It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has created chaos in the travel and hospitality industries, with most travel coming to a complete halt, and in-person meetings and incentive trips being almost non-existent since March.
For instance, Crump Life Insurance Services chose not to have any in-person meetings or incentive trips for the entirety of the second half of 2020. “We have invested in developing our virtual meeting skills for internal programming and client-facing activities, and have been able to achieve many of our business objectives with virtual training sessions, business meetings, and an incentive recognition event,” says Sherri K. Lindenberg, senior vice president of marketing for Crump Life Insurance Services. “The health, safety and well-being of our teammates, and clients, is our No. 1 priority, and until we feel more confident that the risk is minimal, we will continue to operate in a virtual environment.”
Jennifer Glynn, CIS, CITP, managing partner of Meeting Encore Ltd. and Intuitive Conferences & Events Inc., notes many clients have postponed their meetings and incentives until late 2021 and into 2022, while others have selected to move ahead virtually with online concerts and virtual galas. “The demand to motivate and reward employees has not declined. While there are some sectors suffering throughout the pandemic, there are many that are very much experiencing a boom, and the teams and talent within this sector are working hard and in high demand,” she says. “Companies are already focusing on future incentive sourcing for 2022 and 2023.”
That appears to be the party line for most, and until it’s proven the vaccine is effective, it’s likely that a halt to meetings and incentive trips could last at least another year. But with businesses starting to slowly re-open, many companies are thinking about what their meetings will look like in 2021, including the destinations in which they feel safest, and the size and parameters that will offer the most comfort to meeting attendees.
Jumi Aluko, a Los Angeles-based event planner and strategic marketing communications consultant of Jumi Aluko Events, says people need to be smart when considering bringing people together again. “If the town in which the meeting will take place is open to hosting groups of large people, then [hosts and planners] need to work together, even closer than before, to make sure that we are doing everything possible to ensure all potential participants feel safe,” she says. “The pandemic has made the act of communicating valuable, and the ‘why’ behind an activity that much more important.”
For example, with an in-person event, there are opportunities to get a little bit of insight into an organization and the purpose prior to the event. Then, during the event, people can mix and mingle with others, all while learning about individuals, the organization and the value the event brings. Those activities are often followed by post-event networking and smaller offshoot events. “But, with virtual events, you don’t have those multiple opportunities,” Aluko says. “You really have to do almost all of the communication beforehand, because if you don’t, considering there are a million-and-one different online activities happening at the same time, you won’t capture the audience you set out to capture.”
Nicole Marsh, CMP, DMCP, partner of Imprint Events Group, a DMC Network Company, has seen 95% of what hasn’t already been cancelled moved to virtual events. “I know many suppliers in destinations with nothing on their books through the end of the year,” she says. “The programs that we are seeing happening virtually are at a fraction of the budget, and very conservative in content and spend. Even if an industry is performing well during the pandemic, they are holding back based on perception and fear.”
It seems every company has its own plan for what would constitute scheduling meetings again off-site. Zeshan Jeewanjee, CEO of One Day Event Insurance, had to cut all corporate events and gatherings since January, changing all its plans for traveling, gatherings and corporate meetings. “We are planning on avoiding all events and large company meetings until Q4 2021 at the earliest,” he says. “It’s more important to improve our efficiency with remote work than to plan something that may not occur and potentially put our team’s safety at risk. To be safe, we are avoiding conferences and gatherings until we have a clearer outlook on the current situation.”
For One Day Event Insurance to have in-person meetings again, it would need to make sure that everyone’s safety is its first, second and third priority. “After that, if every attendee is comfortable with the location, precautions taken, and number of people at the meeting, then we would be OK to hold a meeting as we regularly do,” Jeewanjee says. “For some of our more important meetings, we have considered requiring a negative COVID-19 test within the last week to attend, this way everyone has peace of mind and the risk is minimized.”
As a national company, Crump Life Insurance Services is planning to wait until it can create a consistent and comfortable experience for teammates traveling to and from all locations that adds value to the business. “We will look to work closely with our hotel and DMC partners to deliver on these programs and leverage the resources from FICP and other industry organizations to give us guidance in these areas,” Lindenberg says. “We believe the first events we will hold will be leadership meetings for our senior teams to escalate planning activities, develop best practices and serve as role models for appropriate procedures.”
