It’s 2024, and there are positive signs ahead for the meeting industry. Characterized as being more dynamic, more digital and more impactful, it is also better prepared to play a leading role in today’s global challenges.
It’s hard to believe that just three years ago, this industry, and the rest of the world, faced an uncertain future, one with an unknown restart. The pandemic shook it to its core and now, it has evolved. It has overcome its setbacks, risen above it all, and surprisingly, it has shown unprecedented growth.
“We’ve left the pandemic well behind us as in-person events have come back to the forefront, with attendance approaching — and sometimes exceeding — the record pre-pandemic numbers many organizations were seeing,” said Patrick Smith, chief marketing officer of Cvent.
In fact, American Express Global Business Travel’s latest Global Meetings and Events Forecast found that 79% of respondents said their meetings and events in 2024 will be either entirely in-person or hybrid. At the same time, the return of business travel is expected to surpass pre-pandemic levels by 2024. Nothing beats the power of meeting face-to-face and the momentum the industry is seeing for in-person experiences is further proof of that.
At the same time, virtual and hybrid events, including up-leveled webinars, are still a valuable part of the events program mix. Reaching and engaging larger audiences digitally is a core part of many organizations’ event strategies.
“There’s more of a concerted effort to provide attendees with high-quality, personalized content to maximize their return on experience, with meaningful networking, professional development and educational opportunities top of mind at events that are being run,” said Katrina Kent, CMP, vice president of meeting management and event strategy for Liberty Mutual Insurance.
Heather Larson, president and CEO of Meet Chicago Northwest, noted that the numbers of meetings are growing, but they look a little different than they did a few years ago, and that’s actually a good thing.
“People crave interaction with others who share their same interests, and events help individuals find their own tribe, and in a business setting, they want to bounce ideas off of others,” she said. “People want to work in a team in a creative way, they want to hear from others how they handled particular situations and challenges. They want to learn not just in a lecture style, but through true interactions: standing in line for coffee and between sessions at a conference. People are sick of staring at a screen and want to travel and see and do new things. The bizcation is all the rage.”
Amy Kramer, CMP, director, market and product innovation leader for Maritz Global Events, sees the industry as ripe for innovation and feels it’s in a new and improved meeting environment.
“I believe the biggest change that we’re going to see going into 2024 is how we design events,” she said. “Pre-pandemic, we designed events the way we’ve always done them. Event design was all about content, agendas and execution, and then once we went through the pandemic, it was about getting people back face-to-face and connecting with one another. And now we’ve entered this next phase, which is about customization.”
Matthew Martinucci, vice president of sales and destination services for Visit San Jose, forecasts high returns in 2024.
“In the last fiscal year, the number of conferences booked in San Jose was 24% higher than the previous year and we continue to see a rise in meetings and hotel bookings,” he said.
The U.S. corporate event market size was reported as $95.3 billion in 2020, and is predicted to reach $510.9 billion by 2030, according to Allied Market Research.
What’s more, the global event industry was worth nearly $890 billion in that same time period, and this value could grow to more than two trillion by 2028, according to Gerardo Tejado, senior vice president of professional services for American Express GBT.
The ease of visa restrictions, investments in better infrastructure, and the increase in the amount of travelers in commercial aviation from the U.S. are some of the other factors that are fueling the growth of the U.S. corporate meeting market.
Not surprisingly, tech innovation has played an important role in the corporate event industry. With LCD projectors, video conferencing and fast notebooks, the new standard for meetings and tech is key to driving the industry’s successful rebound and shaping its positive trajectory.
From a technology perspective, years of digital transformation was condensed into a matter of months as the pandemic hit the industry hard and the digitization of events have contributed to increased efficiency, simplified work streams for both hotels and planners and more engaged attendees.
One example of this, Kramer noted, is how the industry has experienced and reacted to the Metaverse.
“This technology helps us use tech as an extension of a meeting, giving people a much more interactive and exciting way to follow up with content from an event,” she said. “AI has been another big opportunity for us to not only repurpose content, but to extend that content, saving event planners time and effort.”
