If there’s one word to describe the toll COVID-19 has taken on the meetings and conventions industry, it has to be disruptive—and that could be an understatement.
The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc around the world, forcing many meetings and conventions to cancel, thereby causing companies to lose serious amounts of revenue. According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, the impact of canceled trade shows, combined with the loss of direct spending by exhibitors and attendees, will be upwards of a $22 billion loss for the economy.
While many planners have had to throw in the towel, there are many who have been able to postpone their meetings, conferences, and events and reschedule for later dates. While getting new dates is somewhat of a victory in itself, there are still many more hurdles they face when it comes to actually pulling off the event.
Navigating vendor competition
The massive rescheduling of events has created the scenario for a much busier summer and fall, which means events have much more competition for not only venue space and room blocks but also for vendors and even attendees.
“I’ve spoken with many of my colleagues and everyone is concerned about the clogging of schedules happening with events getting rebooked,” explained Jennifer Gowers, strategic event specialist with GoPro Event Solutions, a third-party event planning company in Birmingham, Ala. “We plan an art festival, and we have had to move it to the second week of September. Now we will have a lot more competition because we are not the only spring event which has been forced to reschedule in the fall.”
Typically for the Birmingham Art Walk, Gowers would be waiting to contract needed suppliers closer to the actual event, but in light of so many other events being rescheduled to the same timeframe, she is more concerned about getting rentals secured sooner than later.
“In a normal year, we would be resourcing rentals at a later date, but we will not this year just so we can secure our dates and suppliers,” she explained.
Yet another issue Gowers and other meeting and event planners have to think about is whether or not these contracts will be signed. It begs the question, can vendors and suppliers sustain the current economic downturn to still be in business later in the year?
“That is a whole other level we have to think through. Even if we book now, will they be here then?” Gowers added. “Many of our vendors in Birmingham have sustainability and have been around a long time, but not all markets are like that.”
Growers continued, “If you look at the bulk of events, they are based around restaurants, caterers, and other suppliers. The ones that are left standing will have a busy booked season, which is a great opportunity for new businesses to emerge, but if a lot of vendors do not survive, where is it going to put us in being able to provide our service? That is a whole other issue, and it is a real one.”
In addition to competition for vendors and the potential for them not to survive the current economy, other meeting and event planners are dealing with the reality their vendors have schedule conflicts.
Deborah McLean of Motorsports Productions Inc., was able to reschedule the Bama Coast Cruisin’ event in Gulf Shores to late September, but she is currently navigating the issues of looking for new vendors.
Originally booked for April, the event was to host its registration at The Wharf’s Orange Beach Event Center, but it was unavailable for the new dates.
“Our next challenge was accommodations,” McLean added. “One hotel we typically use was already booked up for our new dates due to a previously booked convention, so we are still working on figuring out hotel space.”
McLean is also dealing with the fact many of the vendors scheduled to be at the event already booked other events for September, so she now has to solicit other vendors to fill the void. “There is another big car show in Texas taking place the same weekend we rescheduled our event in September. Many of the vendors are already booked for that. While we regret this, there is nothing we can really do about it,” she said. “It is all about the dates for us, so we have accepted the fact our event will probably be smaller this year than it typically would be and just make the best of the situation. We are moving forward the best we can.”
Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals’ (HFTP) annual HITEC conference, the world’s largest hospitality technology conference, was able to be rescheduled from June to late October at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Tex.
While their planned vendors were able to reschedule, many of their exhibitors have conflicts. “We made the decision to move the event hoping all exhibitors could come along with us to the new date,” explained Bryan Wood, HFTP’s chief learning and event officer. “Several have conflicts because of other shows they are already committed to, so we are dealing with those on a case-by-case basis.”
The loss of exhibitors—combined with the acknowledgement attendee numbers will decrease because many may not be comfortable to travel quite yet—the organization is fully expecting a budget shortfall, a scenario unfortunately faced by many companies hosting meetings or events this year. To prepare as much as possible, HFTP is already working on changes to try to make up for some of the cash flow loss, such as reducing the number of education rooms from six to three, using an existing theater within the convention center for the keynote general session rather than creating its own unique space, and opting for more printed signage instead of having as much digital signage.
Like most companies, meeting and event vendors and suppliers are experiencing serious financial issues and layoffs due to businesses being forced to close. As the economy reopens, many vendors are doing all they can to plan for the resurgence of business.
Like most other companies, Executive Shuttle Service in Birmingham is experiencing serious revenue loss, but they are looking to add vehicles to their fleet soon to accommodate the increased business expected later this year. Adding the vehicles could be the difference between being prepared to contract with the rescheduled business or saying no and losing it completely. “If too many of our larger clients come back and want to reschedule during the same timeframe, it would be impossible for us to accommodate it all,” explained Executive Shuttle Service’s Bill Gawenus. “We are prepping right now to try to acquire a few new larger vehicles that we know we’ll need to increase our profitability when events start coming back online.”
The team at Action Rentals in Waco, Tex. is not looking to add to its inventory, but it is rethinking how it will fulfill its customers’ needs. Knowing rescheduled customers likely will not need the same items or quantity of items they originally contracted for, the company is allowing them to alter their bookings. This not only helps customers, but it also helps the company try to keep inventory open when possible.
“We are hoping that by offering the flexibility of changing items it will, in turn, help us make sure we do not run into the problem of a conflict,” explained Action Rental’s Jennifer Vera. “For us we feel being flexible is going to be the key.”
Searching for solutions
While many vendors and suppliers are finding ways to make rescheduled dates work, as more meetings and conferences get pushed to later in the year, it will get much harder to make it happen. This is where some see vendors trying to find ways to work together to keep the business in the city.
Holly Bethay of Hosts New Orleans believes this may be a solution many vendors in her area opt to take. Vendors which provide things like tents, transportation, staging equipment, and other specialty items do not have unlimited inventory, so it may require vendors like these to reach out to a competitor and bring them on board to fulfill the client’s needs, she says.
“During special events, such as Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, we’ve seen a lack of availability before, and it has been a solution in the past during those compressed times,” Bethay explained. “We may see a similar approach later this year when there is an abundance of events trying to happen. It could even happen with hotels. Some hotels which would normally be in competition for business are now going to work together to create the room blocks needed so the conference can still happen in the city. I think we’re going to see a coming together of the industry as a whole to try to mitigate loss and help each other out to find ways to allow the client to have an experience.”