For incentive travel to start again, Glynn thinks corporations and their employees will require the confidence to return to travel. “Businesses will need to see an appetite from their employees and be convinced that it’s safe to do so, putting qualifiers at risk of illness is simply not an option that would or should ever be considered,” she says. “While many governments, including our own, have provided quick and effective responses to the pandemic, we do require a more collaborative approach between government, international agencies globally, and live event associations for global travel to resume effectively and in sustainable way.”
For this reason, many are being patient. Corporations are conservative and cautious and will want certainties around health security, which may take some time to achieve. “We are seeing some of our customers survey their staff and external potential attendees to better understand their willingness/desire to travel, as well as what health protocols the attendees are willing to follow, i.e. pre-health survey, temperature checks, etc.,” Glynn says. “These have been encouraging, demonstrating the pent-up demand for travel by attendees and their eagerness to return to incentives, conferences and meetings.”
To that end, Meeting Encore’s team is partnering with clients, and with industry bodies and associations globally through participating in business recovery task forces, and consulting on developing a plan for the “new normal” for face-to-face events. Aluko is ready to start planning meetings now, and if her client is ready, she sees no reason why it can’t happen. “Let’s keep it small, yet purposeful, and work together to make it safe for everyone involved,” she says.
Tina Weede, CITP, CIS, CRP, president and CEO of Peerless Performance and vice president, research and content, for the SITE Foundation, notes a lot of incentives are being pushed to fall of 2021. “A lot is going to depend on countries reopening and [if the] vaccine [is] effective for the masses,” she says. “A lot of that is still up in the air of course.” Peerless Performance has been able to take the concept of incentive travel and package it into a concierge offering, and clients seem to be enjoying that — for instance, arranging a domestic trip, usually four to five hours from their home base and providing the same top-notch experience they would get on an overseas trip. “The premise behind this is people still want to travel, and it’s the No. 1 thing in creating high achievement with experiences that can never be taken away, and when done well, it will drive future behavior and future performance,” Weede says. “It’s not going to replace incentive travel, but it will allow a more inclusive offering our clients can offer their employees.”
Marsh notes that the industry needs companies to take a leap and share that live meetings can still happen safely and successfully. “We’re ready; we need our governments, clients, their organizations and their leadership to believe in the value of meetings, and allow them to take place,” she says. “It will be baby steps . . . smaller board, executive level or regional meetings, and then once those have proven safe and successful, we can gradually grow from there with larger meetings and incentives.”
Choosing Destinations and Venues
As we return to incentives and events, there will a greater demand for privatization of venues. The ability to secure your attendees from the general public will be important, as social distancing and health security will remain paramount. There will also be a greater demand for outdoor spaces — weather permitting. Venues where participants can do more on-site without having multiple transfer options to go off-site will also be in demand. “As attendees return to a sense of ‘normality,’ I predict an even greater demand for those Instagrammable moments,” Glynn says. “If they are going to take a risk in meeting up in groups that are not their family and friends again, they will require something unique and enviable.”
That will mean greater searches for private islands, secluded resorts, small Relais Chateau-style lodges, safari camps and more that will allow the event planners to manage the program with tighter health security protocols. Charter and private jets will also see an increase in demand. It’s predicted that, at first, most companies will be reluctant to go anywhere that isn’t within driving distance. “Initially, until we have more consistent information about the risk of air travel, we will look to avoid it when possible and try to hold local and regional programming,” Lindenberg says. “For any locations we select to work with, we’ll want to assure compliance with all established hospitality standards, local and governmental guidance, plus have a demonstrated commitment to providing a safe and healthy environment.”
Additionally, the company will seek venue partners who can be flexible with contracting terms and open-minded to trying different approaches to best meet today’s needs. For example, if group meals still don’t feel right, Lindenberg will look to have meal credits issued for individual on-site dining.
Glynn thinks it won’t be long until there’s a return to regional and national destinations. “The ability to travel to a destination without using public transport will be a significant draw,” she says. “There will be an opportunity for lesser-known regional locations to showcase their hidden treasures. As corporations look for safety from the crowds for their attendees, the draw of nature will prove heavy. Coastal retreats, lakes, rural towns/villages and areas of outstanding natural beauty will be in high demand.” Additionally, she shares, destinations that work together will recover first. “Now is the time for CVBs to get their community working together from airports and transport providers to hotels, activity centers, DMCs and more,” Glynn says. “A consistent and unified approach in matters of health, safety and security from a destination will instill confidence in planners, corporations and attendees. The same applies as confidence returns and global travel opens up.”
