Planners Are Just as Concerned About Mandates as They Are About Contagion

As more push live meetings into 2022, low attendance numbers and a tough negotiating climate are among top worries, Northstar’s PULSE Survey reveals. 

Over the past two months, nearly two-thirds of meeting planners have delayed, rescheduled, moved or cancelled an in-person meeting or event, according to Northstar Meetings Group’s latest PULSE Survey, up significantly from one-third in August. While the changes stem from Covid concerns, fewer respondents said they intend to implement health-safety protocols for their next in-person events.

This month’s findings, based on 550 respondents surveyed from Sept. 20 to Oct. 6, reveal a disconnect between the trajectory of the pandemic and the industry’s response. In fact, a concurrent industry survey of 1,000 meeting-goers, conducted between Aug. 13 and Sept. 7 by global marketing firm MMGY Travel Intelligence, showed that 7 in 10 attendees are more likely to go to an event if proof of vaccination and/or Covid tests are required, but fewer than half of planners intend to implement these protocols.

Similarly, as planners hope to move away from online-only events, studies indicate that most attendees would prefer to participate virtually when given the choice.

Fewer than half of planners expect their next live event to take place in 2021, down from 66 percent in the last PULSE Survey (see below), released six weeks ago. But for some, the decline in activity isn’t surprising or necessarily indicative of lower confidence in the viability of face-to-face meetings, noted Amber Heintz, CMP, vice president of program operations for event-management company Bishop-McCann. “With only a few months left for the year, we find that it is a slower time for events in general for us, thus it is not surprising that many planners do not have programs again until the beginning of 2022,” she said.

Northstar Meetings Group's PULSE Survey, launched in March 2020, captures evolving planner sentiment as the meetings industry responds to challenges brought on by the global pandemic. (See previous results below.) Following are highlights from this month’s research.

Change in Plans

Nearly 70 percent of planners cite concern for participants’ health among their reasons for cancelling, followed by participants’ unwillingness to travel (42 percent), and low or declining attendee numbers (41 percent). Only 19 percent cited inability to meet revenue goals as a factor.

Noted one PULSE Survey respondent: “We just completed an in-person event in September; we only had a quarter of our usual attendees. We have now created a follow-up virtual conference to offer to our greater global community. We will not be hosting an in-person event until we are clear of this.”

Such decisions are likely made by committee, and stakeholders prioritize the overall effectiveness of the event’s ability to meet its intended goals, financial or otherwise, said Chris Davidson, executive vice president for MMGY Travel Intelligence. “I think it's driven mostly by concern that they won't be able to have a successful event,” he said. “That’s their top motivation.”

Verbatim comments revealed another important factor: Many companies are not allowing employees to travel. On that front, risk-management expert Bruce McIndoe, president of McIndoe Risk Advisory, LLC, is seeing a bit more leniency among his corporate clients. Rather than saying no to all travel, some are at least open to discussion, and decisions are being made on a case-by-case basis. 

Debating the Virtual Option

Planners are naturally biased to saying in-person meetings are vital, said Davidson. “We believe that entirely; we're not suggesting they aren't,” he noted. “But there's a clear intent from a planner perspective to say, ‘Post-Covid we're going to be doing in-person meetings, and we don't really plan to do virtual or hybrid meetings much at all.’”

At the same time, he said, “Attendees are saying yes, please, that's exactly what we want.” Forty percent would rather attend virtually under current circumstances, while 30 percent would prefer in-person meetings, according to the MMGY study. Projecting to a post-Covid future, 30 percent would still prefer virtual participation, and 43 percent would opt for face-to-face.

The divide is understandable. Providing a virtual option is more complicated, expensive and technologically challenging, Davidson acknowledged. While these are all valid concerns, he added, planners should consider the value of accommodating a larger audience.  

A number of respondents are discovering this. One planner commented: “We thought they would abandon virtual meetings, but many of our clients see them as a way to reach people who can’t or won’t travel, so hybrid seems to be the way ahead.”

Attendees’ growing comfort with digital events could have a lasting effect on travel and meetings, according to an Oct. 6 article in the Harvard Business Review. “The longer the pandemic continues, the more habits become entrenched around some of the alternatives to travel,” noted Alan Lewis, who leads the Travel and Transport practice at L.E.K. Consulting. Complicating matters, “CFOs realize that the savings from travel budgets are falling to the bottom line. For the airline industry, this is a bad cycle."

Away With Protocols?

Fewer than half of the 550 meeting planner respondents intended to require masks indoors for their next in-person events, down from more than 60 percent in August. Almost half will adhere to state and local mandates only. One in four plan to require proof of vaccination, and about 20 percent will require both vaccination and a negative Covid test. 

Planners are less worried about adequate airlift now, as carriers have increased their flight schedules. Meanwhile, their stress has intensified in two key areas: Fear of contagion and government mandates are now equally distressing and of greater concern than all other factors.

