Few industries have been as impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as travel and tourism, meetings and conferences. But in some ways, meeting planners may have been better prepared than some industries to roll with last year’s succession of lockdowns interspersed with spikes of optimism.
“Contingency planning is nothing new for meeting planners,” suggests Marla J. Everett, CMP, CMM, CITP, director, consulting solutions, Event Travel Management. “We have to be the most Type B/Type A people on the planet. [Typically], we’re going to have everything buttoned up, thought-through, with a plan, an agenda and a schedule. But nothing ever goes as planned — there is always something, and you just never know what it’s going to be. You have to be able to think on your feet and go with the flow for whatever starts to pop up.”
Over the last few months, meeting planners have found ways to embrace the new pandemic normal — a landscape of shifting sands and foggy horizons — while reflecting on the lessons learned through this epic crisis.
Everett says her No. 1 path to success has been learning to leave room so that she and her staff are able to react, and not be stretched so far that everything has to go exactly as planned. “Like in an emergency room,” she says, “there’s the triage that happens in the very beginning, to take care of whatever needs to be taken care of first, then long-term recovery planning, and knowing when to move from one to the next. Otherwise you’re kind of stuck in the emergency planning mode.” Successful meeting planners are carefully attuned to details, but must also possess an easy-going attitude — that Type A/B dance. “If you’re so uptight that it has to go exactly as planned, it’s not going to, and the recovery is going to be that much harder.”
Still, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested the meeting planner sector like no other previous event. Catherine Chaulet, president and CEO, Global DMC Partners, says the length and the scope of this crisis has been its defining element. “We have had others — 9/11, SARS, the financial crisis — but none of those were as long in time and involved the entire world in such a dramatic way,” Chaulet says. “Tourism, [and] the meetings and incentives industry were all at a complete halt for such a long time. That was unparalleled. It required a set of skills to maneuver this crisis, and we’re still not out of the woods.”
The scale of the crisis made things much more difficult than previous incidents. “Typically, we are used to dealing with a crisis in a specific destination or within an industry,” says Sarah Haines, CIS, vice president, event management, ITA Group. “This most recent crisis impacted all industries, all in-person event types, and all geographies. At ITA Group, we always work with our clients to ensure we are mitigating risk within their programs. We evaluate risk and have mitigation strategies in place for the destination, venues, and health and safety of our participants. The pandemic required us to act on those plans for almost all of our scheduled events.”
Adam Tillotson, senior event consultant with Prestige Global Meeting Source, says severity has been a defining element of the pandemic. “When we look at the 2008-09 economic crisis, hotels in particular had the ability to have different revenue streams,” Tillotson says. “Business travel, airline crews, leisure, groups — the economy may have been slowed or halted, but there were still entities that had money. In the pandemic, everything stopped. Most people weren’t prepared — the faucet just turned off.”
Adding to the crisis has been the emotional impact the pandemic has had on many. “Fear has been the biggest and probably cruelest part of this crisis,” Chaulet says. “If you remember at the beginning — the numbers were going up, there was no direction, no vaccine; nothing. Managing the angst of this crisis and not knowing or even having an idea of when there would be some kind of treatment, that was the most painful part. Very close to it is seeing so many of our clients and some of our partners simply not survive, financially or business-wise. Not to mention, we have lost some clients and partners to COVID — that has been very, very difficult. Morale has been very impacted.”
Chaulet adds that she saw communications with clients and partners become more essential than ever during the pandemic. “Being extremely connected, organizing hundreds of webinars was, for us, so critical. We would keep in touch with everyone and hopefully help as many as possible,” Chaulet says. Extending assistance and expertise was another way to keep the lines of communication open with clients who weren’t planning events. “They wouldn’t need DMCs in the same way, but were needing other types of services. So we actually changed and increased some of the services we offered to better help some of the clients. And, at the same time, we helped DMCs also evolve and be able to offer services that they were not very strong at — such as virtual activities, shipping and tipping at a large scale. All of this was created to some extent as a result of COVID. As painful as this crisis has been, it has also proven to us how flexibility, and the ability to react and switch the model, is essential to success.”