Aluko will be looking at more boutique-type venues with both indoor and outdoor space, and thinks, given the nature of event sizes for the near future, smaller venues will definitely be priority. “The biggest thing that will determine where I’ll plan in terms of the destination are the respective destination’s COVID-19 testing and quarantine policies,” she says. “For example, currently when traveling to Jamaica, you may still be required to take a COVID test upon arrival and quarantine for 48 hours until you get your test results. This may not be a problem if you’re on week-long vacation; however, for a three-day conference, this is not ideal.” While she thinks it will be difficult to avoid air travel altogether, the goal will be to keep things as local as possible to the host organization, and if not local, then definitely keeping it national before international.
Marsh thinks the larger the spaces, the better, as this will allow attendees to spread out within a resort/property or within the meeting space. “The more meeting and event space a venue has, the more flexible it will be for us to get creative with programming, the meeting flow and room layouts,” she says. “Warmer destinations with outdoor meeting and event space will be most attractive. I see smaller venues that an organization can buy out and take over the entire property also doing well. In a buy-out scenario, you can control having fewer outsiders, whether that is other groups or general public, around your attendees. This would allow the organization to do advance testing as they deem necessary and control the environment.”
She’s already seeing destinations where governments are allowing larger group sizes, which are attractive for small meetings. “We’re seeing groups that want to meet live, move from one destination to another because of government restrictions,” Marsh says. “With there still being concerns about air travel, I also see centrally located and driveable destinations being popular, so attendees are not required to be on a plane for 5+ hours to fly across the country. This may create a demand for smaller regional meetings or even simultaneous meetings happening across the country — to limit the flight time — allowing the group to still experience the same thing and feel engaged, perhaps simulcasting speakers and then allowing breakouts with conversation at the local level.”
Jeewanjee will look at open and well-ventilated spaces that are not used regularly when it’s time to start planning again. “We are considering all options though, including meeting outdoors where possible,” he says. “At our office, we have a conference room we used a couple times for urgent board meetings where we designated the sitting spaces for everyone to make sure there is always 8 feet of distance between everyone. We will limit the number of people at all meetings so only the people necessary to the meeting are attending. If there is anyone who only needs to be there for a short period of time or can video conference in, then they are advised to do so.” Since his company meets with people, venues and insurance agents across the country, and have multiple offices abroad, it will choose future meeting destinations based on everyone involved for each meeting. “We want to limit the total time, number of flights and stops everyone must make to attend the meeting,” Jeewanjee says. “We will choose destinations with lower COVID rates, higher testing and less density. By taking all these factors into account, our teams and partners feel more comfortable with attending a meeting if needed.”
Reasonable Expectations for 2021
As of the fall of 2020, Crump Life Insurance Services had five small meetings of less than 50 people each planned for next spring — two in Las Vegas, one in Salt Lake City, one in New York City and one in Pennsylvania. “We are optimistic that these events can continue and expect that social distancing and other COVID best practices will need to be observed,” Lindenberg says. “The locations were picked because they were planned events from 2020 that we rolled to 2021; however, we believe the size of the venues and the size of our groups will enable us to have good options to keep our teammates safe.” The company also has an incentive planned for next summer in Southern California, and is optimistic that this event will proceed as well. “The selected property is quite spread out, minimal needs for elevators, and plenty of outdoor dining or individual dining venue options,” Lindenberg says.
While 2021 may not bounce back as quickly as many had originally hoped, Glynn notes meetings will return after business travel resumes, and convention centers and sporting venues that are easy to reach with parking facilities will prove popular as they will provide the space required. “Incentive travel will return on a smaller scale at a local and national level, but it will be late 2021 before we see an appetite return for international incentives or an openness for air travel,” she says.
Aluko expects meetings to resume in-person, but on smaller scales in early 2021. “I think most, if not everyone, is a bit tired of virtual meetings and events, and that there will be an increased desire to have in-person meetings, even if they are at 25% to 50% capacity,” she says. At this point, no one can really reasonably predict the future. That probably means there won’t be any meetings or events of significant size return in 2021. I&FMM