Just a few months ago, discussing future trends in face-to-face meetings would have been considered premature as COVID-19 ravaged the industry. Planners who were fortunate enough to be retained by their companies were steeped in virtual meetings, and there was little if any “light at the end of the tunnel” when it came to the return of in-person events. But the steady increase of “Zoom fatigue” and, especially, the release of vaccines this year have led many companies to plan — albeit tentatively — on hosting in-person, off-site meetings for this fall and into 2022. Thus, questions about how such meetings and the planning process will evolve have become relevant, and are important for companies and planners to begin considering.
Jennifer C. Squeglia, CMP, owner of Naples, Florida-based RLC Events Inc., says, “I am seeing that people are looking to host meetings in the fall. I think people are feeling quite confident about being able to gather in person, obviously being mindful of COVID protocols. I definitely think there is hope on the horizon and optimism with the vaccines,” she says. “My first in-person event is in November. It is a smaller meeting in a very spacious venue. Currently, and this could change, it is fully in person.”
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based Crump Life Insurance Services is another example of a company that expects to return to face-to-face events in the fall. “We are planning in-person meetings in September and October, which are two ‘rollover’ events repositioned from 2020,” says Sherri K. Lindenberg, senior vice president, marketing communications. “We will be promoting them earlier than we would have in the past to give people an opportunity to ‘reserve a spot’ in case we need to limit attendance due to COVID restrictions. We are optimistically beginning to focus on 2022 events, but have not yet begun RFPs for any other than those [meetings] that are still from agreements being rolled over from 2020.”
Not only will these initial face-to-face events be run differently in view of COVID protocols, but the planning approach will also be different. Flexibility and contingency plans are critical, as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other government guidelines can change depending on the trajectory of the virus. Planning with a sense of uncertainty is new to many event professionals, Squeglia says. “As planners, I think we’re wired to really get ahead of things. I always like to have all my ducks in a row and everything set. But COVID has taught us to have that flexibility as things change. It’s a different mindset. Great planners have always been mindful of contingency planning and I think, if anything, COVID has sharpened that ability.”
One way that the increased emphasis on contingency planning has manifested itself is in contract language. Hotels in general will not accept a “pandemic clause” that absolves a group from cancellation damages in the case of a pandemic, since the flu might be considered a pandemic. But, certainly, the existing force majeure clause can be enhanced with contingencies that create a curtailment of travel. “We have strengthened the language of our force majeure clause to be more inclusive of the types of unknown scenarios that COVID has made us think of and tie back to CDC guidance and local market restrictions,” Lindenberg explains.
Contingency planning is also manifested in the preparation of a backup virtual option. If a fully in-person event becomes impractical due to unanticipated developments — pandemic related or otherwise — planners are now more able to easily shift to a hybrid or completely virtual format. In fact, the long period of exclusively virtual meetings has made many organizations so comfortable with the format that they may well continue its robust use even when face-to-face events become fully viable. “I do think that it will become part of companies’ meeting strategy because there are some advantages to virtual,” Squeglia says. “You’re not dealing with travel fatigue or taking the time to travel. People can spend a little more time at home with their family. Also, if you’re doing a meeting in a facility, you have capacity issues, whereas virtual you can double or triple your attendee list and there are no capacity issues.”
But to what extent will virtual remain prominent once the pandemic subsides? Given that companies have experienced the advantages of virtual for quite a while, will they replace more of their in-person events with that format? Or will the pent-up desire for meeting in person reestablish those events at pre-pandemic levels? No one has a crystal ball, of course, but Lindenberg provides an educated guess as to what the future in-person vs. virtual balance will look like: “I think that many companies and their employees have discovered the opportunity to use virtual and hybrid in a more productive way than in the past, and that we can’t put this proverbial genie back in the bottle,” she says. “However, companies and their employees have clearly identified the benefits of in-person events as well. In my opinion, there will be some initial increase in in-person events because of pent-up demand, but that over time, there will likely be slight decrease in the overall number, compared with 2019 as a baseline.”
Determining whether in-person or virtual is the best format for a given meeting will become an integral part of planning, at least more so than in the past. “I think in the long run, it’s going to make event planners all the more relevant and strategic partners,” Squeglia says. “It’s more than, ‘Are we going to do a meeting or not?’ It’s more like, ‘Yes, we’re going to do a meeting, but how are we going to deliver the message?’” The criteria for making that decision has become clearer, and the ultimate result will be better return on investment (ROI) and return on equity (ROE) for both types of meeting.
