Meetings are critical for practically every type of business. Regardless of industry sector, it’s inevitable that some sort of corporate gathering will need to take place, whether it’s a training session, teambuilding effort, incentive trip, sales summit, or matchmaking event. According to the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) BTI Outlook Annual Global Report & Forecast, business travel increased for the last 10 years prior to COVID-19. When the pandemic began, that increase practically disappeared.
Over the last year, the corporate meetings and events industry has gone through the most unprecedented time in its history. According to the same GBTA report, “2020 business travel spending losses will be 10 times larger than those following 9/11 or the Great Recession of 2008.” The report estimates business travel spending dropped 68 percent between April 1 and December 31, 2020.
While the sector is starting to show some promising signs of growth—the GBTA report estimates business travel spending will increase 21 percent this year—it will be slow.
“In the last 60 days, we’ve had clients reach out to us, mostly prospecting about a future live event,” said Sally Mainprize, SMM, DES, owner of Iron Peacock Events. “That’s a great sign because it went so very quiet for live corporate events for a while. People are wanting to talk about it again, even though there may not be specific dates yet. But overall, I see people wanting to get back to live meetings.”
Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) and corporate meeting planners across the South agree that corporate meetings will likely be one of the last events to come back, but are seeing some being planned for the third and fourth quarters of 2021, with some scheduled as early as summer. While this is later than everyone hoped, the good news is companies are looking to host this year instead of continuing to push them back, showing the value of face-to-face meetings hasn’t been lost.
“People have been working remotely and having meetings virtually to the point that there is getting to be a strong demand for face-to-face meetings,” said Visit Austin executive vice president Steve Genovesi. “There is a huge value in corporate meetings, whether it’s to connect the culture of attendees, set strategic plans, sales, hosting customers—there’s so much that can’t continue to be done virtually. At some point, it must be done in person to improve the culture of the company, keep business moving forward, and make the sale.”
While more people are ready to get back to in-person meetings, it must be acknowledged that these meetings won’t look the same as before. COVID-19 has changed the way corporate meetings are held, ushering in many new items to the planner’s to-do list and bringing many existing considerations to the forefront.
Health and safety has always been important to meeting planners and event hosts, but now it has become paramount. The American Express 2021 Global Meetings and Events Forecast shows 68 percent of meeting planners are confident in attendee health and safety components for an in-person event, and hotels and facilities are working hard to ensure that safety.
Facilities across the South have been striving since mid-2020 to achieve GBAC STAR accreditation through the Global BioRisk Advisory Council, the worldwide cleaning industry association. The program certifies a facility is implementing the industry’s highest standards on cleaning, disinfection, and infectious disease prevention.
New Orleans’ Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Louis Armstrong International Airport, and the Hyatt Regency New Orleans have achieved that accreditation, along with many other facilities across the South such as the Austin Convention Center, Myrtle Beach International Airport, Myrtle Beach Convention Center, and Louisville’s Kentucky International Convention Center and Kentucky Exposition Center. In May 2020, VisitDallas and the Dallas Tourism Public Improvement District led an initiative to become the first destination to receive the accreditation, and thus far dozens of hotels, cultural institutions, the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, and Dallas Fort Worth Airport have been accredited.
“Having third party validation certification is going to be critical, and it will be the new requirement,” added VisitDallas senior vice president and chief sales officer Brad Kent. “TSA was really born out of 9/11, and I believe a stringent focus on this type of safety will be born out of this pandemic.”
Beyond the GBAC STAR certification, other safety measures will also be seen going forward, such as more self-contained meetings, adds Genovesi.
“I think we’ll see meetings happening all within the hotel, creating a bubble for attendees so they stay within the hotel instead of leaving to meet in another venue,” he said.
Genovesi also expects technology to factor into safety, as he’s seeing some meetings provide attendees with tracking devices that monitor all interactions to improve contact tracing.
