Corporate meetings and conferences historically have been a volatile market. While that’s not likely to change anytime soon, the sector seems to be experiencing movement. Meeting planners and CVBs across the South are seeing the demand for in-person corporate bookings start to trend upward after two years of little to no existence.
“Last year, we were seeing maybe 20 percent of groups following through, and now it’s more like 75 percent,” says Erin Cook, president and general manager of e2 Destination & Event Management in Winter Park, Fla. “Many groups have canceled two years in a row, so they just want to meet in person at this point. We’re seeing many groups making the call to get back to meeting in person.”
Florida did not completely shut down during the pandemic, and that means the Sunshine State never stopped playing host. “Because we’ve been open, specifically in Orlando, we’ve been hosting a lot of events,” says Mike Waterman, chief sales officer for Visit Orlando. “Corporate was already a strong market for us, and in fact, it was probably one of our largest markets pre-pandemic.” The events are large, too, with a recent convention in Orlando drawing more than 70,000 attendees, Waterman notes.
Nashville, Tenn., is another destination seeing a fair share of corporate bookings re-emerge. Fast-food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A held its annual conference there, bringing about 6,200 attendees to the Music City Center. “It went great, and they had a blast,” says Adrienne Siemers, chief sales officer for the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. “About three weeks before the event, they did add a virtual component for those that couldn’t make it in person or were more comfortable with virtual. But those that came had a great time and great meeting.”
Online remains ongoing
Offering a virtual option remains common, despite the dwindling number of people preferring to attend meetings online. “While we’re seeing pretty much everyone moving ahead with onsite conferences this year, there is a virtual component to it,” says Chris Dyer, CEO and founder of Conference Catalysts in Gainesville, Fla. “We’re needing to provide a virtual element to conferences moving forward as just a standard operating procedure. I think it’s understood and accepted at this point, at least with our clients, that there is a benefit to making the content accessible to more people—even though more people are wanting to get back in person.”
Hosting hybrid meetings can stretch a budget. Coupled with inflation and supply-chain issues, cost will continue to be a significant focus for many corporate groups. “When you are doing hybrid, you are really running two meetings simultaneously,” says Renee Radabaugh, president and CEO of Paragon Events based in Delray Beach, Fla. “Blending those two isn’t always easy. You need a different type of stage production for the hybrid component. That requires educating the consumer: If you want hybrid, we must have a lot of extra technology. It can’t be just adding on a Zoom meeting.”
While every corporate client is different—as is the complexity of the technology needed for online meetings—Radabaugh suggests clients hosting hybrid events budget at least an extra 25 to 30 percent. In addition, costs for in-person meetings continue to rise.
“As clients are coming back, some are coming back with a 2019 budget,” Radabaugh says. “It helps to re-educate their leadership about what things are going to cost. The supply-chain issues are increasing costs; food and beverage is more expensive; hotels have COVID-19 costs; and as demand increases, hotel and venue rates are going to increase. So, it’s important to educate the end user that budgets are going to have additional expenses tied to them beyond technology.”
Celebrate good times
While budgets continue to present challenges, the thrill of being back in person isn’t lost on anyone. That excitement is being incorporated into the overall theme for many group meetings. “It has been two-plus years for some companies to get together,” Cook says. “For many, this first live event is a celebration, so a lot of the theming is based around the joy of being out and together. There’s a new appreciation for that.”
Many corporate groups are plugging into this energy by seeking interactive experiences for attendees. Siemers notes while unique experiences have long been an important aspect of the corporate market, people are now raising the bar. “They don’t want to just walk into a ballroom for cocktails,” Siemers says. “They want to do it in a way that’s new and different.”
The renewed enthusiasm means groups are hosting unique events in creative spaces. Nashville is seeing musical experiences added to the agenda for many corporate groups, including using venues such as the National Museum of African American Music, Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, Ryman Auditorium, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, or a bar on downtown’s famous Honky Tonk Highway.
“We’ve even had some groups get with local songwriters to schedule workshops for their group to come together and write a song,” Siemers says. “Food experiences have been popular, as well. It’s all about creating a customized experience that provides a unique and interactive opportunity for the group to enjoy together.”
Mario Bass, chief sales officer for Visit San Antonio, also notes the corporate trend toward personal engagement. “As corporate groups are getting back together in person, they are meeting for an educational need, of course, but they are also seeking to create relationships and engagements,” Bass says.
San Antonio, which has a tradition of hosting corporate meetings and conferences, uses history as a backdrop for group engagement. “To create an experience and give a meeting a sense of place and purpose, San Antonio works on so many levels as we have a historical landscape that runs 300 years.”
The Texas city also ticks off another item on the list for many corporate groups: ease of transportation. “Time is of the essence for any group, even more so for corporate groups because they are trying to get as much bang for their buck as they can,” Bass says. “Entertainment venues, restaurants, museums, and attractions are all built into a walkable campus here, which eliminates the need for mass transportation. You don’t have to spend time shuttling people around here because of the ease of walkability.”
Though in-person corporate meetings are staging a comeback, the uncertain climate has made planning less strategic than it once was. “Before the pandemic, we knew within a percentage or two exactly what percentage of people were going to show up,” Dyer says. “We knew how many would be eating lunch each day. We would always have catering and room block numbers dialed in so perfectly that we had limited liability as far as the conference budget was concerned. Now, it’s basically unknown, which has changed the approach to venue and catering contracts.”
Now, planners are delaying commitments as long as possible. “We need the best idea possible of what to expect to create accurate calculations, so that’s causing us to delay,” Dyer continues. “We’re also trying to commit to as little as possible just in case something does cancel. Committing to less with the venue or caterer does mean that you don’t get as good of a deal typically, but right now it’s in the best interest of the conference to be as conservative as possible. If it means giving up concessions, that’s what we have to do for now.”
Putting off commitments creates short lead times for planning events. “Everything is coming in fast, with answers needed in the same day. You aren’t seeing the traditional time to turn around RFPs,” Radabaugh says. “Pre-COVID there was stability in managing timelines. Now there is a sense of urgency, with higher demands for faster turnarounds. There has never been a leisurely approach to this business, but now everything is coming in hot, and strategy is almost happening after you find your location and get an event on the books.”\
A lack of planning time is further complicated by the continued need to develop testing protocols, health and safety precautions, crisis management, and multiple backup plans. And an emerging trend has added a new element to the planning mix: COVID safety officers.
The majority of groups Cook works with are requesting safety officers onsite at their events. “It’s a huge trend right now,” she says. “Essentially, it’s having an EMT or someone similar onsite to perform tests or help if someone is having health issues or showing signs of COVID-19. We’ve been having them available throughout an entire event or at least during the high-peak times, like registration.”
So, while planners always have a Plan B, now they need Plans C and D. That’s where CVBs come in. The local CVB is the best source of information on up-to-date health and safety protocols, best practices, and potential money-savers.
“We know the market better than anyone,” Waterman says. “We know the peak season to visit and times a group may want to avoid. Best of all, there’s no cost to use the service of the DMO or CVB. We’re here to offer insight to help plan a meeting or event, and it’s what we love to do.”