The surge of event technology allows meeting professionals to do things quickly like the ability to print a badge at home.
“These new technology applications help us to be more efficient, but also allow you to spend more time in the meeting experience than in the technical components,” Kramer said. “We’ve also seen a continued evolution of the mobile app, which is another great example of technology playing a role. These apps are becoming more user friendly and providing many more helpful tools than they have had in the past.”
Perhaps the most notable example was during the onset of the pandemic when the entire industry had to pivot to a virtual-only meeting and event environment practically overnight.
“Ever since, there has been a clear and significant shift away from paper and pen — or manual processes — in favor of digital tools that not only streamline the event management process, but enhance the attendee experience and give event organizers more insight into their attendees’ interests,” Smith said. “In addition, in uncertain economic environments or when faced with staffing shortages, people tend to have greater appreciation for solutions that help them work ‘smarter’ not ‘harder,’ and event technology has enabled these smaller teams to keep their businesses running by automating key event processes that can be repeatable over time.”
Another piece of this digital transformation and its contribution to the growth of the industry is the advent of more dynamic event programs that incorporate a smart mix of in-person, virtual and hybrid events and up-leveled webinars.
“With more event formats to choose from, organizations are hosting more events, engaging more attendees and reaching broader audiences than ever before,” Smith said. “You just didn’t have these kinds of options or impact pre-pandemic when the vast majority of the events were in-person, with many done offline.”
AI is increasingly being used to enhance event marketing campaigns or create more personalized event communications and Smith believes there will be more creative use of technology in 2024 and beyond.
“Generative AI has been a game-changer for nearly every industry, and meetings and events is no exception,” he said, adding that in the AMEX GBT study, 42% of those who responded revealed they expect to use AI in 2024. “We’ve seen incredible adoption of Cvent’s own AI tools like our AI Writing Assistant, which leverages the power of generative AI to create engaging content faster and more efficiently. It’s exciting to see all the ways in which technology is revolutionizing the meetings and events industry.”
Larson appreciates how technology has made work life more efficient for those in the industry, though she does believe it has some drawbacks.
“We can go from one staff meeting to another meeting in a matter of seconds without ever leaving our desks,” she said. “This works well for day-to-day tactical interactions when we accomplish fast tasks, but it doesn’t replace the face-to-face. It doesn’t foster strategic thinking and creativity. It results in meeting’s attendees multi-tasking and not fully paying attention to what is being discussed. Who among us hasn’t quickly checked their social media accounts or emails while attending a webinar and then completely lost track of what was being discussed?”
Gartner predicts that by 2025, 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels, and while not a direct reflection of event-specific sales interactions, industry professionals are seeing similar trends between planners and hoteliers.
For example, many event planners say online booking is their preferred method of booking small simple meetings. So, both event planners and suppliers will have to learn how to navigate a world where instant responses and personalized communication through digital channels is not just desired, but expected.
Most meeting professionals agree that the loss of in-person meetings during the pandemic made people appreciate the inherent value in bringing people together.
“In-person experiences encourage more meaningful connections, deeper learning, and can ultimately lead to greater results,” Smith said. “The temporary pivot to virtual was actually a catalyst to our industry’s growth. The pandemic showed us how resilient the industry could be. Event organizers had to reinvent themselves and their event programs overnight, while hoteliers had to dig deep to remain optimistic during what was likely the darkest times any of them had faced. It instilled in every industry professional a level of confidence that wasn’t there before, and a level of resiliency that we can all carry moving forward.”
This era created that desire for people to want to meet face-to-face, but also, most have realized they can change the way to meet and connect. Events can now be shorter with more free time, depending on the attendees’ needs. “We are seeing companies focus even more on sustainability,” said Kramer. “We’re being smarter about how we plan and more focused on people, finding value for them professionally and personally and thinking of their well-being even more.”
Despite things looking so rosy, there are some possible challenges that could impact the growth of the industry in the years to come. For instance, the rising cost of goods and services is a major pain point for event planners, often leading to higher prices for hotel rooms, special event venues and F&B options.