“So, if by chance someone does report a positive COVID test later, the planners can see who that person interfaced with and for how long to know exactly who to contact. It’s a really innovative way to approach safety,” he said.
A new take on technology
Technology has long been a requirement for any corporate meeting or conference, but today’s needs go well beyond the traditional audio/video elements as hybrid meetings take center stage.
Looking into 2021 and beyond, there are no more excuses for bad technology, said Jennifer Clark, owner of Emerge Events.
“Last year, everyone had more desperation, and it was about doing whatever you could to keep going,” she said. “I feel like this year, there will be less grace for bad technology. Everyone needs to ramp up their game going forward.”
To do this, Clark explains, companies must focus on finding the right technology platform and bring in quality production teams that can help create a virtual element to engage the virtual attendees.
“Event planners need to be studying television production,” Clark added. “Engaging the virtual attendees is completely separate from engaging in-person attendees,”
As she explained, “It’s two completely different experiences and they have to be treated separately so you can actually make sure you’re engaging both. For those virtual attendees, you can’t just stick a camera in the back of the room and stream every session. That’s not going to work. It’s boring.”
To engage virtual attendees, it will be like producing a television show, potentially even adding a need for studio-like space, which Genovesi is also seeing at some hotels.
“It may be just for a short time, but I’m seeing some hotels and convention centers announce they have actual studios,” he said. “Full turn-key production space ready to go for a simulcast. So that might be something in the future that a hotel offers.”
As Clark notes, finding a good partner that understands what’s needed for a good production is going to be key, and she suggests thinking outside the box for those partnerships. For example, she has one client hosting a hybrid meeting in a church.
“The church has really ramped up its in-house production, and that will help us a lot because they get it,” she said. “They have been doing virtual services, so they have what’s needed to make it happen, and they don’t need the space during the week.”
But how does one balance the budget when needing to bring in bigger and better technology options without having more money? That’s the question many meeting planners are being faced with in planning for hybrid meeting. There are some options to help balance the budget, notes Mainprize, which includes rethinking how many sessions are livestreamed.
“What I’m seeing, to keep costs down, is getting speakers to pre-record their part and then waiting and making it available at the same time as the live session or sometime after,” she said. “We may see more livestreaming in coming years, but frankly, because so many industries have been impacted by COVID-19, budgets are down, so budgets are tight.”
Clark suggests that instead of streaming most of the speakers, select only a few, such as keynote speakers. Clark also notes while technology is adding line items to the budget, it can also help cut some corners. Planners can also utilize technology to make some sessions online only.
“You may have a really good speaker you can’t afford to bring in physically, but maybe could get a lower rate because they don’t have to travel,” she said. “Or maybe have some sessions that everyone, even in-person attendees, would watch at a later date. You’re really not limited by place anymore.”
One cohesive experience
In addition to figuring out how to engage the virtual attendees, planners also must figure out how to provide cohesive experiences for both groups—virtual and in-person—and offer quality engagement between the two. That’s needed now more than ever, since so many employees have been working remotely and are in need of connections.
That’s where the platform selection really comes into play, said Lisa Burton, Meeting Expectations senior vice president, meeting division.
“Maybe that means you need a robust mobile app so the in-person audience is on with the virtual audience and there’s an opportunity for teambuilding that way,” she said. “Going into the event planning, you have to acknowledge you have two distinct groups and try to find where there can be overlap and integration.”
Another way to wow attendees and bring them together is by offering immersive experiences they can both enjoy.
Louisville Tourism has helped its groups by offering cocktail demonstrations. In-person attendees participated onsite, and virtual attendees had the cocktail items pre-shipped to them so they could use during the live demonstration.
“The experience was to teach them how to make a Louisville-themed cocktail, and it’s a way to create an interactive experience they can also enjoy,” said Louisville Tourism vice president of destination Services Zach Davis, CMP, CTA. “It’s also a way to give everyone a taste of the city and feel like they had a unique experience, whether they’re onsite or not.”