Every international event organizer has a story to tell about the impact of 2020’s unexpected global pandemic on their business. And although the COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed around the world, international incentives — and international travel overall — still lags far behind the progress made as domestic travel surges.
“Being in the Northwest, specifically the Seattle area, we experienced COVID early in the U.S. Some of my clients are global companies, so this was on their radar immediately, and within the first two weeks of March 2020, events were either canceled, postponed or immediately converted to virtual,” says Angel Hanson, CMP, CMM, CEO of Angel Events.
For instance, Canada only recently agreed to loosen border restrictions with the U.S., and while many nations have reopened their borders to vaccinated travelers from the U.S., many still require quarantine periods of up to 10 days, putting a damper on any incentive trip. And the U.S. still has restrictions on travelers from 36 countries, including Brazil, China, the U.K. and 29 European Union (EU) nations.
No matter how each global meeting planner felt the impact of the coronavirus on client business, the pandemic has forced incentive organizers to rethink and re-imagine the future of the meetings industry. Short of peering into a crystal ball to forecast what international incentives might look like in the next few months, one thing remains clear: International incentive planners will continue to face an ever-changing landscape to meet client goals and objectives. Negotiating cancellations in normal times can be challenging; in unsettling times when those cancellations apply to international meetings and incentives, even more so, as more than one company discovered when they had to cancel programs early last year.
As owner of Althea Travel, Megan Clark’s boutique company offers a “one-stop shop” for clients planning incentive trips. In her role, Clark is involved in each event from start to finish, including suggestions for locations and itineraries, contacting properties and destination management companies, and planning tours and flights. “We luckily had a program on a cruise finish without a hitch in the middle of February  and so we really lucked out in not having anyone get sick or stuck. The rest of our clients really tried to remain optimistic, but by early May , they all rescheduled to be ahead of the game.”
Based on industry findings from random surveys, customer confidence is a key factor on the road to recovery. Forecasting for the events industry, Tahira Endean, CITP, CMP, DES, CED, head of events, SITE Global, acknowledges, “It is an ever-changing peek at government regulations, air travel and travel restrictions, and country-to-country and state-to-state openings, closures and quarantines. We had everyone postpone everything out of 2020 that was live and have daily, and ongoing, discussions with our partners about options for the future,” she says.
Rutger Hoorn, CIS, CITP, DES, vice president, global sales and strategic partnerships for Ovation Global DMC, says they have to constantly update their data to keep a handle on the latest trends. “From a global DMC perspective, we are constantly updating the data we have, and can see a slight increase in requests week by week. As far as 2020 vs 2021, 90% of our postponed events are moving toward [late 2021 to 2022], while it also heavily depends on the sector.”
While Clark remains hopeful that a few incentive trips will happen in fall 2021, her clients are also pushing toward early 2022. “Given that they are luxury trips, our clients want to make sure their guests feel comfortable taking a vacation and that their company is also seen in a positive light,” she says. And, as many clients don’t want to risk booking too soon and losing half of the guests out of fear of COVID, she adds, “They don’t want to seem insensitive taking their top sales agents on an incentive when so many Americans have been laid off during the pandemic.”
Clark’s sentiments are echoed by Lili S. Shadab, president and creative director of Elite Productions International, who thinks that while smaller events returned in late summer, larger meetings won’t start up again until at least the fourth quarter of 2021.
Hanson agrees, in view of her own client conversations. For example, for “one client who does two events a year, one in March in the U.S. and one international in mid-September, we will not start talking about September until early winter  based on the current situation.”
As one senior meeting planner with a national insurance company points out, so much “depends on country travel embargoes, quarantine guidelines, airlift and company guidelines on travel” that a return to meetings from that perspective is “likely not until 2022.”
While no one can predict with certainty how meetings will look in the future, there are a few indicators based on how meeting organizers have been adapting to their client’s needs in the last several months. For one thing, analysis from various surveys support that hybrid and local events proliferated in the latter part of 2020 and early 2021 with a robust virtual component. “I foresee [continued] interest in virtual and hybrid events in comparison to early 2019,” Shadab says. “We are all having to communicate very differently, and that may slowly become a larger way of life.”
Yet, Hanson doesn’t expect her clients, most of whom schedule their meetings to last for just more than three days, to plan fewer or shorter sessions when their in-person events return, especially for international venues because people are clamoring for in-person events to return. “We’re experiencing online fatigue. We’re doing no more than three hours a day [in our online events], and we’re cutting out a lot of information. I think folks will be so starved and ready for these [live] events.”
Looking forward, planners also expect to see the safety precautions and procedures implemented at meetings now that include social distancing in areas such as registration check in, trade shows, seating, etc. to remain a big part of meetings and events. Until travel confidence is restored, meeting planners might also anticipate lower meeting attendance as a result. “In a dream world, we can go back to the ways of 2019 sooner rather than later,” Clark says. “In the meantime, I foresee some companies limiting their incentive trips to a ‘Top 10’ or ‘Top 20’ sales agents to keep their numbers low.” It’s also possible, she adds “that we will need to offer additional excursions, so group tours have smaller groups and smaller group seating so that exposure is limited within the group.”
