As last year ended, the convention, event, and meeting industry could arguably boast a considerable head of steam going into 2020.
The industry had just accounted for more than $100 billion in revenue in 2019, and U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics targeted 11 percent growth in the industry through 2026. The longest economic expansion in U.S. history and a stock market with its three major indices breaking all-time highs provided a broader signal for an overall economic outlook that seemed universally positive.
Yet now, just a few quarters later, much of that optimism has been replaced with uncertainty in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The nationwide efforts to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus have grounded the convention, event, and meeting industry to a halt, just as it has many other industries. This unprecedented health crisis has forced the cancellation, postponement, and re-scheduling of thousands of conventions and meetings nationwide.
“It feels kind of like the Red Wedding scene from Game of Thrones. There is not much left,” said Cassie Brown, owner of TGC Events, an award-winning full service event planning firm based in Charlotte, N.C.
At the pandemic’s onset, she initially had a 50/50 split of cancellations and reschedules among her clients, but in recent weeks, 90 percent of those rescheduled canceled, while others have gone virtual, opting for tele-meetings instead.
Quarantine restrictions greatly limit movement nationwide
Shelter-in-place and quarantine restrictions greatly limited movement nationwide during the spring and early summer, and an emphasis on preventative measures such as handwashing, wearing protective masks, and keeping a moderate distance between people when in public or at essential businesses has had some success. The federal government has empowered individual states to make decisions about reopening gradually.
However, even with loosening restrictions, convening in large groups with people who have traveled from across the country has become problematic, if not dangerous.
The end result is a convention and event industry that will likely have to just take things as they come, one advance or setback at a time.
“Right now, we’re trying to re-book and re-locate, but it is a wait-and-see approach. Everybody is on pause,” said Jack Berry, president at Richmond (Va.) Region Tourism. “It is hard to predict what will happen next, but some events will be permanently lost.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), by the end of May there had been more than 1.6 million reported COVID-19 cases in the United States, with 100,000 deaths. Among states in the southeast region, Georgia, Florida, and Texas have been among the hardest hit, each with more than 40,000 reported cases. North Carolina (nearly 23,000) and Virginia (more than 36,000) have also been heavily impacted.
Putting the country on pause has helped to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, as the notion of “flattening the curve” has entered the 2020 lexicon.
Eventually, medical experts believe they will take back the upper hand. Yet at the time of writing, there is no vaccine or specific antiviral treatments for COVID-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading advisor on the Trump administration’s COVID-19 response team, asserts a 12 to 18 month timetable for an injectable vaccine is probable, with a best-case outcome by December or January.
Planning for the future is necessary yet fraught with peril
A recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll found that 77 percent of Americans were ‘very concerned or concerned’ about a second wave of COVID-19 infections, both from possible premature relaxing of distancing and the flu season.
The lack of a predictable end date makes planning for the future both necessary yet fraught with peril. A second wave of the virus, or a spike in positive cases would render many of the contingencies moot. Instead of re-booking for fall and winter of 2020, many are holding off until 2021, or much further down the road.
But many corporate and industry events from the spring have optimistically been re-scheduled for the late summer, like the Associated Builders and Contractors’ convention in late August at Nashville’s Music City Center which is a popular annual gathering. Press releases for this event and scores of others contain mostly tentative wording. If the pandemic deepens, or a significant outbreak occurs at a rescheduled event, all bets are proverbially off.
“Corporations do not want the liability of employees being in large groups. They will not risk hurting their brand by sponsoring an event where an outbreak might occur,” said Brown.
She suggests the road back to normalcy for the industry includes four main challenges—legal limitations on gathering sizes, corporations limiting employees to gatherings of 50 people or less until June 2021, people scared to be in large groups, particularly among strangers, and a possible recession or even a depression.
“Any one of these would be a challenge [by themselves]. Simultaneously, they would be devastating,” said Brown.
Meetings industry can take guidance from sports events
She recommends the industry can take guidance from the sports world, which will have daily opportunities to learn a new normal.
“The successful return of fans to sports venues at reduced levels may be the best way to ease people back to large gatherings. Many sporting events are held in outside venues organized by experts in attendee movement, crowd control, and risk management,” said Brown, who has coordinated many high-profile events for Fortune 500 firms and national groups. “An organization like the National Football League (NFL) can try out different things at different venues and quickly develop best practices to implement the following week.”
Besides the passage of time, how do organizers overcome fear of a COVID-19 reprisal within the industry? It will likely lean heavily on education, and learning a comprehensive set of new safety provisions for all parties involved.
“Venues are going to have to spend time educating planners and clients on safety protocols. This education is more than just sending a mass email, or adding a page to the rarely-read procedures. It is phone calls, webinars, and Zoom meetings. It is small educational gatherings that show new layouts, food and beverage processes, and arrival procedures,” added Brown. “The rental companies proactively sent out how their product can now be used to maintain social distance. Venues need to do the same. What do room layouts look like now? What is the new menu look like? What replaces the buffet lunch or the continental breakfast? ”
In Louisville, Ky., life in the convention and meeting world goes on.
Doug Bennett, Louisville Tourism’s senior vice president of convention development, estimates he has rescheduled 60 groups, representing 90,000 room nights with an estimated economic impact of more than $67 million.
Fourth quarter convention calendar looks optimistic
Responses from planners, trade associations, and other industry members in his market have been very positive so far, he said.
“Our fourth quarter convention calendar is very robust. We have shifted several groups into the fall time frame with open dates and space very difficult to find,” Bennett said. “We are aggressively booking 2021 with a mix of new solicitations and rescheduling 2020 groups. Interest and demand for the destination continues to be very high.”
Easing concerns about the COVID-19 will be an ongoing focus for the organization.
“The health and safety of visitors to Louisville will continue to be a priority for Louisville Tourism and our industry partners,” said Bennett. “Developing science-based solutions and standards toward providing clean and safe environments will not be a one-and-done process. A consistent and sustainable plan will help overcome the stigma and fear being created by the pandemic.”
Coastal Mississippi is the official regional tourism entity representing Mississippi’s three coastal counties, Jackson, Hancock, and Harrison, with Biloxi as its most well-known destination.
The area lost more than 55 percent of its group business in May and June due to postponements and cancellations. The 11 casinos in the region recently re-opened, as well as its popular beaches and restaurants.
“Planners that are looking to schedule their events in Coastal Mississippi are prioritizing the safety and health of their attendees. They want to know how social distancing will be addressed in terms of seating in breakout rooms, and registration areas, and whether attendees will be required to wear masks, and what the plans are for meal services,” said Milton Segarra, president of Coastal Mississippi.
Returning to a level of comfort And security
So will things ever return to normal, or at least to the optimism that began the year?
“Overall, I’m of the mind the industry will gravitate to where we were before,” said Berry. “I think we will have the presence of these [preventative] measures for some time, if not permanently. Once we have a vaccination in place, we will eventually return to a level of comfort and security. I am confident in the future.”
Segarra agrees with this optimistic view.
“Our industry has weathered many years and many disruptions, and continued to unite and support each other,” he said. “While the scale of the COVID-19 disruption is a much larger issue, you will see conventions, tradeshows, and special events come back in a strong way. It will be gradual, but we will be back.”