"This data is disappointing,” said Kevin Iwamoto, chief strategy officer for Bizly, a meetings software provider. The decision to attend an event is increasingly contingent on which protocols will be in place. “If masks are not required indoors, if neither proof of vaccination nor negative Covid tests for the unvaccinated are required, planners shouldn't be surprised about low registrations.”

In the pre-trip approval process — which is increasingly common — health-safety measures are an important consideration, noted Iwamoto: “Frankly, any event lacking in adequate Covid-19 protocols will get a thumbs-down."

In MMGY’s research, 71 percent of meeting-goers deemed it important that all participants provide proof of vaccination, but just 51 percent of the 134 planners surveyed considered this an important measure. Similarly, 70 percent of would-be attendees said pre-event Covid testing is important, while just 44 percent of planners agreed.

A high degree of caution is still very necessary, added McIndoe: “Not requiring vaccines, not doing testing and not requiring masks is crazy.” As of this week, 56 percent of U.S. residents are fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times. Due to the highly contagious Delta variant, the vaccination rate needs to be at least 90 percent before masks can be reasonably abandoned indoors, he said.

Service Still Falls Short

Among planners’ pet peeves, nearly half complained of inflexible contract terms, inadequate staffing and higher rates than expected.

“I totally understand the frustration the planners are feeling,” said Iwamoto, who spent nearly 11 years as a travel and meetings buyer for Hewlett-Packard. “But in their defense, hotels and meeting venues are struggling with space limitations due to distancing requirements, increased costs for cleaning, and the physical modification of public spaces and eateries. They are also feeling the effects of the global supply-chain shortages, which are causing rising prices for goods in the public and private sectors, and a labor shortage crisis — all of which result in increased operational and service costs.”

While 48 percent of PULSE Survey respondents griped about rigid contracts, “the inflexibility, understandably, is a result of the increased costs of supply vs. demand,” said Iwamoto, adding, “We all need to be more patient and understanding.”

Living With Uncertainty

While the PULSE Survey asks planners to project on their future plans, the “Covid factor” is a wild card, Bishop-McCann’s Amber Heintz pointed out. “As we have all experienced from the past year and a half,” she said, “the meetings and events industry is ever-changing, and predictability of future happenings should be used as a loose directional.”

Planners have come to expect the unexpected. Noted one respondent: “We held a hybrid conference in June, and our safety protocols changed three times in the three months leading up to it, so it's hard to say right now what our protocols might be by December.”



EARLIER PULSE SURVEY FINDINGS

 

August 19, 2021

While new bookings are down and cancellations are up, two-thirds of respondents will hold in-person events this year. Download the results.


 

July 8, 2021

Face-to-face meetings are the primary focus for meeting planners, per Northstar’s latest PULSE Survey. Download the results.


 

May 27, 2021

Planners booking live events for this year are finding hotel staffing more worrisome than Covid-19. Download the results.


April 15, 2021

In-person meetings are a priority again. Booking live or hybrid events is now the primary job function of nearly one in five planners, a 50 percent increase since our last survey. Download the results.


March 3, 2021


This is the turnaround we've been waiting for. 81 percent of meeting planners say they will hold their next in-person event sometime this year. Download the results.


January 20, 2021

A new year brings new hopes — and new worries — to meeting and event professionals. Most expect the rollout of vaccines to accelerate our industry’s recovery. Download the results.


November 18, 2020

Planners who intended to hold in-person or hybrid meetings in the near future have adjusted their expectations — again — as Covid-19 numbers continue to rise. Download the results.


October 21, 2020

Even optimistic meeting professionals are growing jaded, as a timeline for pandemic recovery remains elusive. Download the results.


September 15, 2020

Planners have a relatively high degree of confidence in their ability to plan and produce virtual or hybrid events, according to our latest PULSE Survey. Download the results.


August 15, 2020

With coronavirus cases declining in the United States, it's not surprising that our survey reveals slight but encouraging gains in industry expectations. Download the results.


July 15, 2020

With a surge in COVID-19 cases in the United States, meeting planner confidence is waning. Download the results.


June 15, 2020

Look for live meetings to return this year: Forty-one percent of meeting planners expect to hold rescheduled events before year-end 2020. Download the results.


May 19, 2020

Meeting planner optimism about the return of live events is waning; fewer respondents are actively planning and booking meetings. Download the results.


April 21, 2020

The worldwide pandemic has been particularly harsh for the meetings industry, but a deep dive into planners’ individual experiences and expectations reveals that a majority are working on future business and anticipating fundamental changes. Download the results.  


March 31, 2020

No major changes were seen in the distribution of cancellations, postponements and virtual event alternatives. Download the results.


March 17, 2020

As confirmed cases and deaths related to the coronavirus have continued to rise in the U.S. and worldwide, it comes as no surprise that the results of our PULSE Survey reveal a pronounced shift in meeting planners’ actions and attitudes. Download the results.