With more safety measures in place comes the need to plan for additional budget costs, suggests Hanson, citing a few added items, such as having temperature scanners and hand sanitizer stations during the registration process, or if the hotel doesn’t provide these services, meeting planners may need to budget money for those items. Plus, the need to have more space for social distancing requires changes in room configurations that may require additional costs. Hanson also mentions the impact of changes in food and beverage services as it’s almost certain that the buffet will be going away. “It’s definitely doable,” she offers. “But it will be at a cost. Will that cost be to the group or the hotel or a shared cost? That’s to be determined.” However, all of this is dependent on the availability and success of the vaccines worldwide, and if any COVID variants cause problems that lead to more lockdowns.
“I also have a concern that border restrictions could remain an issue depending on how accessible vaccines are,” Clark says. Beyond planning for travel airlift schedules and capabilities, as well as safety and security precautions, event organizers will also need to anticipate health considerations such as possible quarantines, evacuations and hospital support in destinations. Shadab mentions yet one more challenge for global meeting planners: “We are finding that a lot of time is still being spent educating and familiarizing clients with the new way communicating. That is the No. 1 challenge. Larger companies may be more familiar with the virtual world as they have had to communicate on a larger scale. However, the midsize to smaller companies will need still more time, education, and seeing other successful events and meetings to move forward.”
Despite the added challenges, however, in crisis lies opportunity. For example, while increased budget costs in some line items are likely, Clark also notes the possibility of reduced costs in others: “Initially, I think we will still have reduced flight and hotel prices since both industries will be eager for groups to book. Many cities are offering specials on tourist destinations such as free museum passes,” she says. “So I think there will be a monetary lift in what groups can do to make their first programs back extra special.” Conference organizers also cite flexibility of venues and hotels to ensure safety and health precautions are followed, and in attrition and cancellation policies. So, too, having smaller group sizes can create more personalized experiences for attendees.
Another significant positive change Hanson foresees is a focus on mindfulness. “I think we can use this situation to our advantage to continue our journey of creating a comfortable experience for attendees. For example, the food experiences will improve and become healthier with no more standing in line filling your plate.” Shadab concurs, saying, “We are all realizing more and more that the hectic lives we had created for ourselves need to be re-evaluated. So many of us have never been away from travel for as long as we have since COVID hit. As much as I am passionate about this business, I do feel [COVID-19] has forced so many of us to relate and communicate more on a human level with each other,” she says. “Hopefully, we will all move forward with more consideration for our own lives and everyone we work with.”
Despite the different rules depending on the country, the future for international event organizers looks bright, according to Clark. “Luckily for us, I think we will be more important and valuable to our clients than ever. For the companies who had an internal staff member plan their events or for groups who relied on a travel agent and hotel rep to take care of them, I think they realize how valuable an international meeting planner is.” Shadab agrees. “Meeting and event planners’ jobs are safe. Maybe not as lucrative as it was for a while, but more than ever, it depends on how we adapt to what is.”
According to the senior meeting manager with the national insurance company, adapting to the current conditions means “a higher need to be aware of safety, security and health concerns when considering and booking destinations,” she says. “More strategy, agility and flexibility will be required of planners — not just normal checklists — as well as having exit plans or strategies aside from just the logistics of programs that are already more detailed due to taking a group internationally.”
Shadab shares that perspective. She says, “Health and safety of all involved is No. 1, as well as a well-educated plan for safety with complete research on do’s and don’ts at the destination.” As for specific items that need to be on every international planner’s checklist, Hanson emphasizes: “We are still working on a checklist because right now there are too many unknowns. But the first step is knowing what the hotel [or destination] has put in place for safety measures. We will add to the checklist for sure. We will need to be more mindful of contracts, what hotels are doing for safety precautions, and internally with clients, creating that comfort, reassurance and communication to the attendees will be more important than ever. Definitely creating a comprehensive communication plan to create comfort and expectations” will be paramount.
While “venues that are flexible and creative have always been a focus, it is more important than ever,” Shadab says. “We cannot produce a successful program without good partners.” Additionally, she suggests that “adapting to technology, and becoming more innovative and creative,” will be an ongoing function of international meeting planners.
In the midst of the present uncertainty, Clark encourages global event organizers to stay patient and positive. “I think the attendees are going to be super eager to get back to flying and traveling again, especially after being stuck at home so much, but it will just take a bit of time before organizations will want to put their name on a sponsored trip.”
As far as what international meeting planners can do now while waiting for travel to pick up again, Hanson suggests staying in touch with industry colleagues “so you can be on top of the situation at all times. We often get busy and skip those connection points, but we can’t afford to do that anymore. Make those connections with your clients,” she says. “We need to keep in the mix of reports daily because of how fast things change, like with the CDC. Make time to involve yourself with MPI and industry seminars, meetings and Facebook groups. Attend weekly happy hours with guest speakers, not just in corporate events. Ask anyone coming back from an event, ‘How was your experience?’”
Clark also suggests that global meeting planners keep close contacts with DMC reps to keep updated on everything. “For example, The DMC Group emailed me that East Africa is opening to Americans and their DMC, Dragonfly, is offering a fantastic six-day package to Kenya. It might not be right for a group just yet, but letting your clients know there are options out there will help them find some relief. And who knows, maybe some of their VIPs are itching to travel and you can help get your travel partners some business.”
Above all, Hanson says: “Keep learning. Stay in the mix with virtual events and videos. Communicate and educate clients for next steps.”
“In short,” Shadab adds, “Client and guest, and staff, health and safety, and invention and creativity, are words to live by.” I&FMM