Tillotson says internal communications with his team have also been vital. He and another Prestige employee started a Friday show broadcast on LinkedIn, to summarize what was happening in the industry each week. “Things were changing so quickly,” Tillotson says. “We were able to stay researched and up to date. One of the things that I implore with our team is, stay researched. There’s a lot that’s changing every single day, every week. Regulations aren’t state by state — they can be city by city. As event professionals and consultants, it’s our job to be aware of these things and help risk manage for our meeting owners. We need to set them up for success.”
And as the meetings industry starts to chart a course for the future, the need for a dedicated communications strategy continues, says Vivian Marinelli, Psy.D., senior director, crisis management services at FEI Behavioral Health. “I hate to use the word ‘survey,’ but you really need to know: How do people feel about meeting in person?” Marinelli asks. “What’s going to give them that level of security that it’s OK to do this? Anything that can give more reassurance that ‘We’ve looked at how to make this safe for everyone.’ Make sure you can put all those pieces together for the attendees, whether it’s a board meeting or a conference.”
Marinelli continues: “Think about who might be coming to your meeting, where they’re coming from, look at public health stats in those locations, have people tested when they get there, take temperatures.” But while safety is a top-most concern for meeting planners, communications also need to stress personal responsibility. “Remind everyone of their personal accountability. You need to take care of yourself; remind them of things they might need to pack.”
While the bigger hotel companies and convention centers have removed a lot of the uncertainty around safety standards, Tillotson notes corporate clients are still going to want to remove as much liability as possible. “Corporations are much more at risk bringing people together,” Tillotson says. “There’s still a fair amount of uncertainty. It’s very different if you’re an association or a leisure traveler, because the risk is your own. So, absolutely, [for corporate events], we’re going to be doing COVID testing on arrival, full masks the entire time; 6-foot separation. And as we start to allow international folks to attend meetings, those metrics will still be in place in 2022, because the world isn’t vaccinated yet. Fortunately, there are really smart event planners that are setting up great alternatives and operations to help people feel comfortable.”
One thing most meeting planners agree on: It’s not going to be business as usual. They’re not referring to masks or social distancing, or whether the buffet line is a thing of the past. Instead, purpose is going to be a driving force for gatherings in the future. “In hindsight, I don’t know of another time in human history where we just stopped what we were doing to take a pause and reflect — ‘Why are we doing things this way?’” Tillotson asks. “As meetings come more and more onboard, we’ll start to see people reflect upon what they want out of a gathering in a different way. The things that we may have been used to — show up, welcome reception, alcohol, food, go to sleep, full day of meetings, drinks at night, go home the next morning — I don’t know if that’s going to be the mainstay anymore.”
Chaulet says virtual events are definitely here to stay, though not at the same level as this past year. “There is Zoom fatigue and there are some limitations,” Chaulet says. “But we do have clients that, with the immense cost savings they were able to gather from doing more virtual meetings, they are now mandating that X% of their meetings and events stay virtual. We’re seeing some hybrid events, but there are real concerns around costs.”
Everett notes that the pandemic forced her company and clients to collectively change the mindset as to what was happening. “It was this continual morphing of, what are meetings going to look like? Rather than focusing so much on rebooking the meeting, it was really about getting into the purpose — why were you going to meet in the first place, what did you need to accomplish, and then, how do we still accomplish this?”
Everett continues: “We’ve also found we’re not limited. [In the past], you either came to the event or you didn’t. Now, there are some entry points for people to be able to participate, where they can attend partially in person — they come for a day and catch a few sessions virtually, or if you’ve got a hybrid event, you’ve got people who might attend virtually altogether.”
Different mixes of synchronous and asynchronous content are being evaluated, according to Everett, to narrow the length of time that attendees are physically together. Further: Must the in-person and virtual experiences be equivalent, or should the in-person experience provide added value to those who have invested time and expense to attend, potentially giving virtual attendees a reason to come in person next time?
