by Allen Cox
For meeting and event planners, the challenges presented since 2020 have reinforced a fundamental value among industry professionals: Provide clients the best venue and services available for the best value possible. With health and safety concerns added to the equation, the challenges have intensified, but are not insurmountable. Even with record cancelations, the path forward is paved with creative solutions for delivery and plenty of optimism.
According to the U.S. Travel Association, domestic business travel spending (which includes travel spending for meetings and events) is expected to reach 76 percent of pre-pandemic levels in 2022 and is expected to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels in 2024.
Patrick Smith, Senior Vice President & Chief Marketing Officer at Cvent Inc., sums up a primary obstacle to forward movement in the meetings and events (as well as the travel) industry: “Several challenges are at play—but the biggest is probably the continued uncertainty around the pandemic itself.”
A Retrospective View
It’s safe to say that no one wants to relive 2020 and 2021. The overarching theme in the meetings and events industry has been uncertainty. The main question industry insiders struggled with was how to adjust events programs in the middle of a pandemic and, further, how to bounce back.
“With new and more variants, varying mandates around vaccination, and exposure concerns, planners have endured a lot of stop-and-go from a series of repeated re-openings and shut-downs,” says Smith.
Jana Heinricks, who serves on the Meeting Professionals International (Washington Chapter) board of directors echoes Smith’s comment: “Our experience has been that meeting planning has come in waves with the pandemic. With a new variant, things slow down. When cases decline, things move ahead.”
A comprehensive survey completed by Visit Tri-Cities in the fall of 2021 indicates that in the 3rd quarter of 2022, 74 percent of in-person meetings and events were cancelled or rescheduled. While that survey represents one destination, it is not a stretch to apply that statistic to the industry overall.
With cancelations at a record high and governmental restrictions on the size of gatherings, the pain has been felt at all levels, from state tourism associations to destinations and event venues, from hospitality and service providers to meeting planners and their clients.
Even the flow of crucial income that make meetings and events possible was impacted. “There’s not a lot of sponsorship dollars,” says Heinricks .“It’s a big hurdle to find event sponsors.”
In addition, frequent shifts in personnel have compounded the challenges. According to Heinricks, “There are lots of job changes¾people leaving jobs and new ones coming in¾and new educational needs.”
“Everyone is concerned with safety and rebuilding the meetings and events part of the business,” says Michael Novakovich, President and CEO of Visit Tri-Cities and board member of the Washington Tourism Alliance.
In this stop-and-go landscape cloaked in uncertainty, industry professionals have embraced health and safety protocols, employed technological solutions, such as virtual and hybrid meeting platforms, and faced the challenges in ways that are shaping the future of meetings and events.
The Path Forward
Oregon’s Sunriver Resort has been a popular meeting destination for decades. It’s setting, infrastructure, recreational assets and much more make it a top draw for meeting and event planners. Lindsay Borkowski, Sunriver Resort’s director of sales and marketing, has negotiated hundreds of meeting cancelations over the past two years, yet she remains optimistic. According to her, people are wanting in-person meetings again so everyone can get together, see one another face to face and start networking again.
Given the industry drive to rebuild, many innovations that have evolved are here to stay. On-site meetings are no longer the primary option. In addition to the obvious safety advantage of virtual meetings, for example, the option of not traveling but still being able to attend an event serves to widen the net of potential attendees.
More than ever, meeting planners must be in tune to their clients’ concerns and needs and view the properties they are working with as partners.
According to Novakovich, citing the Visit Tri-Cities survey, the top six considerations among meeting planners when shopping for a meeting venue, in order of importance, are: overall pricing, ample meeting space, date availability, location convenience, group booking incentives, and safety and health protocols.
Contract flexibility is also a universal concern in an environment when a spike in the pandemic can impose restrictions and fear among meeting constituents. Borkowski, for one, says, “Clients are asking for flexibility on the force majeure clause in their contracts.” One way venues can address this is by offering the flexibility to reschedule an event without penalty.
Important technological innovations have facilitated virtual and hybrid meetings and events. Early in the pandemic, according to Heinrichs, virtual meeting technology had not evolved. “All you had were virtual talking-head meetings. The pandemic has encouraged tech development to improve meetings for a mix of in-person and virtual with break-out rooms, 360-degree room experiences, home mail-ahead materials and more.”
As a leader in meetings and events technology, Cvent Inc. has identified industry requirements and ushered in many cutting-edge innovations.
“In the early days of the pandemic, when in-person gatherings were virtually impossible,” Smith says, “we knew we had to make a quick and decisive pivot that would lead our company, our customers, and our industry—forward into a new era of events. To achieve this goal, we focused on accelerating the rapid digitization of the industry, innovations around health and safety, and industry education.”
Because health and safety protocols are a concern among venues, destinations, planners and event attendees, Cvent developed technological solutions to tackle these concerns head on. “Cvent developed on-site tools that allow for contactless check-in, including distanced and remote check-in features,” says Smith. “We also created a global database of venue health and safety information, giving planners insights into how more than 40,000 hotel chains, properties, destinations and CVBs have prepared their space to host safe meetings.”
These are but a few of the technology products available to meeting planners to navigate the health and safety protocol maze.
In the brave new world of meetings and events in 2022 and beyond, education for industry professionals is crucial. Not only must they be equipped to address the health protocol requirements of clients, and venues and destinations, but they must also keep pace with the innovations in the industry.
At Cvent, Smith says: “We made all of our training and certification programs free to anyone, enabling tens of thousands of event and hospitality professionals around the world to build the skills they needed to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation.”
Heinricks at Meeting Processionals International stresses the importance of tapping industry resources to stay abreast of innovations and trends. “Membership organizations, like MPI, exist to support their membership with job boards, networking events and educational opportunities.”
“We are partners with our clients and want them to be successful,” says Borkowski, speaking from experience. “If they have a successful event, then we are successful to.”