“We had an in-person meeting in September, and our attendance was good, but not great. The glory days of pre-COVID-19 are not coming back quickly,” says Naomi Romanchok, CMP, events manager at AFOP, an organization that represents farmworkers. “There are those who are still skittish about attending a conference. International is not coming back to where it was, especially as it has been proven it is possible to participate via Zoom and other platforms. Industries like gaming and tech that can easily meet remotely realized they don’t have to pack suitcases and get on airplanes.”
Room blocks have changed since 2019 as well. “We can’t block as we did in 2019. Will they show, won’t they show, are they still in business? These are prevailing questions.”
Budgets are not back, either. Romanchok says that could be felt at the recent IMEX America event in Las Vegas. “No one was handing out swag as they did in the past. Everyone is rethinking everything they are doing.”
Travel has returned, and people are meeting face-to-face, but the option to attend events remotely is still being offered in the form of hybrid events.
“Planners have learned they can reach a new audience and bring in new revenue with hybrid and virtual events. They have also leveled the playing field. Conferences can be elitist. They are expensive to get to, and it is not possible for everybody to get away from responsibilities,” says Lee Gimpel, founder and principal of Better Meetings.
However, a sense of optimism prevails regarding in-person meetings and events. According to the American Express 2023 Global Meetings and Events Forecast, two-thirds of its survey respondents are very optimistic, with two-thirds expecting the number of in-person events to return to pre-pandemic levels within one to two years.
Also, pent-up demand made 2022 a big year for meetings and events — but questions remain. “Was this year’s bounce back real, or just based on an excessive desire to be together? Will that wear off, and the combination of expenses and lesser experiences make people think about necessity?” asks Marty Glynn, CEO of MAD Event Management LLC. “Is networking or content the real priority?”
Another continued tendency is short booking windows, with lead times 25% shorter than in 2019. “We are experiencing many events coming up last minute,” says Angela DiPasquale, senior production coordinator at Eventique. “There seems to be fear about COVID picking up and other uncontrolled variables. Large-scale corporate gatherings are being booked with one- to three-week windows. Plus, these last-minute bookings are super aware of cancellation policies. They are reading their contracts more than ever, and want it spelled out what will happen if an event must cancel.”
Remote work has also affected the meetings and events industry. According to data company Ladders, 25% of all professional jobs will be remote by the end of the year, with remote opportunities increasing through the end of 2023. According to Ladders, this is the most significant societal change in the U.S. since the end of World War II. Now that teams are globally dispersed, meetings and events take on added importance. A ho-hum gathering in a drab conference room will no longer suffice.
Other changes in the post-pandemic meetings industry include an emphasis on sustainability, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). According to the American Express 2023 Global Meetings and Events Forecast, four in five respondents say their organization considers sustainability when planning meetings and events.
Not to be overlooked, contracts are forever changed. Attorney Mark Roysner emphasizes the importance of not agreeing to unreasonable or unilateral contract terms that solely favor the hotel or otherwise contractually lock a meeting professional in with penalties or unanticipated financial liability risks. “We just came through a pandemic, and are now dealing with political uncertainty throughout the country,” he says. “Which, in a number of cases, has rapidly affected organizations’ policy-making and site-selection decisions, along with skyrocketing event production and promotional costs and unprecedented weather issues.”
Contracts must also evolve according to the times we live. For instance, venue and other staffing shortages are a reality. “Are you putting in terms to get the service you need?” Roysner asks. “What should be reviewed, modified or included in organizers’ contracts to reduce exposure to liability and risks?”
A successful contract is bilateral, Roysner says. He adds it is also imperative to thoroughly review all contracts with a fine-toothed comb. Make sure you have spelled out and consistently use terms such as event dates, show dates, peak room nights and even attendee. He recommends taking it one step further by defining these terms. Finally, he stressed the importance of writing your own contract, as it gives you a roadmap of the issues that are most important to you.
Another emerging trend is meetings and conferences as part of a broader marketing initiative. “In many cases, they are becoming part of a bigger strategy, and the event is being extended before and after it has happened, and it is stitched into a community platform,” Gimpel says. “It can also be a follow-up event a few weeks later to get everyone talking about what happened at the conference. This extends the value of the event, plus a community endures for the whole year. A two-day community event can be fuel in the fire of a 365-days-a-year community.”
Pent-up demand resulted in meetings where seemingly everyone was thrilled just to be gathering. Networking, building camaraderie and spending time together face-to-face are what people crave today. “Attendees are less tolerant of utilitarian events that don’t offer any experience and, thus, no compelling argument to be at the event in-person,” Gimpel says. “Attendees are more likely to ask, ‘Is the experience significantly different if I show up in person versus simply watching it on a screen at home?’ If the answer is no, people are likelier to veto the time away, the travel, the expense and the general hassle. It’s harder to sell attendees on the necessity of flying to a city just to stay at a hotel by the airport, watch some presentations, and then fly home.”
Members Inc., an event management company, is seeing three challenges in the post-pandemic events world: spikes in the price of ground transportation, hikes in the price of temp staffing and skyrocketing A/V costs. And these increased costs are not going away. Some think companies are trying to compensate for losses they experienced during the pandemic. Plus, many companies didn’t survive the pandemic, straining the supply chain and pushing prices up.
The hotel industry has been slow to recover, says Gary Brown, president, and Karen Brown, chief experiential officer at Members, Inc. They described an event held at a five-star hotel in Florida in September where housekeeping was spotty, restaurants were closed and the hotel had removed coffee makers from the rooms, which led to a line snaking out the door of the coffee shop in the lobby that didn’t open until 7 a.m.
“Labor rates have gone up, and resources are scarce,” Gary Brown says. “Take A/V — there has been a 30% jump, and we are not seeing it go down.”
Also, planners have noticed it is taking longer hours to navigate this new reality. “Costs across the board are up,” Karen Brown says. “We are the ducks paddling like crazy under the surface so these increases don’t impact our attendees’ registration fees. We are negotiating harder and more strategically like never before, and doing what we can to keep the production and levels the same to give our clients the experience they’ve come to expect from us without increasing their costs.” C&IT