“People are trying to find that balance,” Everett adds. “When you’re in a pandemic where somebody might not attend because they don’t feel safe, that might be a reason to make it the same. But, I think moving forward, you will see strategies to differentiate the way the audience is engaging matches the way that you’re meeting their level of engagement. It’s about the total engagement of the message that you’re trying to give.”
Tillotson says attendees may expect something more interactive in the months and years to come. “For people that haven’t been traveling, I want to feel like I’m in that city,” Tillotson says. “If I’m in Palm Springs, I want to feel like I’m in Palm Springs. Send me outside — I want to take a look at the area. That’s what people desire these days. Rather than going to a city center and staying in a Marriott that looks like it could be in any city and doing the same kind of motions we’ve always done, take me to someplace cool. If you take me to Nashville, I want to feel like I’m in Nashville. I want to get some hot chicken and listen to live music.”
Charting a course to the future means acknowledging not just the lessons learned, but silver linings of the past year. “The PPP loans helped us,” Chaulet says. “We were lucky to be in a country that offered that type of support. Even though it wasn’t enough, it was definitely a little bit of oxygen that we needed.” Chaulet also notes the ability for the U.S. to get vaccinated, and to start meetings and events again, has far surpassed what is seen in other countries. “You really see the extraordinary strength of the U.S. economy when [the response] is well organized. It can go big faster here than any other country. Meeting planners drive so much of it, and for economists, meeting planners are one of the best indicators for the economy getting better.”
Chaulet says, for the next year, her meetings will be largely focused on North America. “Very local to local — meaning U.S. traveling within the U.S., and to the Caribbean and Central America,” she says. “The second part of 2022, suddenly you see much more of the world opening; Europe is back, Asia is back.” The opening of international markets, especially Canada, cannot come soon enough for many meeting planners. “Right now, a lot of our meeting planners are struggling to find space in the U.S., so people are eager for Canada to open — they need more options.”
Demand is largely focused on places that can provide outdoor space, according to Chaulet, including Arizona, Texas and Denver. “Always Florida and Las Vegas — again, because of the space and how easy it is to organize a conference,” Chaulet adds. “And Southern California is hot, hot, hot.” Costa Rica, Mexico and the Caribbean have also been in high demand for Chaulet.
Tillotson cites Los Cabos as a destination that has not only been managing the pandemic well but has also been open to meetings. “Los Cabos exists for tourism,” Tillotson says. “Outside of a flutter of agriculture, there aren’t other industries that can support the destination. They figured out pretty quickly, if all of us don’t get this right, the one weak link in the chain will ruin it for everyone. So, restaurants, tour operators, resorts — every part of that ecosystem depends on everyone being a part of that community — and they came up with a game plan. They struck this beautiful balance and they’ve done an exemplary job of keeping it together, providing a great experience in trying times.”
Haines points to a less-expected option for meeting planners. “Cruises are slow to come back,” Haines says. “But cruise lines have put in place all sorts of protocols, and when you think about creating a travel bubble, you could charter a cruise ship. I wouldn’t be surprised that now that the CDC is lifting some of their restrictions, and they are coming back in to U.S. ports, that some of those options start to open up for groups.”
One thing meeting planners are consistent on: the value of relationships in a crisis. “Relationships matter,” Haines says. “The pandemic highlighted how imperative it is to align with partners who understand your business and the goals of your event, but in addition, are focused on growing the relationship.”
Chaulet says the strength of her company’s relationships — with clients, partners and the industry at large — was her biggest lesson learned from COVID. “We knew we were very strongly connected, but we experienced it firsthand during this crisis,” Chaulet says. “Those relationships you’ve built over the years, that hopefully you’ve kept in touch with and you’ve supported — work with them, help them help you. We’re all coming out of it, and a lot of our clients are frightened. Trust the vendors and companies that have been present; that have been strong during this crisis, because if they survived, you will continue to build great meetings and incentives, and shine in your job by relying on people that you can fundamentally trust. Count on your relationships.” C&IT