“I believe that the events that are in-person will be designed to be more impactful, as we have learned to differentiate between what is important to do face-to-face [interpersonal interaction, true engagement, networking, peer exposure, etc.] vs. what can be accomplished virtually [education, communication, information sharing],” Lindenberg says. This divide in objectives does not imply that the weaknesses of virtual cannot be improved. For example, the lower degree of engagement can be ameliorated with certain tactics. “We are exploring many simple technologies that improve interactivity when participating in virtual meetings — prize wheels, trivia, bingo, etc.,” she adds. Thus, both in-person and virtual events stand to evolve as their respective roles become clarified.
Hybrid is a third option on the table that will be part of the decision-making process. “Hybrid events will be a part of our portfolio moving forward, but we will continually analyze the cost benefit of hybrid vs. in-person vs. virtual,” says Patricia Kerr, CMP, AVP, meeting & event management with Nationwide. “Evaluating an event’s goals and objectives will be key in defining how an event is delivered. Education and training, networking and knowledge, and relationship building remain the top three event objectives. How a company ranks these deliverables will be key in defining delivery. For example, if your No. 1 goal is education and training, you can easily deliver on this goal in a virtual event format. As networking and knowledge and, more importantly, relationship building become event priorities, an in-person delivery method needs to take precedence.”
When the objective is to reward or incentivize, virtual experiences generally pale in comparison to in-person. “Incentive conferences you really can’t replicate virtually. I think some people have done a really good job in the last year trying to. But at the end of the day, you want to get somebody at a beautiful five-star resort doing something with their colleagues that they wouldn’t be able to do on their own, and that’s where event specialists really create the magic,” Squeglia says.
While something akin to bonding can take place during a Zoom session, bonding that is based in a mutual, in-person experience is simply more powerful — and that is part of what motivates potential qualifiers. “While other events can be delivered virtually, [incentive programs] require face-to-face interactions,” Kerr says. “While I don’t think the number of said events will increase, I do think the number of attendees or qualifiers will increase; attendees are starved for human interaction.”
The need for that kind of interaction may well increase in an age when remote work is more prevalent. During the pandemic, many companies have discovered that their employees can work remotely just as effectively; some have even eschewed their offices and become virtual companies. Since these arrangements often bring time and money savings, they can be expected to continue post pandemic. “If we do get to the point where people aren’t in the office together [as much or at all], I think that’s going to increase in-person, off-site meetings, so they can have that valuable face-time with each other,” Squeglia says.
Apart from increased usage of the virtual medium, another pandemic practice that may become an integral part of the events industry is increased sanitation practices. This is particularly true of meeting venues, where newly introduced features, such as hand sanitizer stations, will likely become permanent fixtures. “I think for the foreseeable future, we will have an expectation of clear communications to attendees in advance and on-site during events about the increased level of sanitation practices being employed, with particular concern to the HVAC systems, confirmation of room cleanliness, etc.,” Lindenberg says.
Squeglia adds that “our hospitality partners have just done an incredible job of coming up with standards and the cleaning protocols. This has been hard on them, and it’s been a significant expense.”
Indeed, hotels have incurred not only additional expenses in that area, but also major revenue losses since travel was curtailed. It may be thought that the financial setbacks the hospitality industry has endured will create a buyer’s market post pandemic, at least initially. However, leisure travel has kept many properties afloat and is coming back strong, meaning that those properties will not be in a position where they desperately need group business. “Leisure travel is extraordinarily strong, causing date and rate pressure,” Kerr says. “In addition, the movement of programs from 2020 into 2021, ’22 and ’23 is causing supply issues. Supply issues, mixed with pent-up demand, equals a seller’s market.” Thus, incentive resorts will be particularly well positioned given the pent-up demand in that market and their leisure travel draw. “An urban center hotel that relies on a lot of group business and was really hit [by the pandemic] may be more willing to negotiate,” Squeglia says.
Besides a general pent-up demand among groups and the resurgence of leisure travel, many other factors will impact post-pandemic site sourcing, resulting in a market that “defies traditional definitions of a buyer’s or seller’s market,” Lindenberg says. She highlights the following factors:
Once the pandemic is completely behind us and the meetings industry regains its footing, most of these conditions are likely to no longer be in place. Nonetheless, they affect the immediate future of in-person event planning. We can expect the more distant future to resemble the pre-pandemic meetings world, except with more strategic usage of virtual and hybrid, and a stronger emphasis on sanitation and attendee health. Both are welcome trends. I&FMM