Covid is less and less a factor in the reduced size and scope of meetings and events. Instead, the industry has adapted to the use of technology and remote options. With this available, planners are reevaluating the cost and necessity of in-person events.”
One way to evaluate the recovery of the meeting and events environment is by taking the proverbial pulse of the meeting and events environment in such expansive destinations as New York. Trudy Singh, New York City Tourism + Conventions vice president, mentioned that there is still a significant amount of pent-up demand.
“Also, we continue to see meetings and events break attendance records in New York City,” she said. “On average, events in New York see up to 20% higher attendance levels. Having the largest active pipeline in the country excites attendees to come back and experience something new. Many attendees face staffing challenges and lean on us as a trusted resource to provide recommendations, sourcing, site inspection arrangements and other services more than ever.”
In light of attendees’ eagerness to reconnect with others in new and profound ways, experiential components to events are also being demanded. As Beaulieu explained, event planners need to think about implementing and adapting elements throughout the corporate meeting, event or trade show that makes the attendee stop and take notice.
“Another trend we are seeing is healthy food items and non-alcoholic options being offered much more often. It is really catering to all the different demographics,” Beaulieu said.
Covid also has made it necessary to focus on the health and safety of those attending corporate events. Each meeting can be quite different in its requirements to attend, so attendees need to be informed by the planners what is required for the particular meeting they are attending.
While the pandemic may have halted in-person meetings and events for several months in the early phases, the technology needed for current meetings continued full-speed ahead both then and now.
As Beaulieu explains, technology is an ever-changing and very fluid aspect of meetings, as well as crucial component of any meeting or event.
“Organizations will continue to adopt new technologies and should continue to study and learn about emerging technologies that enhance the attendee experience,” Beaulieu said. “This could include tools for virtual networking, interactive presentations and augmented reality. Before the pandemic, I think many knew that meetings needed a bit of an overhaul, but the pandemic really forced many organizations to rethink the traditional format of events. As a result, there is a more creative and innovative approach being adapted regarding event format and education, such as shorter, more focused sessions, more interactive formats and more diverse speaker lineups.”
McArdle also points out that meeting planners have had to create truly compelling in-person events in order to combat the reasons potential attendees might opt to stay home. Between travel costs, time away from their work and pandemic-born inertia, there are a lot of barriers to fight against.
“Once attendees are back in person, they seem to remember how valuable and irreplicable that experience is,” McArdle said. “The meeting planner’s imperative is to create programming, both hard and soft that cannot be replicated online and feels unmissable to its audience. Driving meaningful connections has always been a key piece of what meeting planners do although it is not our most critical task.”
She is also seeing meeting planners remaining cautious on contract commitments and guarantees. As McArdle explains, planners are looking for terms that protect their organization.
“Many events are occurring for the first time since the pandemic and planners can’t rely as heavily on the group’s history,” McArdle said. “Some events are limiting in-person attendance and using hybrid and on-demand technologies to reach other attendees. For those in-person gatherings, planners are requesting more space for continued social distancing.”
Nicole Roames, CMP, CGMP, DES and senior manager of meetings and events at the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards in Washington D.C., admits that she’s never been this busy.
“Meetings have returned with a vengeance and attendees are engaged and looking for high-quality events,” Roames said. “I am seeing a lot more engagement instead of lecture sessions. Crowdsourcing information, panel discussions, small groups at tables are all being represented more than they have in the past.”
While event planners have always been flexible, that word itself has changed to include more responsibility.
“We have to expand cancellation policies and handle hotel demands as they recover and deal with a hybrid environment that wasn’t there before,” Roames said.
While it has been three years since the pandemic took hold of the world, the meetings and events industry has faced and embraced a wealth of challenges.
“I think raising costs is a big one,” Beaulieu said. “Often times, this doesn’t go hand in hand with an increase in budget. Therefore, thinking of creative and cost-saving solutions is vital.
Another can be time. More time is needed to plan an event. Venues are booked far in advance and it can be almost impossible to find a venue last minute. Plan well in advance to ensure all your goals and objectives can be achieved.”
McArdle adds that the virtual options proliferated during the height of the pandemic made it very easy for audiences to get conference content on their own terms. The key that drives in-person attendance is messaging, programming and experiences onsite that are memorable and irreplicable.
Attendance numbers are still challenging most meeting planners.
“Depending on the program and content, such as relationship-based objectives, in-person learning may be the best option,” VanderSloot said. “Planners who offer a hybrid option must determine the impact this will have on the event.”
Does the presenter have the skill necessary to keep remote participants engaged, and is the right supporting technology available?
“It’s important to provide the best possible experience for all attendees,” VanderSloot said. “That’s why planners are now more creative with spaces and functions with regard to distancing.
Program design, safety measures and attendee protocols can all be developed to maximize attendee comfort.
“As the meeting and events industry recovers, planners are finding supplier costs have increased, adding yet another challenge to the return to in-person learning,” VanderSloot said.
Staffing also remains a significant challenge for hotels and venues. Singh and the team at New York City Tourism + Conventions often step in to serve as the client’s resource and connection point.
“Availability remains an issue for companies who require a substantial amount of meeting space, Singh said. “In response, we encourage clients to expand their booking windows and check availability further out.”
Beaulieu said meetings will continue to evolve, as they should and always have. New technologies, new demands from attendees and new industry sectors will force continued change, which is a good thing.
“I believe technology will continue to play an elevated role in meetings and live events, and in ways, I probably couldn’t even imagine,” Beaulieu said.
Roames doesn’t think that the demand for hybrid meetings will go away although it will take on a different face; the demand for virtual access of some sort will remain.
“I think the pace of meetings will level out because we are still playing ‘catch-up’ with meetings that should have happened during the early years of the pandemic,” Roames said.
McArdle stresses that corporate meeting planners will continue their need to evolve to make sure meetings are inclusive and accessible to all audiences, regardless of budget, location and travel capabilities.
“My hope is that virtual programming will be seen as a supplement to in-person meetings rather than a substitute,” she said.
Clients often tell Singh that nothing will ever truly replace in-person meetings, however, many acknowledge that virtual and hybrid will be a complementary part of their program in the future.
“The ability to offer a remote option for attendees remains a big draw and value,” Singh said. “And, because our hotels and meeting venues can provide world-class technology services and amenities, New York City continues to be well positioned as a destination of choice.”
Overall, meeting and event professionals agree that the industry will continue to be important and meaningful. As VanderSloot explained, the pandemic propelled the industry toward new technologies, and in doing so, expanded the reach of meeting and events.
“Regardless of format, the goal remains to ensure meetings and events are memorable, that they build connections and provide an effective learning environment,” VanderSloot said. “The use of virtual technologies will increasingly be a part of future meetings and events. As new technologies evolve, we can expect better meeting experiences for remote learners. Whether in-person, hybrid or fully remote, the attendee experience is what determines an event’s success.” C&IT