While 2020 certainly changed the way we look at meetings and events—and in most cases made it much more difficult to host them—2021 has forced the industry to continue to adjust and adapt to this seemingly ever-changing environment.
For many planners, those continued uncertainties kept the stress level high. “While planning with contingency plans is standard, the number of contingency plans or ‘what ifs’ was beyond what was normal,” said Aaron Chapman, event manager at the United States Institute of Peace. “It certainly added a level of stress for not only us as planners, but for our participants.”
While the requirement of multiple contingency plans continued to 2021, the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine allowed for many meeting planners to once again plan in-person meetings and stop the scramble to cancel or shift to completely virtual. According to the results of ConventionSouth’s fall 2021 survey, which sampled a variety of meeting and event professionals from across the U.S., many in-person meetings and events returned in 2021.
According to the survey, 38.6 percent of respondents reported their in-person meetings are happening now, with 20.5 percent stating their in-person meetings would resume within the next three months. While part of that push is perhaps due to the lessened tension and fear around the pandemic thanks to the vaccine, much of it is due to the strong desire to get back together, according to Vince Bogard, vice president of global accounts at Hospitality Performance Network (HPN) Global. “There is a great deal of pent-up demand for people to get back to meeting in person,” he said. “We as a society and individually were not wired to be self-contained in a silo. We need that face-to-face contact and human interaction. It is not the same when it is done virtually.”
What is apparent, however, is that although in-person meetings and events have returned, many that are happening now still aren’t large-scale. “I still see some hesitancy with people looking to plan large-scale meetings at this point,” Bogard said, a point most respondents agreed with. Survey data revealed that 64 percent of planners reported the current in-person events they are planning have fewer participants than normal. It is important to note that while 25 percent of planners revealed their current in-person events have no restrictions placed upon them, there are quite a few planners working to continue to keep meetings in person while also implementing social distancing: Nearly 18 percent are planning events that last fewer days than they have previously; just over 25 percent are utilizing more rooms in order to maintain social distancing; and 10 percent are spreading events out regionally instead of hosting one large national event.
Despite the upward trend in in-person gatherings during the first half of the year, the surge fueled by the Delta variant has led to a sudden increase in reschedulings. According to an August PULSE Survey by Northstar Meetings Group, “more planners are cancelling or rescheduling events than they were six weeks ago.” ConventionSouth survey data echo that new trend. Though a large percentage (38.6 percent) of professionals who responded are hosting in-person meetings now, 27.3 percent said though they are working on in-person meetings, they won’t be hosted for six to 12 months.
“Planning picked back up for several months in early summer—once the vaccine had been implemented and there was a trend in COVID cases going down,” Bogard said. “However, with the new variant and still a great deal of people unvaccinated, there has been a spike in cases again, which has caused another temporary pause in planning for 2021 and into 2022.”
Many of Bogard’s groups have lifted and shifted to new dates in future years, especially among corporate clients. Chapman has experienced a similar trend. After witnessing a great sense of excitement over the summer months and initial planning requests for fall 2021 events, “in August, I saw almost all of my requests—roughly 90 percent—cancel or postpone until spring 2022,” Chapman said. He is seeing this trend heavily in the government sector.
“If government meetings are taking place, they are modified to a smaller number,” he said.
Survey results line up with these observations. Of the in-person events happening now, the largest group among reported data is conferences at 64.3 percent, with just 19 percent being trade shows, 33.3 percent being corporate meetings, and 11.9 percent being government meetings. “I think for 2022 and beyond, planning is going to be a wait-and-see scenario with last-minute decisions being made to cancel or move forward with the meeting or conference,” Bogard said.
As everyone in the industry has seen, a great number of meetings and events were pushed from their original 2020 dates, many to the second quarter of 2021 (as noted by 26.7 percent of survey participants). A greater number were pushed to the third and fourth quarters of 2021 (as noted by 53.3 percent of survey participants). However, the largest group of survey participants (70 percent) noted that their 2020 meetings and events were being pushed to 2022.
With some groups now revising their meeting dates from this year to next, the industry could see a major issue with availability. “This is going to create a real challenge for available meeting space and guest rooms as there are not going to be a great deal of options for them to choose from in 2022,” Bogard said. “Compound that with business travel getting back to pre-pandemic levels, and it is a recipe for massive increases in guest room rates, as well as lack of meeting space or guest rooms as hotel building basically came to a halt in 2020 and 2021.”
