Longest year ever: Meeting professionals reflect on 365 days of the COVID-19 pandemic

With meetings and events cancelling left and right, planners were thrown into new and different roles.
With meetings and events cancelling left and right, planners were thrown into new and different roles.

Today marks one year since the World Health Organization officially designated COVID-19 as a pandemic. While it has been a trying year for the events industry, it has also presented opportunities for meeting professionals to learn and grow. To commemorate the journey of the past year, we sat down with some of ConventionSouth’s 2021 Meeting Pros to Watch to reflect on the year’s biggest takeaways, where they’ve found joy, and what they expect to see in the year ahead.

Biggest takeaways

Willing to adapt

“Adaptable” has been a key word for meeting planners across the board over the past year. With meetings and events cancelling left and right, planners were thrown into new and different roles. Whether it be learning how to plan out the technology for a virtual or hybrid event, wading through contract negotiations that included difficult legal jargon, or simply navigating new required health and safety standards, planners have been forced to learn and implement new skills. The ability to adapt to the ever-changing expectations and needs of clients has been critical for many meeting planners, not only to maintain as much business as possible, but also to stay relevant.

“People have been forced to rethink everything,” said Hotel Lobbyists president Brett Sterenson. “I call it ‘forced reinvention.’ We’ve all continued to work hard, just in a different way. My work right now is focused on cancellations and making sure my customers are comfortable and happy with new accommodations.”

“I’ve also become a bit of an expert in legal matters, having negotiated 116 cancellations to date. But I’ve found I’ve been able to extend the reach of my services, which in the end does provide a greater benefit to my customers and ultimately results in them entrusting me to do more work for them.”

Rachel Keyes, site selection manager for Meeting Expectations, echoed the need for adaptability, which in turn, has necessitated the requirement to communicate more.

“Open-ended communication is huge,” Keyes said. “I have been on more phone calls this year than probably ever before, just talking through situations and trying to figure out what works best for all parties involved.”

Staying focused

Part of adapting means staying focused and finding new ways to move forward, noted KBT Creative Support Services founder Kimberly Bean. For Bean, this meant pushing herself out of her comfort zone, looking at working with companies in industries she typically doesn’t, and hitting the road—literally. With extra time on her hands because of meeting cancellations, she chose to explore and perform site visits she typically doesn’t have time for in a “normal” year. In addition to hitting local hotspots in her hometown of Nashville, she set out on road trips to hotels in Colorado Springs, Co., Litchfield, Az., and everywhere in between.

“I found wonderful properties and got a lot of great ideas that I could pass along to my clients,” Bean said. “I posted everything along the way and got business out of it. I had more inquiries in the last quarter of the year from new business than I had in years.”

Finding joy

A slower pace

While there was much to be frustrated or fearful of over the past year, a simple joy for many was getting an opportunity to slow down and spend time with family. Many meeting planners have been able to take that same approach with coworkers.

Sterenson, who typically doesn’t have time for phone conversations, suddenly found he had plenty.

“Since I’ve had less to do in recent months, I’ve really been able to connect with my vendors, whether on phone calls or over Zoom,” he said. “I’ve appreciated them checking in on me, not looking for business, but seeing how I’m doing given the state of the world.”

Keyes is grateful for time to take morning walks with her husband and puppy every day, and also appreciates that though she had to suddenly work from home, her company made sure to keep everyone connected as much as possible.

“When we were all in the office, we’d do office breakfasts, so when we all started working remotely, they planned coffee chats, happy hours, and even trivia games,” Keyes said. “It has been a great way to stay engaged and still connect with everyone.”

Time to connect

With a slower pace and more time, Bean found joy in opportunities to socialize and reconnect with friends. Although physical distancing took many social situations away, she began hosting socially distanced get togethers in her backyard.

“I called them ‘patio palooza parties,’” she explained. “I would invite girlfriends, industry colleagues, and even old friends I haven’t seen in a long time. It really gave me a lift in my spirits. I was energized after every get-together. It was a nice reminder of what’s important.”

The year ahead

Embrace the change

Much has changed over the past year—the way people work, hold meetings, and even how they interact. While everyone hopes to get back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible, most agree the new normal will be a little more relaxed, with a greater focus on people.

“I think people will embrace the simplicity of things and not make everything so complicated,” said DZS Luxury Meetings & Events founder Stephanie Watson. “I also think we’ve learned through this pandemic to be more compassionate and put the focus on people. I think we’ll continue to see that going forward.”

Lots of unknowns

Though there’s certainly a pent-up demand to get back to in-person meetings, some uncertainty will continue. One major uncertainty will be forecasting expenses.

“Third parties are going to have to do better at explaining to planners why things are still so expensive when everything has been so empty,” said Sterenson.

Another key unknown is how to determine the size of room blocks.

“I’m currently working on a program for May, and we’ve already surpassed our contracted room block,” Keyes said. “Forecasting in the next year will be a challenge, though it does have us excited and hopeful with interest so high.”

 

 

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