The Future Of Meetings: 2023 Update
by Nancy Mueller
With 2022 in the rear-view mirror, all eyes are focused on the year ahead in the meetings and events industry. The good news? Planners are optimistic about the future of meetings, based on global surveys and interviews with industry leaders, while recognizing the industry is not completely out of the woods yet. Labor shortages, supply chain issues and the threat of inflation continue to impact the meeting experience. Even so, Jeff Hewitt, executive VP for Visit Savannah, notes: “After two years of virtual meetings, I think everyone in our industry understands the importance and necessity of face- to-face interactions. Meetings are back!” In fact, according to the American Express 12th annual Global Meetings and Events Forecast, “in-person meetings and events are roaring back” with “a renewed focus on sustainability, wellness and inclusivity,” offering “a clear path forward for the industry.”
CEO and Founder of 3D Cruise Partners Karen Devine finds that while innovations like “in-person meetings on ships are on the rise,” virtual platforms like Zoom have expanded meeting attendance options.
Consequently, “The hybrid component is probably also here to stay,” says Hewitt, “but I believe it will be content-driven with sessions that can be archived and accessed as needed by those unable to attend the live event.”
In booking meetings, President of Continuing Education, Inc. and VP of JWB Management Group Sandra Barnhart adds: “Hybrids are clearly convenient for those who cannot attend in person, and adding that option increases your audience revenue,” though “We often hear on our reviews that [in-person] networking, allowing the conferees time to discuss content with one another and with the speakers, provides very important insight.”
In her role as Senior Director of Conventions for Oregon’s Travel Lane County, Juanita Metzler, CMP, agrees that “In-person meetings will continue to grow,” though, “Meeting size will still be smaller than in 2019, and it will take a little while before we get back to higher numbers.” Metzler foresees bookings for shorter meetings or fewer number of days, but also says, “Some markets, like government, are mandated to have hybrid meetings because many government groups are not yet back in the office and hybrid meetings open up meetings to more participants who would not otherwise be able to attend an in-person event,” an awesome possibility because planners can apply what they have learned in presenting virtual events. For example, “We know now that we will need an in-person moderator and a virtual moderator.”
Investment in virtual platforms has paid off for destinations to showcase their venues, and Metzler claims, “Virtual tours are here to stay.” Also, in today’s current climate, “People need to have a reason to meet in a market,” says Metzler, citing the EIC Impact Calculator from Destination International as an effective tool that tracks such data as how many jobs are affected and where attendees are spending in the local community, information that can then be shared with stakeholders.
In the meeting space, Hewitt acknowledges that “Tech gets better every day,” including “the general session staging productions as well as what service providers can offer on the exhibit floor.” Devine finds the Wi-Fi on most cruise lines now “incredible!” while Barnhart cites the use of audience response to questions, “and of course we can zoom in a speaker if we wish. That sometimes is important when we want to have a panel discussion and not all participants can be on site.” In summarizing the findings of the
2023 Global Meetings and Events Forecast, Gerardo Tejado, senior vice president, Global Value Development and general manager, Meetings & Events, says: “We expect to see continued innovation and automation for small and simple meeting bookings, the RFP process, and other repetitive tasks” while “Attendee experience technology continues to be in demand as meeting owners aim to meet attendance goals, connect in- person and virtual audiences and deliver unique experiences.”
One example of how technology enhances the meeting experience, says Metzler, is in “wearable devices, such as headsets, that provide options to use venue space efficiently.” Metzler cites a recent program in which the ballroom was divided into four quadrants which allowed attendees to sit in a general seating area where they could switch between four events occurring simultaneously: education sessions, networking and a trade show. Plus, she emphasizes, “they offer great sponsorship opportunities.”
Inevitably, technology enhancements spark conversations about meeting costs. For example: “The pushback that I hear from planners,” says Hewitt, “is the cost of Wi-Fi to satisfy the ever-growing need for bandwidth”.
Metzler recognizes that “Most planners will have tighter budgets and higher costs, such as security.”
In 2023 Hewitt suggests “budgeting for attendance to be down 10% from 2019. If you’re wrong, it’s easier to add rooms, meals, and a few chairs than to pay attrition.” He also notes, “I think we are at a very interesting point in time. Everything costs more. Fuel prices, hotel rates and meal costs are all higher. This could have a dampening effect on attendance. All this as we teeter on the edge of a recession that could once again have a devastating impact on our industry. Add in the skittish nature of the corporate market during periods of economic uncertainty and we find ourselves in a precarious place. As a supplier, I would be more concerned with landing every opportunity I could, and less concerned about getting the last dollar. In short, plan for the worst and be ready for the best.”
Yet planners and destination marketers can offer ways to mitigate rising costs. “As a DMO,” says Metzler, “we can suggest fewer food and beverage options and printing locally to avoid shipping costs. Planners can even print at the last minute which helps offset waste. We can also suggest places to donate leftover supplies to reduce carbon footprint and make a good impact locally at schools, nonprofits, and homeless shelters.” Metzler also mentions, “Sponsorships are huge,” offering how they helped a group with “ganging” menus, “meaning we help coordinate different groups holding meetings at the same location at the same time to reduce food and beverage budgets.”