Cvent’s 2023 Planner Sourcing Report, which surveyed event professionals on their sourcing preferences, found that 48% of respondents say that cost-saving measures will predominantly shape their event planning priorities in 2024. At the same time, 81% reported adjusting their event budgets upwards, showing that despite cost pressures, there is a willingness to grow budgets to secure desired hotels and venues.
Another challenge the industry is dealing with is the loss of long-standing planner/supplier relationships that happened during the pandemic when people left the events world. A third of planners Cvent surveyed reported that rebuilding relationships is one of their top priorities for this year and next.
“There’s a concerted effort for planners to be more intentional about communicating with venues and vendors at each stage of the sourcing and event planning process to avoid confusion and ensure the best onsite experience,” Smith said. “Planners are leveraging productivity tools that can help free up their time so they can focus more intently on deepening interpersonal connections, rather than on mundane tasks.”
There is a great deal of instability in the world, Martinucci noted, pointing to two wars happening at a time when the federal government is somewhat dysfunctional and there are several mixed indicators from the economy.
“The meetings industry, and travel as a whole, thrive when there is more peace and stability,” he said. “This is a huge challenge for us, especially internationally.”
Sustainability, particularly climate change, can also be troublesome in the future. “If we don’t take some of these climate issues seriously, we could find ourselves in a lot of trouble,” Kramer said. “For so long, people thought sustainability was just about recycling and reduced consumption. But now, we are seeing more regulations coming in from the government and corporations.”
The meeting industry faces another big issue: how to best use data to make better decisions around why you’re holding an event. “Measuring the impact is important, because we’re seeing attendees and exhibitors are wanting to see that ROI more than ever,” Kramer said. “And then there is the shift in attendee generations. We know this new generation does not want the same things, so we must consider what each is expecting as it relates to connection and content.”
Inflation is one of the complaints Larson hears from meeting professionals regularly. “Businesses are cutting costs wherever they can. Training is often one of the first to go. Furthermore, some of the chaos within airlines in recent years has resulted in many being hesitant to fly. Even in our enviable location on the edge of O’Hare International Airport and in the middle of the country, we are seeing more of our attendees choosing to drive five to six hours rather than risking flight delays and hassles.”
Both hospitality and event professionals have a responsibility to ensure the long-term strength and continued growth of the meetings industry remain strong. Smith noted the best way to do this is for everyone to focus on the attendee experience.
“After years of virtual-only meetings, attendees are eager to network with peers, learn from experts, and take advantage of all the perks that come with traveling to new destinations and attending meetings and events,” he said. “Prioritize the needs of your attendees and routinely assess how you can refine your offerings to exceed their expectations. Use event surveys and data gathered during an event to make the next event better. Embrace accessibility so anyone who wants to attend an event can do so and have a meaningful experience.”
Larson laughs when a convention or meeting planner puts out a one sheeter titled something like “How to Convince Your Boss They Should Send You to this Conference,” believing that sometimes planners need to advocate for themselves, and be willing to learn and grow in the profession.
“Even the most seasoned professional can learn new tricks and better their best practices at meetings and conventions to make the organizations they work for stronger,” she said.
It has been widely known for years that travel and interpersonal experiences foster growth, understanding, learning and prosperity, so with that in mind, Martinucci noted promotion is key for continued success.
“Embrace a clear digital marketing strategy that focuses on the desirability and accessibility of your destination,” he said. “Use all available tools to target and reach the right customer, and then deliver the experience that they are looking for.”
One of the biggest considerations for continued growth of the industry is inclusivity and the understanding of all the people attending meetings and events.
“There are multiple generations attending and they each have a different way of engaging and consuming content,” Kramer said. “So how can we use available data to design our events to bring value to everyone? What is the return on experience? Lean into technology, where appropriate. Be comfortable to explore and try new things as it relates to events and using these technologies.”
Without question, the industry looks like it will continue to grow. Planners just need to be open to taking a few risks with technology and looking at it through the lens of continual human engagement, performance and potential. C&IT