10 Trends Shaping the Future of Meetings and Business Travel

Industry leaders share their experiences and expectations for hospitality suppliers, event planners and travelers.

Trends Shaping Future Meetings Business Travel

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While meetings business is in a holding pattern in the United States, suppliers are busy laying the groundwork for the safe return of travel and events. Airports, airlines, hotels and convention venues have done an excellent job of implementing new protocols, according to Michael Dominguez, CEO of Associated Luxury Hotels International. But they need to do a better job of informing travelers about these safety measures — and making sure they follow the new rules of the road.

That challenge and other imperatives for industry recovery were discussed in a recent webcast provided by the Meetings Mean Business Coalition and the Society for Human Resource Management.

The July 31 session, "Policies and Protocols: The Future of Corporate Meetings and Travel," was moderated by Dominguez, with participation by Marc Anderson, COO of Choose Chicago; Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association; and Society for Human Resource Management executives Nick Schacht, chief global development officer, and Trent Burner, vice president of research. Following are some highlights of their discussion.

10 Key Takeaways About the Future of Meetings 

1. Travelers and attendees need to cooperate.

Michael Dominguez ALHI Meetings Recovery
Michael Dominguez, CEO of Assoicated Luxury Hotels International

"We're firm believers that safety is a shared responsibility," said Dominguez.  “We are going to do everything we need to to make sure that we're creating safer environments. But the people who are traveling have a responsibility to actually adhere to the policies we are trying to put in place to protect them. That's an important message that we've been learning as we've gone through this process."

For in-person meetings, communicating about new protocols is critical. "Look, you can put out lane direction markers in an expo hall, but if people don't pay attention — just like in the grocery store — it really doesn't make much difference," said Anderson. "You have to emphasize that shared responsibility for wearing masks and, frankly, following the rules."

2. Digital meetings are not "virtual."
"I want us to be mindful that words are very powerful," said Sherrif Karamat. "I choose not to use the word 'virtual.' I use either 'online' or 'digital', or 'offline' for face to face. The word 'virtual' has this connotation that what we're doing right now is not real, and this is very real."

3. The future is "omnichannel" — not hybrid.
"Everybody’s talking about hybrid meetings, but 'omnichannel' more accurately describes the evolution of meeting formats," said Dominguez. "I love that word because it's appropriate. We're using all the mediums and tools at our disposal. But as an industry, we're just now evolving into that."

Karamat agreed. "We’ve got to envision a future that's very, very different," he added. "How do you best deliver value in the way people want to receive it? This is going to be very much an omnichannel environment. I want us to manage our expectations on what our end customer wants and what truly is going to deliver value."

4. People love face-to-face meetings.
"What we're hearing from our customers is that the future is a little bit unknown right now, that the virtual event segment is a little bit oversaturated, and that keeping audiences engaged in a virtual format has been really challenging," noted Chicago’s Marc Anderson. "Although meeting professionals have done a phenomenal job of going from a live event and turning it around a month later into a virtual event, it's been hard to engage customers. Customers and businesses want to go back to face to face when it's safe. One of the positive things we've heard, especially from our corporate groups, is that business leaders who may have been hesitant or a little leery on the value or the power of face-to-face events now see that there's great value to being present."

5. Remote work will make meetings more essential.

Sherrif Karamat PCMA
Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO, Professional Convention Management Association

"The duration of COVID, which none of us expected, is changing human behavior," said Karamat. "I want to make sure that our destinations or organizations are prepared for a very, very different reality. That does not mean we are not going to meet. I believe we will have more remote workspaces, and that actually will lead to more meetings because we're social beings."

6. Business travel faces new barriers.
Meetings-industry recovery will start with business travel, sources agree, but that comes with a lot of caveats. Some companies have put a moratorium on travel through 2020 or beyond, noted Schacht and Burner. Many are limiting trips and/or requiring pre-trip approval.

Other extenuating factors are state laws that restrict gatherings or impose quarantines for interstate trips. "While I might want to go somewhere, I have to look at the consequences of traveling and having two weeks in quarantine and so forth," said Karamat. "Organizations and individuals are going to make decisions based on a complex set of factors, and it's a little bit muddier than thinking of business travel in isolation."

7. Online attendees expect a similar experience as those who are there in person.
"Right now, I can't conceive of how I'm going to pack 25,000 people into McCormick Place," said Anderson. "And the Chicago and Illinois guidelines really don't allow for that. I have to think in terms of the outcome, and how we create an omnichannel experience that gives both our digital attendees and our face-to-face attendees the opportunity to have — maybe not exactly the same set of things — but an equivalent experience, as opposed to an identical experience.

"It’s easier to showcase how we can do small meetings safely now," he added, "but for the notion of an expo for 1,000 people, we have to rethink everything. How do we use digital tools and digital domains as a way to create this equivalent experience? I’m scratching at the tip of the iceberg here. It is a brave new world where we're constantly discovering things."

8. Customers need your help.

Marc Anderson, COO of Choose Chicago
Marc Anderson, COO of Choose Chicago

"What I'm hearing consistently from clients, even on smaller programs, is 'How do I meet? What does that look like?’" said Anderson. "There’s a responsibility on the part of the meetings community to be really good stores of information. I think it’s our job right now — as tourism leaders, as DMOs, as convention centers — to help our clients build those plans. Our responsibility is to come up with solutions for customers.

"That's one of the reasons why we created a new program that is a coalition of businesses, universities, medical establishments, corporations and associations," Anderson continued. "We are the one-stop-shop now for our customers to build attendance, build an exhibitor base, build a speaker series, build a sponsorship program and build a student program for their meetings.

"We have this wealth of 80 million people who live within a day's drive, but we've never really capitalized on helping our clients reach out to the business and education and medical establishments throughout the Chicago area. We’re speaking to our customers really honestly about how we, as a DMO, are the professional experts on our city, and we can help highlight the attributes of our city for people coming to Chicago," said Anderson.

9. Cleaning is much more visible.
"I've had to remind people that hotels and venues have actually done a really great job of cleaning," said Dominguez. "We clean extensively. We used to do it while you were sleeping, when you didn't see us, because we didn't want to jeopardize your experience. Today, it is completely flipped on its head because you want to see us cleaning. We're doing it all front and center, and that's a shift for industry."

Eighty percent of what hotels are doing now to sanitize venues was already in place, he said. "It’s that added 20 percent that deals with airborne pathogens that we really need to focus on. We've done a good job, and now we're doing it even better. Now we have to do a better job of educating travelers about the steps we’re taking. The airlines need to be educating us that their air is cleaner than your home with their HEPA filtration system; it’s something that is not commonly known. We’re so used to hearing 'Oh, it's bad recycled air,' but that couldn’t be further from the truth. And that’s great because it's challenging our industry to be able to tell our story much better."

10. Recovery can’t be rushed.
At present, "we need to be sharpening or spears for tomorrow, as opposed to rushing to say, 'Let's meet today,'" said Karamat. "Let's think about this. Do I want to go somewhere where I'm standing six feet apart from you? Where we don't get to shake our hands and hug? It's not in our DNA as an industry. The reality is that this is a phased process, and we need to use all the mediums and all the tools in front of us to make sure that we're moving our businesses effectively forward."