Devine cites the benefits of meetings at sea “with complimentary meeting and function space, no a/v charges, no food and beverage minimums, and many cruise lines now offering confirmed meeting space at the time of contract,” adding, “There are some ships that have dedicated meeting space for customers, with the advantage of all-inclusive pricing of a cruise, fantastic Wi-Fi, and the ability to sail three or four nights (or longer, of course).”
NEW INITIATIVES AND TRENDS
“Not surprisingly,” says Barnhart—whose company hosts over 100 fully accredited meetings, plus manages about 40 for other organizations annually—“given the stress of the last few years, we are having more requests for self-wellness and programs for helping participants with self-care and wellness.Medical personnel have definitely had a few tough years, many have even left their professions and retired early.I think medical professionals tend to put their own wellness last and we are seeing the impact that has had and the recognition that it needs to change.”
Metzler, too, cites new meeting initiatives in mental health and overall wellness in the meeting space, such as offering meditation rooms, quiet areas and smaller venues for attendee interactions. “Sustainability, too, which is part of our lifestyle here (recycle, reduce carbon footprint). Meeting- goers are looking for ways to get outside in a green community so outdoor venues are a big deal. Natural lighting in venue spaces, clean air, plant- based meals, and bringing families to explore the region, for example, joining winery tours and touring the coast” are popular options.
EDITOR’S NOTE ON 2023 MEGATRENDS
If you are reading this issue of Meeting News Northwest, you are no doubt familiar with Skift, a leading travel research and news outlet. A must-read for meeting and event professionals is Skift’s comprehensive report, “Meetings Industry Trends to Watch in 2023.”
There is no substitute for reading Skift’s entire report, but below I paraphrase and summarize the nuggets of Skift’s findings. Find the full report at meetings.skift.com/reports/trends- to-watch-2023.
At the heart of Skift’s findings are some significant developments that are driving the present meeting and event landscape. These include:
- Meeting and event experiences that are transformational
- Ethics- and value-driven decisions on meeting and event destinations
- Authentic meeting and event destinations and experiences capture the essence of a local community
- Agendas with breathing room allow attendees to network and respond to the demands of their job and personal life without missing meeting content
- A focus on inclusivity that gives everyone at the table a voice
- Finding ways to ease the travel experience
- Using data-driven technology to customize meeting and event content for
Transformational experiences add meaning and value for attendees and can encourage attendees to travel to a meeting or event where otherwise they would be reluctant to do so. “Meetings and events that encourage connection and meaning are well-positioned for success in the future,” according to the Skift report. “It is now about creating welcoming environments where attendees drive their own experiences. Agendas are fluid, content shorter, breaks more frequent, start times later, and lunches longer. The future starting in 2023 is all about self-directed event experiences. Attendees are demanding to return home inspired and connected.”
Ethics- and value-driven decisions are influencing destination selection. The Skift report calls this “the weaponization of travel.” The growing trend is that meeting planners and company sponsors are evaluating political and cultural landscapes in selecting meeting and event destinations. This is specifically applicable on a state level. A frequently unrecognized downside to boycotting a particular destination is the negative economic impact on the meeting and event labor force.
Authentic meeting and event destinations and experiences are a growing expectation of attendees. According to the Skift report, “… people need a compelling reason to attend a meeting or conference. They want to gather in destinations that feature a sense of place. Plus, when a group experiences the out-of-the- ordinary together, the camaraderie created is priceless. If a destination warrants it, many will add a few days to their itinerary after the meeting to immerse themselves in the local culture.”
Agendas with breathing room facilitate a less intensely packed experience. According to the Skift report, “In practical terms, this means designing less busy meetings, with fewer sessions squeezed into a shorter period. Ideally, this enables participants to completely immerse themselves in the content while having more time to network with one another and engage in discussions.”
A focus on inclusivity goes beyond valuing diversity and allows every participant to be engaged with the content in a manner that respects each individual. The Skift report points out: “Companies find that having a diverse workforce or team is no longer enough. Instead, organizations need to develop an inclusive environment that embraces the differences in people and allows those differences to shine and positively impact the work of the team or organization.” The same goes for the group experience in meetings and events.
Finding ways to ease the travel experience will bring attendees who might otherwise be reluctant to travel to a meeting or event. Key recommendations in the report include: “Planners may consider including travel buffers to prevent delays, especially for VIPs and key speakers. Proactive travel partners that can ensure stress-free travel rebooking when needed are now worth their weight in gold. Last but not least, backup preparations must be in place.”
Using data-driven technology can assist planners in customizing content for attendees or subsets of attendees. According to the Skift report, “Planners may customize the event experiences to suit individual tastes and interests by gathering and analyzing data about participants, whether through information requests or behavioral tracking.” Advanced technological tools include AI badge scanning, ethical facial analysis, and real-time behavioral analytics.