Virtual is here to stay
In the first two months of the pandemic alone, TrustRadius reported that the web and video conferencing market increased 500 percent. ConventionSouth survey respondents overwhelmingly agreed that virtual events helped sustain the meeting and events industry through the depths of the pandemic. They also agree virtual events are not going anywhere quite yet. Nearly all survey respondents (95 percent) said they believe that virtual and hybrid events will continue into 2022. “With hesitancy around COVID variants, so many conflicting regulations among state and local governments, let alone organizations and companies, plus participants’ caution to travel, virtual will continue into the next year,” Chapman said. “I foresee hybrid being more in the initial planning process, whereas before it was more of an afterthought. It will be integrated more into the planning process from the beginning.”
Most survey respondents (66.7 percent) are planning to stage their virtual events in the next three months, while 33.3 percent said their virtual events will be held in the next three to six months. The numbers decrease as more time passes. “I believe [virtual and hybrid] will continue to move forward in some capacity, not as an end-all, be-all solution to replace in-person meetings, but rather to accommodate those who don’t feel comfortable traveling yet or being in a confined room with many people,” Bogard said. “I really don’t see the same value in a virtual/hybrid event. The interaction is limited and not the same value as in-person.”
Many respondents seem to feel similarly to Bogard. Survey results were tied when it came to the number of meeting professionals who are planning to incorporate hybrid meetings into their 2022 in person events. Only 38.1 percent of respondents are planning to launch new virtual events in the next year, and only 21.4 percent of respondents said they are planning to redesign existing in-person events as virtual-only.
Staying safe and going green
The health and safety requirements that have been placed upon venues, organizations, and planners have been stringent since the pandemic began. To meet these requirements, single-use or single-serve has become the standard, which has not always been eco-friendly. “Many of the recommended practices for public health and safety have definitely made an impact on some of our sustainable practices, such as reusable items,” said Ashley Peacock, senior events manager of Cox Business Convention Center in Tulsa, Okla.
Over the course of the last year and a half, many industry professionals have tried to keep a focus on sustainability, but it has somewhat fallen by the wayside in order to meet health and safety benchmarks. By far, the majority of survey respondents (78 percent) said that environmental friendliness has been a consideration, but it’s not at the top of the “must-have” list. While this has been the case thus far, nearly 88 percent of survey respondents said that it is possible to find a way to balance health and safety with eco-friendliness.
Peacock noted while the convention center has had to bring back single-use and disposable items such as plates and flatware, there are still ways to be environmentally friendly. “We’re making sure we are using recyclable and/or biodegradable materials,” she said. “In addition, locally sourced items for food and beverage can reduce the carbon footprint.”
Importance of CVBs
It’s no secret that, historically, CVBs have played a prominent role in facilitating events. Approximately 75 percent of respondents said they typically use the services of CVBs when planning face-to-face events for either all, most, or some events. “Our CVB is an integral piece of the puzzle that connects all the elements of our city together to create an amazing and successful event,” noted Peacock. “They liaise between the convention center and our hotels, restaurants, community leaders, transportation services, public officials, sponsors, other entertainment venues, and more. The CVB is and should be a wonderful resource for planners.”
According to the survey respondents, industry professionals rely on CVBs for a wide range of services. Topping out the list at 80 percent was in-person site visits and inspection assistance, but not far behind were initial destination research, requests for proposals, in-person tours, promotional material, and—as a sign of the new times—understanding local COVID restrictions.
While a small number said they believe venue selection technology may eventually reduce the relevance of CVBs in the future, most—85 percent of survey respondents—disagreed. Most respondents said that CVBs are important, and they will continue to be important as the industry navigates the upcoming year.
“The role of the CVB is more important than ever at this time and going into the future,” Bogard added. “They are the face of their destination, as well as the communication bridge. They are also going to be a critical resource for communicating what their destination has done or will be doing moving forward to keep attendees and visitors safe and healthy as we move into the future. Health and safety is one of the highest priorities for a meeting planner.”
Despite the challenges meeting planners and other industry professionals have faced over the past year and a half, those who have stuck with it this long have few intentions of quitting now. As noted by a majority of survey respondents (68.2 percent), no matter the hardship, they are here to stay and will continue to focus on planning successful meetings and events no matter the challenges. “As planners, we try to plan for every scenario and ‘predict’ the future, but if this pandemic has taught us anything, we really don’t know what will happen day to day—but yet here we are, still planning for what might be,” Chapman said. “I think improvement-wise, we are going to see events and conferences streamline the fluff out to be more robust and intentional.”
Paige Townley is a lifelong Southerner and freelance journalist based in Birmingham, Ala. For the past 15-plus years she’s been writing on a variety of topics—and loving every minute of it. When not crafting her latest story, she’s usually spending time with her husband and two little girls or chasing around their French bulldog.